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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
16 Dec 2023


NextImg:The Return of the Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine is experiencing a resurgence. As it hits its 200th anniversary this month, this time-hallowed foreign-policy principle—which declares that Washington will oppose political and military incursions into the Western Hemisphere by powers outside of it—is once again at the forefront of political debates in the United States.

Republican presidential candidates such as Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis are calling for the doctrine’s reinvigoration to take aim at China’s growing presence in Latin America and are offering it as a justification for a potential U.S. military attack on criminal organizations in Mexico. They are following the lead of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who hailed Monroe on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, as well as advisors such as John Bolton and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Although the Biden administration has refrained from explicitly invoking the principle—likely realizing that mentions of Monroe are guaranteed to irritate Latin Americans—the White House’s warnings about China’s growing footprint in the Western Hemisphere carry a distinctively Monroeist undertone.

Even a decade ago, one might have assumed that Monroe’s relevance in the 21st century had waned. After all, during the doctrine’s first centenary, Yale professor and Machu Picchu explorer Hiram Bingham labeled it “an obsolete shibboleth.” By the doctrine’s second century, it had become closely associated with U.S. Cold War interventions and unilateralism in the Americas. When then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” the principle had become an anachronism.

But as its recent resurgence suggests, the Monroe Doctrine has long meant different things to different audiences. Though the term “Monroe Doctrine” is widely considered to be toxic, politicians in Washington have struggled to break with its legacy. And U.S. words and actions in Latin America are certainly still perceived through the lens of Monroe.


A 1912 painting shows U.S. leaders in a room as they create the Monroe Doctrine. Six men sit and U.S. President James Monroe stands at center pointing a globe A map of the U.S. (with internal boundaries of the era) hands on the wall behind them along with a U.S. flag and bust on a bookshelf.
A 1912 painting shows U.S. leaders in a room as they create the Monroe Doctrine. Six men sit and U.S. President James Monroe stands at center pointing a globe A map of the U.S. (with internal boundaries of the era) hands on the wall behind them along with a U.S. flag and bust on a bookshelf.

A 1912 painting by Clyde DeLand depicts U.S. President James Monroe (center) at the creation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

From the outset, the Monroe Doctrine had myriad meanings. Before becoming irredeemably linked to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick,” it served as a mirror, reflecting the new countries of the Americas’ hopes and fears in international relations.

The tenets of what would posthumously become known as the Monroe Doctrine were first enunciated on Dec. 2, 1823, by then-U.S. President James Monroe during his annual message  to Congress—but the passage in question was largely penned by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Monroe and Adams’s foreign policy contained two main principles. The first was the establishment of what they called “separate spheres” between Europe and the Americas. The second was the affirmation of U.S. opposition to European attempts at reconquest and territorial ambitions in Latin America and the Pacific Northwest.

At inception, the idea was not a doctrine, nor could the fledgling U.S. republic back it up with force. Monroe’s address was initially perceived as a declaration of solidarity against the threat of European conquest, albeit a rather high-handed one. Independence leaders in the former Spanish American colonies took polite notice of Monroe’s address as an expression of tacit support for their cause.

However, when the United States annexed the northern half of Mexico during a  war of conquest that lasted from 1846 to 1848, the U.S. policy took on a foreboding cast.

Over the decades, the Monroe Doctrine gained greater salience among competing political factions in the United States—and connections to Monroe’s original context weakened. Successive U.S. governments invoked the Monroe Doctrine to ward off other adversaries around the world—the British, the German empire, the Axis powers of World War II, and later the Soviet Union. In Latin America, the doctrine offered countries U.S. protection (whether requested or not) while reserving Washington’s right to define what sort of actions counted as threatening, as well as the right to decide how to respond to them. Inherent paternalism toward the region was soon complemented by outright unilateralism and interventionism.

Nonetheless, in the late 1860s, some Latin American liberals and U.S. abolitionists saw the Monroe Doctrine as an opportunity to create a regional order based not on dynastic interests and great-power intrigues, but rather on the rule of law and solidarity.

Instead of seeing Monroe as a license for expansionism, midcentury liberals envisioned a common hemispheric destiny that broke from Old World wars and intrigues. The doctrine reemerged as a call for the United States to act against French and Spanish incursions in the Americas, including in calls from Latin American liberal leaders such as the Mexican Presidents Benito Juárez and Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada.

Liberal leaders recognized that the United States’ size and power would make its place in the hemisphere distinct, but argued that differences between nations were to be bridged with republican solidarity, multilateral diplomacy, and international law. Peace would not be made through secret treaties at the expense of small states but through arbitration and consultation.

Latin Americans invoked the Monroe Doctrine in this context to criticize U.S. participation at the now infamous 1884-to-1885 Berlin Conference, where European powers apportioned African territory under a self-proclaimed duty to spread Western civilization. Latin Americans feared that this sanctioned imperial expansion could also reach their shores.

A few years later, Venezuelans appealed again to the legacy of Monroe to enlist U.S. support in their dispute with Britain over the Venezuelan-Guyanese border. (Venezuelan dissatisfaction with the ensuing arbitration process a century ago set the stage for the recent threats of war there.) In the United States, the doctrine also served isolationists to advance their critique of U.S. entanglement in European alliance politics.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, third from left wearing a hat and suit with waistcoat, stands among a group of men in Rio de Janeiro. A cane chair is in front of them and palm fronds frame the right side of the image.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, third from left wearing a hat and suit with waistcoat, stands among a group of men in Rio de Janeiro. A cane chair is in front of them and palm fronds frame the right side of the image.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt visits Rio de Janeiro in 1913. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

But at the turn of the century, President Teddy Roosevelt deepened the Monroe Doctrine’s link to unilateral U.S. interventions. Most infamously, his “corollary”  to the principle claimed, for the newly powerful United States, a right and duty to police its neighborhood. President Woodrow Wilson—otherwise Roosevelt’s adversary on many foreign-policy questions—largely shared this view of the Monroe Doctrine. Wilson insisted that Monroe be mentioned in the League of Nations Charter to enshrine U.S. unilateral prerogatives.

By this point, even sympathetic Latin Americans had soured on the doctrine—and Monroe became a rallying cry for the region’s nationalists and anti-imperialists. Roosevelt’s interpretation of the doctrine largely displaced those that emphasized solidarity and restraint. The era was infused with an arrogance of racial and civilizational conceits that the United States had both a right and duty to tutor and discipline Latin Americans.

But hopes to reverse the Roosevelt corollary and reinterpret Monroe as compatible with multilateralism did not disappear, as the scholar Juan Pablo Scarfi has shown. In some corners of Latin American societies, the United States remained a favored model of modernity.

In the warmer era of President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Good Neighbor Policy, in which the United States agreed to Latin America’s insistence on a hemispheric proclamation of nonintervention, Monroe experienced some redemption in the region. With Europe at war by the late 1930s, the idea of a separate and peaceful sphere had considerable appeal across the Americas.

Against such hopes, the United States was drawn into World War II, and then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson privately griped in his diary in May 1945 that the combination of the proposals for the United Nations’ establishment and Franklin Roosevelt’s commitment to nonintervention had diluted the doctrine, much to Stimson’s dismay.

While explicit mentions of the Monroe Doctrine declined, U.S. foreign policy toward the region took on a more interventionist zeal at the height of the Cold War. With the justification of excluding Soviet influence, the U.S. government helped overturn reformist democratic projects across Latin America to install U.S.-friendly dictators—most notoriously in Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973. Commenting on Chile in 1970, the late U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that the “issues are much too important for [Latin American] voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Now, after three decades in which overt U.S. interventions in Latin America have grown rare, discussion of the Monroe Doctrine seems to be making a comeback.


Chinese President Xi Jinping, wearing a suit and tie, walks amid flag-bearing Brazilian guards in traditional garb and plumed helmets.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, wearing a suit and tie, walks amid flag-bearing Brazilian guards in traditional garb and plumed helmets.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for a meeting with then-Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Nov. 13, 2019. Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images

Anticipating renewed great-power rivalry, this time with China, the United States finds itself groping for a coherent approach to challengers from outside the Western Hemisphere—and to challenges from within it. The seeming simplicity and persistence of the Monroe Doctrine mean that it has regained adherents in the United States. Yet recent praise for the doctrine from within the Republican Party suggests only superficial understandings of the doctrine and its meanings in Latin America.

Such uses may be aimed at a domestic U.S. audience, but when they reach Latin American ears, they come off as out of touch—or worse. Praising Monroe won’t persuade Latin Americans that their interests lie in cooperation with the United States rather than its extra-hemispheric rivals. Summoning the doctrine hastens the very outcome it aims to avert.

Although very few in Latin America would embrace the term “Monroe Doctrine,” many leaders on the region’s right have their own anti-China dispositions, including former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, former Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, and new Argentine President Javier Milei. These leaders have turned to the United States to offset China’s growing economic and political weight. In recent years, several countries in the region have switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China and have expanded trade and investment deals with Beijing.

U.S. President Joe Biden is not likely to follow Trump’s lead in openly praising the Monroe Doctrine at the United Nations. But many Biden administration initiatives are perceived in Latin America in a similar light. Top U.S. officials rarely make time for Latin America beyond issues related to immigration and drug trafficking, and the United States’ economic offerings to the region are seen as paltry compared to its commitments elsewhere. When Biden officials hector Latin Americans on the dangers of economic engagement with China, the warnings are heard as modern echoes of Monroe’s quip that the United States knows best.

In its latest resurgence, the Monroe Doctrine will be ascribed yet more meanings. But Monroeism—whether in name or as an implicit policy paradigm—is doomed to fail. As a term, the “Monroe Doctrine” is too tainted to be redeemed. Invoking the phrase in inter-American relations today is counterproductive. The doctrine cannot shake two centuries of links with unilateralism, paternalism, and interventionism.

Nor does referring to the Monroe Doctrine by another name hide its stench. The doctrine’s core principles clash with today’s international and inter-American relations. The doctrine was premised on the idea of separate spheres; more multilateral interpretations of Monroe tended to emphasize this aspect as the foundation for a distinctive “Western Hemisphere idea.”

But the Cold War’s global confrontation and universal nuclear threat cast doubt on the feasibility of separate spheres. Now, in an era of global climate change and value chains, the assertion appears even more implausible. Not only is the United States inextricably linked to European, Asian, and global affairs, but so too is Latin America.

Even multilateral conceptions of the doctrine were mired in paternalist assumptions. Calls for a more multilateral and egalitarian regional order are incompatible with the Monroe Doctrine’s fundamental assumption that it is the United States that decides who counts as a hemispheric threat.

Likewise, the original doctrine’s prohibition of European reconquest expanded over time to cover other activities—such diplomatic and commercial relations with the Soviet Union decades ago, or Chinese “debt traps” today. Starting with Monroe assumes that the United States defines what sorts of foreign relations are beyond the pale.

And here is the problem. Whatever policymakers believe the Monroe Doctrine to mean, at its core, the doctrine doubts that Latin American countries can chart their own course in the world. Until U.S. foreign policy rids itself of that notion, it will be ensnared in the grasp of Monroe.