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A doctrine misunderstood

  • Published at 06:56 pm April 10th, 2014
A doctrine misunderstood

In the Bangladesh foreign affairs discussions, the historical term “Monroe Doctrine” appears quite frequently. The term has special significance in our foreign policy community because our small country is placed snugly in the lap of an aspiring global power. Monroe Doctrine has a wholly negative connotation to its users and readers in our country. It is known as an early 19th century American imperialistic proclamation that declared the western hemisphere, North and South America, as America’s own backyard and warned European powers to desist from any interference in the countries of that part of the globe. With perceived emphasis on “backyard,” the doctrine and its architects are regarded as an epitome of US imperialism and arrogance.

As there is a wide perception that India has assertively influenced the political course of Bangladesh in 2013-14, and has thwarted the interference of western powers, the term Monroe Doctrine is going to be invoked with increased frequency in the coming days. But contemporary users of this geopolitical term greatly misunderstand the context, the formulation, and evolution of this doctrine. The doctrine, famously proclaimed in 1823 by the fifth president of US, James Monroe, was actually a ringing declaration of anti-colonialism and freedom for the then newly independent countries of Latin America. A short lesson in its history may be illuminating to foreign affair enthusiasts.

Students of colonial history know that the most important factor that precipitated the great decolonisation wave in the second half of the 20th century, creating all these independent countries in Asia and Africa, was the two World Wars. World Wars I and II so greatly weakened the already declining colonial powers, such as Britain, France, Holland, etc, to such an extent that they had no means to hold on to their colonial possessions. A similar decolonisation wave occurred in the Americas when the great war of 19th century, the Napoleonic wars, fatally weakened declining empires of that time Spanish and Portuguese empires.

Inspired by American Independence (1775-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99), the politically restive people of various Latin colonies were already thirsting for freedom from their distant European overlords. While Europe was gripped with the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, Latin American leaders and their people seized the chance and began their struggle for independence. The island country of Haiti was the first to revolt, and after a long war, gained independence from France in 1804. Uprisings spread from country to country, and by 1810, revolution had spread throughout South America. Historically known as the Latin American Wars of Independence, these freedom struggles were long, hard, and full of twists and turns. By 1820, most of the countries were independent or were in the process of gaining freedom. 

After the defeat of Napoleon, the Spanish monarchy was restored and the old European powers conspired to get the rebel American colonies back into the empire’s fold. The counter-revolution to squelch independence movements began. Russia, a big victor in the Napoleonic Wars, claimed the whole Pacific seaboard of North America as its exclusive area.

United States was quite wary of European colonial powers re-exerting in the Western hemisphere. An ex-colony itself, US popular sentiment was very much against them. Also, the US wanted to develop trade and business relationships with newly independent countries, a relationship previously hard to build because of protectionist colonial policies.

First enunciated in December, 1923, the Monroe doctrine is basically a very progressive and benevolent declaration. Its basic principles were that the US would not interfere in the internal affairs of, or the wars between, European powers. The Western Hemisphere was closed to future colonisation and any attempt by a European power to oppress or control any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States.

The declaration said: “With the governments who have declared their independence and maintain 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.”

It is essential to know that the new nations of South America welcomed the Monroe declaration wholeheartedly. Revolutionary leaders like Simon Bolivar openly embraced this offer of protective shelter by US. But both US and Latin American leaders knew that in the 1820s America did not have sufficient naval and military power to enforce such a doctrine. It was closer to a bluff than an assertion. Fortunately, Britain, the world’s premier naval power, also wanted South America free from protectionist colonial powers so that it can trade freely. British navy was the instrument that helped enforce the doctrine in 19th century.   

The progressive origin of the Monroe Doctrine doesn’t mean that the current negative reputation is wholly undeserved. By the end of 19th century, the US was a world power and its big companies were dominating trade throughout the Americas.

The US intervened in various Latin American countries many times with different pretexts. Reflecting the new American mood, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting that the United States had the right to intervene in Latin America in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation.” The Roosevelt Corollary essentially turned the Monroe Doctrine on its head. In place of seeking to stop the imperial design of European powers in Latin America, it declared America’s intention to take their place.

However much the Monroe Doctrine was later tarnished by US imperialism in South America, we should remember that originally the doctrine and its namesake had very wholesome motives. The newly independent countries heartily welcomed the protective umbrella that the doctrine provided. Before using the term “Monroe Doctrine” liberally to describe current geopolitical situations both in near and far neighborhoods, the users should ponder awhile whether subject countries now welcome any forced protective custodianship.  

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