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Essay: U.S. Foreign Policy - The Monroe Doctrine

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by Nicholas Klar

In 1823, when America was still only comprised of the original thirteen colonies, President Monroe declared in principle that European countries were not to intervene or attempt to re-colonise in the Americas. This ‘Monroe Doctrine’, along with the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ some seventy years later, were to be two of the most important decisions ever made in America’s history. It’s ramifications still echo in the modern American psyche.

Most interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine seem to have an underlying theme that it was tied to the idea of America’s ‘Manifest Destiny’. It appears these debates were couched within the confines of a U.S. framework that says all of the Americas have a common interest, not a world view that took Latin American sovereignty into account.

There are questions of whether the Monroe Doctrine was motivated by ideas of economic expansion, or racism. There was also the problem of east-west transportation, and who would have control over the proposed canal. Lafeber argues that control of Cuba was important for control over a canal. [Paterson p.369] With economic unity important, especially after the Civil War, ideas of ‘Empire’ began to creep into American thinking.

The Roosevelt Corollary, or ‘Open Door’ policy (where the U.S. declared it’s right to intervene wherever it’s interests were threatened), was simply a progression of these factors. There also appeared distinct policy differences between the larger and smaller countries.

Both Gardner and Beveridge concur that Manifest Destiny was the linchpin of the Monroe Doctrine, and America was seeking purely to expand its horizons and trade. [Gardner pp.17,8 Paterson pp.362,4] In addition to this Paterson argues that America also did not want to be involved with the problems that it saw it Europe. [Paterson p.178] This may be because the U.S. viewed itself as having some sort of special virtue. [Gardner pp. 18,28] Paterson also argues that America did not want to share its growing riches with England, or anyone else. [Paterson pp. 178,9]

Perkins links all of these together by saying that the U.S., with an eye to the future, was basing its policies on self-preservation. This is why Monroe and Adams wanted to stop any Russian (and other) expansion in North America that would inhibit trade, or impinge on the rights of the U.S. However Perkins does insist that Americans did have much anti-colonialist sympathy for Latin America. [Paterson pp.181,2,6,9]

Appleman Williams concurs with these ideas saying that the U.S. was attempting to build commercial supremacy within it’s own hemisphere, and that U.S. expansion westward was mostly motivated by capital. Also, by warning Europe not to interfere, Monroe was actually intervening in European affairs. [Paterson pp.181,190]

As indigenous people and other races were swept aside it must also be asked whether racism played a role. Certainly ideas of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘Special Virtue’ would seem to point toward this. All of the foregoing theories seem to contain some truth, certainly if you consider the ideas of mercantilism, racism, and democratic idealism that were prominent at the time. But certainly, all American foreign policy seems to have followed a distinct evolutionary line from that fateful Monroe speech made in 1823.


Lloyd C. Gardner ‘The Evolution of the Interventionist Impulse’ in Peter Schraeder (Ed.) ‘Intervention in the 1980’s’ Boulder 1989

T. Paterson (Ed.) ‘Major Problems in American Foreign Policy - Vol.I’ Lexington MA 1984

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1992, "U.S. Foreign Policy - The Monroe Doctrine", + date accessed

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