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The Monroe Doctrine in an Age of Anti-Interventionism


How have the premises and ambiguities of the Monroe Doctrine been reflected in American debates about military intervention abroad, and how did they re-appear (if at all) in current debates about Ukraine and Gaza? This is the central question of this short contribution to the blog. It is a question that seems particularly fruitful in the case of military interventions since debates about their justification have shown the same range of judgments, from displays of idealistic altruism to thinly disguised covers for unscrupulous power politics. Like the Monroe Doctrine, the language of US military interventions has constantly evolved.

A Janus-Faced Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine, as Juan Pablo Scarfi reminded us in the opening lecture of this symposium, has always had a Janus face. Its anti-imperialist philosophy clashed with the expansive and interventionist impulses of American foreign policy, which were often justified by this very anti-imperialism. As Jay Sexton has pointed out in his study of nineteenth-century uses of the doctrine, these often derived more from competing American interpretations of their foreign policy identity than from strict adherence to the principles enunciated by President Monroe. Such domestic messaging also lies behind recent invocations of the doctrine, whether by a group of House Democrats who have introduced a resolution calling for its repeal, members of the Trump administration who have used it as a threat against leftist governments in Latin America, or Republican presidential candidates who have sought to send a warning to China.  In fact, the Monroe Doctrine, in its very ambiguity and self-referentiality, aptly reflects the ambiguity of American interventionist policies around the world over the past 125 years, as I have shown in a comprehensive book on US (and global) debates about military intervention abroad. Since the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, American policy-makers and the American people have been divided over whether the United States has a duty to go abroad in pursuit of fundamental values it considers universal, or whether it should focus its power on defending narrowly conceived American interests. The temporary occupation of the Caribbean island (which led to long-term dominance) accurately reflected the two sides of the Monroe Doctrine. On the one hand, there was the attempt to democratise the island and defeat European colonialism; on the other, the Cubans were portrayed as subjects unworthy of American efforts and mere pawns in an American imperialist project. 

The Monroe Doctrine and Military Intervention

Gretchen Murphy (2005: 13) defined the Monroe-Doctrine as “a set of discourses through which US Americans formulated national identity as well as foreign policy.” The same is true in the case of debates about military intervention abroad. Since the first nationwide controversy over military involvement beyond the North American continent in the run-up to the Spanish-American War in 1898, American military interventions have evoked both communitarian and cosmopolitan arguments, ranging from an isolationist opposition to any foreign entanglement that was not strictly motivated by self-defence or clear national interest to missionary zeal to spread American values as far as possible, if necessary by military force. Periods of interventionism alternated with periods of restraint and ‘America First’.

The Monroe Doctrine, or rather what contemporary commentators made out of it, was used as a discursive weapon in the debate over American military action against Spanish colonialism and, subsequently, the fate of the annexed territories, such as Cuba and the Philippines (Sexton 12: ch. 6). Its anti-colonialist message naturally strengthened the case for war against Spain. But even after the war had ended, a mixture of paternalism, racism and fear-mongering convinced many anti-imperialists that some form of US control over the new territories was the only defence against a possible return of old-world colonialism. This sentiment found its most blatant expression in the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904 which gave the United States the right to intervene against misbehaving and ‘uncivilised’ countries in the hemisphere. The original intent of the Monroe doctrine which opposed the global claims of the European Great Powers to maintain ‘order’ was thus reformulated to include an American duty to do just that (Zimmermann 2023: 203). However, such a bold reinterpretation with its clear colonial overtones was rather unpopular and open to challenge by pacifist and isolationist arguments.

Woodrow Wilson’s liberal internationalism proved to be a more promising version of the American duty, even if its practical implementation took much longer than expected by Wilson himself. The 1948 Truman doctrine and other key strategy documents of the Cold War period basically formulated a geographically expanded Monroe Doctrine with fuzzy and unclear borders that periodically became battlegrounds in the fight to secure what was deemed part of the American sphere of influence (for example, Vietnam). However, one thing was always crystal clear: the United States would not tolerate incursions by its geopolitical rival in the area covered by the original Monroe doctrine. But only after the collapse of the Soviet empire, did liberal interventionism take on a global reach under the headings of democracy promotion, humanitarian protection and war against terrorism, transcending the confines of the Monroe Doctrine. This led to a series of interventions with overall disastrous outcomes, in particular the war in Iraq. When Barack Obama took over the presidency, overall disillusionment with the extension of the geographical reach of U.S. responsibility was wide-spread, reaching the highest level of the government.

The Monroe Doctrine and the New Anti-Interventionism

President Obama’s decision to not enforce the red line drawn against the use of weapons of mass destruction in the Syrian War heralded the advent of an age of anti-interventionism in American foreign policy. While Obama reluctantly extended the major commitments he found at the outset of his tenure, he was never really sold on the necessity for a global engagement of the United States and emphasized the overriding importance of rebuilding America at home. With the advent of the Trump administration the return to a nativist and nationalist foreign policy became glaringly obvious. His successor, Joe Biden, had distinguished himself already during his time as Obama’s vice president as leading opponent of interventions abroad, as recounted with some rancour by former Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. His speech on occasion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021 is a classic anti-interventionist statement. Despite the disastrous endgame in Afghanistan, the President captured the mood, as evidenced by the renewed popularity of the Monroe Doctrine in US debates.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine – justified by Western apologists or so-called Realists with a crude version of the Monroe Doctrine – has sparked a divisive debate about the extent of US responsibility. While proponents of unlimited aid for Ukraine call for the abolition of its spheres of influence component and stress its anti-colonial undertones, many critics of current US foreign policy use it as starting point for blueprints towards a complete overhaul of US post-Cold War foreign policy. They argue for a revival of the traditional Monroe Doctrine, which would “protect America from geographic threats and keep its influence in case more is needed”. An American ‘duty’ should be limited to ensuring the stability of the hemisphere and its governments. The focus of these renewed invocations is particularly directed against Chinese influence in Latin America, but also against the emergence of left-wing governments in the region. As a result, the Doctrine has, once again, become “a contested symbol of domestic politics”. As the tide of US interventionism turns towards retrenchment, it is being reformulated once more, apparently having lost none of its potency as a device to capture the imagination and invoke deep-seated foreign policy identities.

Hubert Zimmermann

Hubert Zimmermann is Professor of International Relations at Philipps-University Marburg.

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