Americans learn in grade school that the Monroe Doctrine was a phenomenon unique to US diplomatic history. Fashioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe in 1823, it was in effect early America’s way of saying 'hands-off' to predatory outsiders. Latin America had largely cast off European rule early in the 19th century. US statesmen wanted to lock in these gains. They feared the European powers would attempt to reclaim lost empires in the New World, either through conquest or by creating client states.
Monroe and Adams sought to bias—or ‘shape’ in contemporary Pentagon lingo—the diplomatic environment against a return of the great powers. They put outsiders on notice that the United States regarded the security of the Americas as indivisible. That is, the US leadership would interpret any effort to subjugate any American republic as an unfriendly act toward the United States. Monroe and Adams engraved this axiom on US statecraft. It endured for a century, and arguably influences Washington’s handling of diplomatic affairs to this day.
Here endeth the history lesson (for the moment). Is the doctrine more than a distinctly US response to a specific set of circumstances? Some eminent statesmen think so. Fifty years ago, India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, explicitly paid tribute to the precepts set forth by Monroe and Adams. Nehru used the doctrine to justify forcibly ousting the Portuguese from their centuries-old enclave at Goa, and he further cited it as the precedent for a ‘broad doctrine’ of benign Indian pre-eminence in South Asia.
Monroe and Adams wield authority from beyond the grave, it seems, and in some surprising quarters. And then there’s China. China subscribes to a kind of inverse Monroe Doctrine. Chinese pundits routinely castigate the United States for trying to superimpose a latter-day Monroe Doctrine on East Asia. They see such a doctrine as a device for containing Beijing’s rightful aspirations. In the same breath, they vehemently disavow any pretensions toward a Monroe Doctrine all their own. With apologies to Shakespeare, methinks the Chinese doth protest too much. Something’s going on there as well. One need not invoke Monroe by name to think in Monrovian terms.
It seems clear that something more universal than the preoccupations of early Americans manifested itself in the Monroe Doctrine. Something about the doctrine resonates with great powers that share certain attributes with 19th century America. While there are obvious differences between the United States then and rising Asian sea powers now, consider the similarities. The United States, India, and China are natural ‘hegemons,’ or overwhelmingly dominant powers, in home regions populated by lesser neighbours. They vastly overmatch nearby states by indices of national power ranging from territorial size to population to natural resources to gross domestic product to military potential. They inhabit distinct regions endowed with natural defences against outsiders’ exercise of political and military influence. Mountains, peninsulas, and sheer geographic distance are some of these. Furthermore, a nation that inclines to Monrovian thinking is a nation with considerable potential for sea power, since a hegemon puts its hands-off policy into effect chiefly on the high seas. And finally, a local hegemon with an anti-imperial and nonaligned past will likely find the Monroe Doctrine congenial.
The principles set forth by John Quincy Adams and James Monroe, then, could represent a natural precedent for nations that are roughly similar by these measures. Such nations could pattern their foreign policies and strategies on the Monroe Doctrine, as filtered through their own needs, interests, geopolitical circumstances, and history and traditions. The doctrine also presents outside observers with a device for tracking how rising powers may try to manage their geographic environs.