Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Happy Birthday, Monroe Doctrine!

"Mind your own business and I'll keep my nose out of yours." This distinctly American notion, although increasingly out of practice in our scandal-driven, media circus world, has its own geo-political body of doctrine for which the principle is the spine.

On this date in 1823, during his seventh annual address to Congress, President James Monroe declared what became known as "The Monroe Doctrine" -- a set of principles for international relations, half of which was to guide the formulation of United States foreign policy for the better part of the next two centuries. Drafted primarily by future President, then Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, the policy arose from American concerns about attempts by European powers to reassert their political and commercial interests in the Western Hemisphere in general, and in territories adjacent to the nascent United States, in particular. While the nations at whose western hemispheric "meddling" the Monroe Doctrine was aimed paid scant attention to the upstart post-colonial country's declaration (we had no Navy or Army of any substance with which to enforce the doctrine), North Americans seized on the notion that the Americas, and the vast resources and space therein, were theirs for the taking and everybody else should steer clear.

What gets little attention in the Monroe Doctrine, is the other side of the coin. American presidents for the next 150 years, invoked the hemispheric non-intervention principle of the doctrine to justify the United States' actions in our hemisphere, from territorial expansion to self-defense to police actions to containment of communism. However, as Adams saw it, the Monroe Doctrine was actually a quid pro quo pronouncement that the United States would keep its nose out of European affairs if the Europeans would stay out of American affairs. From the standpoint of most European powers this was a laughable proposition--the United States was seen as a fractious collection of backward bumpkins; hardly a threat; and almost certainly to dissolve into several even weaker regional entities when the democratic republic experiment foundered. Were it not for Great Britain's tacit acceptance and enforcement (she had the world's preeminent Navy with which to do so), the doctrine would have been easily broached by any number of powers, including Spain, France, and Russia (who had designs on a frozen extension of Siberia--but for a small strait--in the far Northwest).

Up until just before the end of the century, the United States did indeed follow the isolationist strictures of the Monroe Doctrine. Then, the opportunity arose to invoke the doctrine against, and take advantage of, a weakened Spain. By the time the dust settled at the end of 1898, the re-United States were not only masters of the predominance of North America but were also in possession of colonies nearby in the Caribbean and way off to the west in the Pacific. It was becoming hard to maintain a straight face in our isolationist pronouncements and our condemnation of colonialism.

But, we persisted. Until 1917. But that's another story.
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