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by Thomas E McNamara

Our oldest remaining national policy, the Monroe Doctrine, is 200 years old this December. Historically, it was an anchor in the ever-changing currents of world events for over a century and its influence continues into its third century. It is worth looking at its origins and early history.

The World of Monroe and Quincy Adams: Monarchy vs. Republic

The Western world in 1823 was recovering from the tumult and tragedy of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, which tore apart the social, economic, and political fabric of Europe. In reaction, the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 established a “Concert of Europe” to, inter alia, define borders and spheres of influence, restore “legitimate” monarchy, abolish republics, and stabilize Europe. Eighteenth century monarchs opposed republics but felt no threat from them. After Robespierre and Napoleon, their nineteenth century successors feared republics and revolution, vowing to destroy them.

In Latin America, rebellions had begun during the wars and the Holy Alliance (Austria, Prussia, Russia), assisted by France, agreed in Vienna to help a weak Spanish monarchy recover its American colonies. The pragmatic United Kingdom, in contrast, saw the Americas through commercial, not monarchical, lenses and favored independence because recolonization threatened British trade and finance.

In North America, less violent struggles were underway. The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which for the first time showed Britain respected United States’ independence – for the same commercial reasons. Yet, it adamantly opposed US westward expansion beyond the Louisiana Territory. Thus, as a lever, Britain refused in the treaty to define the US-Canadian border west of the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, Russia was assisting its Spanish partner by extending its Alaskan colonial claims down the Pacific coast to California. This was the scene the Monroe administration faced on taking office in 1817. Russia, Spain, France, British Canada, and the British navy surrounded the US with monarchical powers, intent on extinguishing or containing the United States.

A New US Foreign Policy 

John Quincy Adams

By 1817, President James Monroe had substantial diplomatic experience, but he was not a strategic thinker. Fortunately, he chose as secretary of state America’s first and greatest career diplomat, and its most successful and consequential secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. The brilliant Quincy Adams began his career in 1779 in Paris with his father, John Adams. In 1794 Washington named him, at age 27, minister to the Netherlands. By 1817, Quincy Adams had spent almost half his life as a diplomat abroad; been minister to six European nations; was chief negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent; and was not yet 50 years old.

For the next 12 years, he was the tough-minded statesman-strategist who guided American policy, establishing republican security and legitimacy by keeping the monarchs from organizing against him. He started with British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh and settled the western border with Canada in the Treaty of 1818. He also negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty of 1821 with Spain (with France’s acquiescence). That treaty ceded Florida and its Gulf Coast to the US and defined the western border of the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific. Next, in parallel with Castlereagh’s successor, George Canning, he objected in 1822 to Russia’s Pacific claims, which would have closed the Pacific coast to access, settlement, and trade. The Tsar soon abandoned his new claims.

This five-year (1817-22) diplomatic tour-de-force by Adams gained for the US, for the first time since independence, internationally agreed borders, and republican legitimacy by four of the six monarchies that opposed republicanism. With Spain gone, Mexico independent, Russia pushed north, and US-UK exploring common interests, Adams demonstrated the new US approach by recognizing the American republics.

The United States, 1812-22

Also, in the sonorous but nuanced voice of a small nation still facing larger, antagonistic powers, Adams, in a 1921 July 4th speech in the House of Representatives, declared a new synthesis of American policy which became the nation’s diplomatic center of gravity for a century.

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be her [the USA’s] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own…. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners…she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication….

The Monroe Doctrine and The Atlantic Barrier 

By the 1820s, the Atlantic Ocean was a barrier. Those on its west coast hoped it would keep European emperors away. The emperors saw it as a barrier limiting their control of the new world. Despite increasing commerce across the ocean throughout the nineteenth century, it remained a barrier. After World War I, the barrier fell as empires collapsed and republican governments emerged in Europe. However, two prescient statesmen—Adams and Canning—ignored the Atlantic barrier by using the British Navy in 1823 to support the first long-term transatlantic political agreement to advance common strategic interests.  Following the 1818 treaty negotiations, Adams suggested to Castlereagh the idea of a “common understanding” to support Latin American independence.  The cautious Castlereagh did not respond.  But his successor did.

In August 1823, Canning approached the US about a simple, three-part, bilateral declaration:

  1. Spain could make peace with rebellious colonists and the UK and US would not interfere.
  2. The UK and US would, however, oppose “transfer” of any parts of those territories “to any other Power.”
  3. The UK and US would not “…aim at the possession of any portion of [those territories] ourselves.”

Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison agreed to the proposal, as did Monroe’s cabinet, with one exception. Adams dissented. He knew Canning would tell other powers of British policy, making a joint statement unnecessary. Indeed, Canning did not wait for Adams to respond before doing so.  The powers knew the UK Navy would keep them at bay because the British fleet was stronger than their combined navies. Adams interpreted the second point as intending to involve the US in European politics. Finally, he saw the last point as a “pledge against ourselves” to stop westward expansion into Spanish territories even if they “solicit a union with us.”  Finally, a joint statement would make the US “subordinate” to the UK. His powerful metaphor was “a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war.”

Instead, Adams argued for the method he and Canning used for Russia’s overreach in the Pacific, separate statements of a common policy. Adams’s statement also had three main points:

  1. The US had not and would not interfere in existing colonies.
  2. The US would consider any attempt by “the allied powers…to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
  3. For colonies that “have declared their independence and maintained it, any interposition…by any European power…for the purpose of oppressing them…[will be viewed as a] manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

This defined the political agreement with the UK as a common interest in seeing hemispheric nations become independent.  Gone was any hint of involvement in European intrigues, or limiting westward expansion, or being a “cockboat.”  Both sides benefitted, but Adams’s clever maneuver turned a page in US diplomatic history. Canning was pleased enough to boast that he had called “the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old.”

In December 1823, Monroe agreed and delivered his address to Congress. As historians have noted, the Doctrine’s intellectual author was Adams. Samuel Elliott Morison asserted that Monroe “never really understood the significance, or grasped the essential principles, of the message that bears his name.”   Instead, two statesmen drove the issue to conclusion with minimal support of their governmental colleagues. Canning got no support from Tory leaders for his forward-looking American policies.

The Monroe Doctrine at 200 Years:  A Barrier Becomes a Community

Monroe’s statement can be seen as an addendum to Washington’s Farewell Address, in which Washington foresaw progression towards “…strength and consistency, which is necessary to give [the US]…the command of its own fortunes.”  Adams’s wise diplomacy gave the nation that command, which Washington and Jefferson longed for, but which the nation did not have in its first fifty years.

The Monroe Doctrine was the capstone of strategic diplomacy of a remarkably high order by Adams, Castlereagh, and Canning. They knew good relations between the most powerful European monarchy and the most powerful American republic would make both nations stronger. It is not a stretch to say that this is the unnoticed foundation stone of what became the “special relationship” that has endured to this day despite many differences.

Additionally, the outcome was a major factor keeping the Western Hemisphere nearly untouched by the flood tide of nineteenth century colonialism. Monroe’s statement was highly praised by Bolívar and other Latin American liberators and gave some, not yet victorious, a long-awaited boost. Given the conflict-filled history of nineteenth century Latin America, it is impossible to explain the absence of recolonialization without growing US power and the British navy’s Atlantic fleet. We can note that when the US was weakest, during the Civil War, the monarchies struck hardest and created Maximilian’s Mexican monarchy—briefly.

The crack in the Atlantic barrier made by this transatlantic understanding had even longer, unforeseen benefits. The development of conflict-free transatlantic commerce and communication, made possible by the British fleet and later the US fleet, transformed the Atlantic barrier into a two-way commercial “highway” by 1914. Also, beyond the imagination of anyone in 1823, by mid-twentieth century, the Atlantic became a super-highway of trade, industry, finance, politics, and culture, unifying the West in what Walter Lippmann in 1917 named “the Atlantic Community.”

Most criticism of the Doctrine by commentators is due, not to the Doctrine, but to American military interventions after the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904.  Roosevelt announced the Corollary in reaction to a German-led naval attack on Venezuela in 1902-03.  By then, the weakened British Navy was no longer dominant.  This worried Roosevelt, who wanted to keep non-hemispheric powers out and have hemispheric nations police themselves. The policy failed due to Roosevelt’s lack of understanding of weak, divisive Latin American relationships, and excessive interventions by Roosevelt’s successors, Taft and Wilson, who intervened in Caribbean nations over a dozen times in ten years.

After World War I, Secretary of State Hughes, followed by Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt instituted “Good Neighbor” policies to replace the Corollary. From 1933 until the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, no military interventions took place. Since that crisis, three non-consensual military interventions have occurred (Dominican Republic, Granada, Panama), the last one in 1989.  Other activities, not addressed in the Doctrine or the Corollary, involving political, economic, military assistance/training, etc., are practiced by hemispheric and non-hemispheric nations alike.

The Monroe Doctrine should hold an honored place in the history of the Americas. Its importance today is greatly reduced because the Atlantic Community and its regional embodiment, the Organization of American States (OAS), have moved beyond the simple dicta of Adams and Canning. We now have new structures of policies and institutions that better manage the relationships of millions of citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. But the Monroe Doctrine was the start.End.


Ambassador McNamara is adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.   A career diplomat, he left government in 1998, but returned after 9/11 as senior advisor to the secretary of state. He also served as assistant secretary of state; ambassador to Colombia; special assistant to the president; and ambassador for Counterterrorism.  He was president of the Americas Society, the Council of the Americas, and the Diplomacy Center Foundation.

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