‘Policeman of the New World’

Print edition : May 30, 2014

MARK the initial pronouncement of the Monroe Doctrine and its later amplifications. 1. On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe summarised in his Annual Message to Congress the U.S.’ attitude towards Europe and towards European relations with Latin America. “We owe it, therefore, to candour 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. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

2. In his very first Annual Message to Congress on December 2, 1845, President James Polk warned “our rising greatness as a nation are attracting the attention of the powers of Europe, and lately the doctrine has been broached in some of them of a ‘balance of power’ on this continent to check our advancement. The United States, sincerely desirous of preserving relations of good understanding with all nations, cannot in silence permit any European interference on the North American continent, and should any such interference be attempted will be ready to resist it at any and all hazards. It is well known to the American people and to all nations that this government has never interfered with the relations subsisting between other governments…. We may claim on this continent a like exemption from European interference. The nations of America are equally sovereign and independent with those of Europe. They possess the same rights, independent of all foreign interposition, to make war, to conclude peace, and to regulate their internal affairs. The people of the United States cannot, therefore, view with indifference attempts of European powers to interfere with the independent action of the nations on this continent.”

3. On July 20, 1895, U.S. Secretary of State Richard Olney sent a Note to Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury on Britain’s boundary dispute with Venezuela. After setting out the history of the Monroe Doctrine, he enunciated the U.S.’ standing as “practically sovereign on this continent”. Salisbury flatly denied that the unilateral doctrine was part of the law of nations. Olney’s Note is regarded as a corollary to the doctrine: “American non-intervention in European affairs necessarily implied and meant European non-intervention in American affairs. The Monroe administration, however, did not content itself with formulating a correct rule for the regulation of the relations between Europe and America. It aimed at also securing the practical benefits to result from the application of the rule. Hence, the message just quoted declared that the American continents were fully occupied and were not the subjects for future colonisation by European powers. To this spirit and this purpose, also, are to be attributed the passages of the same message which treat any infringement of the rule against interference in American affairs on the part of the powers of Europe as an act of unfriendliness to the United States. It was realised that it was futile to lay down such a rule unless its observance could be enforced. It was manifest that the United States was the only power in this hemisphere capable of enforcing it. It was therefore courageously declared not merely that Europe ought not to interfere in American affairs, but that any European power doing so would be regarded as antagonising the interests and inviting the opposition of the United States.” The sphere of influence was to be enforced by the U.S. as the policeman of the New World.

4. It was left to President Theodore Roosevelt to highlight these military aspects. He did so at length and in terms which have a contemporary ring. Neither G.W. Bush nor Barack Obama has hesitated to use such language in this century. What Roosevelt said in his Annual Message on December 6, 1904, bears quotation in extenso: “Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.… Our interests and those of our southern neighbours are in reality identical. They have great natural riches, and if within their borders the region of law and justice obtains, prosperity is sure to come to them. While they thus obey the primary laws of civilised society, they may rest assured that they will be treated by us in a spirit of cordial and helpful sympathy. We would interfere with them only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations. It is a mere truism to say that every nation, whether in America or anywhere else, which desires to maintain its freedom, its independence, must ultimately realise that the right of such independence cannot be separated from the responsibility of making good use of it….

“There are, however, cases in which, while our own interests are not involved, strong appeal is made to our sympathies. Ordinarily it is very much wiser and more useful for us to concern ourselves with striving for our own moral and material betterment here at home than to concern ourselves with trying to better the condition of things in other nations. We have plenty of sins of our own to war against, and under ordinary circumstances we can do more for the general uplifting of humanity by striving with heart and soul to put a stop to civic corruption, to brutal lawlessness and violent race prejudices here at home than by passing resolutions about wrongdoing elsewhere. Nevertheless there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror as to make us doubt whether it is not our manifest duty to endeavour at least to show our disapproval of the deed and our sympathy with those who suffered by it. The cases must be extreme in which such a course is justifiable. There must be no effort made to remove the mote from our brother’s eye if we refuse to remove the beam from our own. But in extreme cases action may be justified and proper. What form the action shall take must depend upon the circumstances of the case; that is, upon the degree of the atrocity and upon our power to remedy it.” In 2014 as in 1904, the U.S. will determine (a) that wrongs are being committed by the leaders of a foreign state and (b) that it has a right to use force to set the wrongs right—witness Libya and Syria, to go no further.

The defeated congressional resolution of March 19, 1920, purporting to ratify the Treaty of Versailles with Germany stipulated in paragraph 5: “The United States will not submit to arbitration or to inquiry by the Assembly or by the Council of the League of Nations, provided for in said Treaty of Peace, any questions which in the judgment of the United States depend upon or relate to its long-established policy, commonly known as the Monroe Doctrine; said doctrine is to be interpreted by the United States alone and is hereby declared to be wholly outside the jurisdiction of said League of Nations and entirely unaffected by any provision contained in the said Treaty of Peace with Germany.” This despite the fact that Article 21 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which was part of the treaty, explicably exempted “regional understandings like the Monroe Doctrine”.

A.G. Noorani

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