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This essay argues that the legal implications and geopolitical meaning of the Monroe Doctrine can only be understood in relation to its respective antagonists. The Doctrine’s internal mechanism of hemispheric hegemony, discussed by Juan Pablo Scarfi in his opening lecture to this symposium, is the flip side to its external mechanism of spatial exclusion. Thus, it effectively vanished in the global Pax Americana after 1991. With the demise of the so-called liberal international order today on the horizon, the Monroe Doctrine is making all but a return.  

The Viennese Order and its Enemies

In 1822, the Holy Alliance in Verona mandated France to invade Spain, where Ferdinand VII was (again) forced to accept a liberal constitution in 1820. After the Napoleonic Wars, the great powers of Europe attempted a comprehensive restoration of the monarchical order under the leadership of Prince Metternich. The Alliance’s policy was to aid beleaguered monarchs against constitutionalist ambitions.

Francois-René Chateaubriand had been sent to the Congress of Verona in the service of France, and yet the great conservative romantic and diplomat’s focus in the run-up to the conference was not on France, Spain or Europe, but on the young United States. He knew the country well, having traveled there only four years after its founding, and therefore took note of the increasingly mission-conscious policies of the Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. On Independence Day in 1821, Quincy Adams had already declared that liberal struggles around the world had the blessing of the United States, “but she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Notably, the domestic counterpart to this “abroad” refers not to the territory of the United States, still open in the West anyway, but to the entire hemisphere of the “New World”.

In a letter to his foreign minister in May 1822, Chateaubriand sensed that the fate of the Old World would be decided in this new one. The Holy Alliance had to unconditionally support the monarchies in the Americas. Otherwise, there would run a merciless clock for the order of the Congress of Vienna: Should the New World ever be governed entirely by republics, the monarchies of the Old World would perish.

“Le Pérou vient d’adopter une constitution monarchique. La politique européenne devrait mettre tous ses soins à obtenir un pareil résultat pour les colonies qui se déclarent indépendantes. Les États-Unis craignent singulièrement l’établissement d’un empire au Mexique. Si le nouveau monde tout entier est jamais républicain, les monarchies de l’ancien monde périront.”

The Veronese Congress brought with it a second major geopolitical shift: Great Britain, of Europe but not in Europe, began to distance itself from the continent’s political sphere with far-reaching consequences. The new Foreign Secretary George Canning implemented the policy of “splendid isolation,” expressed his concern about the invasion of Spain, and sought contact with the US administration. A joint declaration was intended to stifle French encroachments on the Spanish parts of America. This attempt failed, not least due to the vehement opposition of the American Secretary of State Adams. The United States should not be a “cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war,” but should assert its position independently. Above all, however, Adams feared for the territorial expansion in the American West and suspected Canning of seeking to sabotage the desired annexations of Texas and Cuba. As I have argued elsewhere, it was not primarily republican convictions that prevented collaboration with the British Empire, but the nationalist imperative of imperial conquest on the frontier.

The Monroe Doctrine and its Corollaries

Two hundred years ago, on December 2, 1823, President Monroe outlined two directives of American foreign policy in his annual address to Congress. Firstly, he rejected any further colonial advancements and corresponding European influence in the Western Hemisphere. From now on, the two realms would have to part ways. A (first) strategy of containment was laid out:

“The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. […] We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers, to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

This was linked, secondly, to a new policy of recognition under international law. It was to be neither monarchical nor democratic but instead cultivated an explicitly neutralist attitude. In diplomatic practice, the “non-entanglement” ideal meant: a policy of recognition on the basis of the effective monopoly on the use of force, “to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government.” The illusion of genuine neutrality emerges here impressively, as the principle of de facto effectiveness directly counteracted the legitimist intervention doctrine of the Holy Alliance. Conscious of the need to preserve the torch of freedom from the darkness of the Old World and to close the dangerously frayed border in the West for the time being, the nation of providence was to remain in its very own “splendid isolation”.

As this symposium’s opening text has also highlighted, the defensive character of Monroe’s doctrine – the rejection of all colonial claims on the American continent – was thus only one side of the program. The other made history in international law: the equal territorial sovereignty of all states regardless of legitimacy on the one hand, the principle of sovereign equality, including (former) colonies, on the other (cf. nowadays Art. 2 (1) UN Charter).

The Monroe Doctrine, as it was known from 1850 onwards, evolved in line with the changing geopolitical interests of the United States until the frontier was officially closed in the 1890s. Later “corollaries” to the Monroe Doctrine were by no means mere derivations. As early as 1845, President Polk stated that the Republic of Texas could only be temporarily independent of the US; that European objections in the name of a “balance of power” had become invalid and void due to the Declaration of 1823. In 1895, the Olney Communiqué also became known as a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Commenting on South American border contestations, Secretary of State Richard Olney bluntly informed the British government that the US “is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition”. Theodore Roosevelt finally confirmed this view and promptly added to Monroe’s declaration the dimension of investment protection by military action. The United States reserved the right to intervene for the purpose of securing the claims of American creditors – as well as to prevent the destabilization of states in South and Central America resulting from excessive indebtedness to European ones.

Woodrow Wilson still sought to “teach the South American republics to elect good men” in 1913. Yet, after the First World War, he and Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted the “good neighbor policy,” which relied on inter-American consensus. This change came, however, at the precise point in time when, on the one hand, US territory was firmly consolidated and its borders internationally recognized and, on the other, the (economic) dominance of the United States over its hemisphere was wholly beyond doubt. As Ernst Fraenkel noted in a later lecture (p. 934), the Monroe Doctrine had basically outlived its purpose with the completed colonization of the West.

The Doctrines Death and its Timely Resurrection

The status of the doctrine was therefore uncertain until the end of the Second World War. There was much debate as to what legal nature could be attributed to it at what point in time or whether it was merely a political declaration. Given the looming systemic conflict following the October Revolution of 1917, the United States oscillated between the restriction to isolationist trade policy, which wanted commerce without politics and was bound to fail due to the country’s overwhelming economic weight as well as its European presence as a creditor, and Wilsons liberal universalism. After the Second World War, the now acutely antagonistic tensions with the Soviet Union forced the shift to international interventionism. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 – a most radical but thoroughly coherent corollary to the Monroe Doctrine – replaced the republican hemisphere with the capitalist West. Several directives in line with the principle of anti-communist containment ensued. As late as 1984, President Reagan invoked the terminology of 1823 when he spoke of the danger of “communist colonies” in North, South, and Central America.

After 1991, the Monroe Doctrine had become a thing of the past. Neither republicanism nor capitalism were rooted in any distinctive part of the world. Hence, the restrictive “abroad” of Adams’ maxim of 1821 no longer applied. The earth was now open to “Global Governance,” and monsters have always been plentiful. The 2nd Iraq War, the Yugoslavian War, the Global War on Terror beyond Westphalian forms – in times of Western hegemony over both hemispheres, exclusions became unthinkable. Secretary of State John Kerry thus shelved the Monroe Doctrine for good in 2013. Without the geopolitics of systemic competition, it had lost its meaning.

However, in light of the rapid rise of China and Russia’s revitalized imperialism in the 2010s, this pronouncement already marked the twilight of the globalized “transatlantic moment”. Five years after Kerry, Secretary of State Tillerson reminded Latin America of the Monroe Doctrine in an all-around remarkable statement. China’s influence on the suddenly once again contemporary “Western Hemisphere” had to be resisted: “Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people.” Moreover, the “troika of tyranny” (John Bolton), consisting of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, was declared by President Trump with reference to Monroe as the sole responsibility of the United States. China’s neo-imperialist ambitions have today resulted in an odious redesignation of South and Central America from “back yard” to “front yard,” as President Biden called “everything south of the Mexican border” in early 2022.

Whether front or back yard, lines are being drawn again in the face of new global divisions. It is widely noted that on the other side, China is striving for supremacy in the South China Sea; in addition to absolute sovereignty over Taiwan, it claims over 90% of Indo-Pacific waters. The resulting geopolitical rifts of “systemic rivalry,” to use the wording of the German China strategy, also pose a considerable threat to the liberal international order. Its at least nominally universalist postulations are in grave danger of succumbing to this profound fragmentation.

Under this and especially under the impression of October 7, Anne Applebaum recently wrote that the “rules-based international order” of the Pax Americana is dead and buried. That may not be entirely accurate. Rather, it is on its deathbed while a new order struggles to be born.


Victor Loxen

Victor Loxen is a student of law, art history and philosophy. He works for the Chair of Comparative Constitutional Law and Political Science at the Georg-August-University Göttingen held by Florian Meinel.

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