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.
Varieties of Monrovian Experience
Numerous variants of US policy and strategy went by the name Monrovian. Adams and Monroe hoped to send a message about US purposes, even before the republic had built up enough economic and military power to put steel behind US policy. The doctrine appeared in two separate passages of Monroe’s 1823 annual message to Congress, the forerunner to today’s State of the Union addresses. The first ruled out territorial conquest. Monroe proclaimed, ‘the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power.’ The second passage proscribed indirect abridgement on Latin American sovereignty, meaning actions that would reduce the United States’ southern neighbours to puppet or proxy states. The US leadership, continued Monroe: ‘could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing” these nations, “or controlling in any other manner their destiny…in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.’
The Monroe Doctrine, then, merely sought to freeze the status quo. Its framers had little desire to launch the United States into some revolutionary campaign to rid the New World of imperial rule altogether. They simply declared no more. Contrary to popular lore, this was no isolationist creed. Monroe didn’t abjure international cooperation—even with the great powers—so long as it posed no danger to Latin American independence. Indeed, the president reported elsewhere in his 1823 message that the US Navy was policing the Caribbean Sea alongside an erstwhile foe, Great Britain’s Royal Navy, in a joint effort to quash the slave trade. The Monroe Doctrine was a unilateralist document, but it didn’t reject foreign entanglements wholesale.
While the hands-off principle endured, successive generations of Americans applied the Monroe Doctrine differently as they took stock of their interests, the dynamics at work in the international environment around them, and the nation’s physical wherewithal to shape that environment. The more menacing the strategic surroundings appeared, and the greater the republic’s ability to manage those surroundings, the more forceful a stance it tended to take.
The doctrine underwent at least three phases during the United States’ rise to regional primacy. These phases offer three models Asia-watchers can use to chart the trajectory of emerging maritime hegemons such as India and China today. Comparing present to past, and determining which paradigm best approximates the current state of a nation’s maritime power and strategy, promises to supply useful input to US strategic deliberations. Understanding the factors that impel a nation from one stage of the Monroe Doctrine to another—or lead it to depart from the Monrovian paradigm entirely—could also sharpen foresight in the West, helping statesmen and commanders know prospective allies, partners, and competitors better.
The first model might be dubbed the ‘Free-rider’ model. Despite lingering bad blood from the American War of Independence and the War of 1812, when British expeditionary forces burned the White House, the United States free-rode on British-supplied maritime security for much of the 19th century. As the beneficiary of outside protection, it could conserve resources that might otherwise have gone into building and maintaining expensive military and naval forces.
Great Britain boasted the world’s strongest fleet by far following its overthrow of Napoleonic France. And the British leadership had reasons of its own to keep rival empires from crossing the Atlantic Ocean to reinstate European rule in Latin America. The Royal Navy was in effect Washington’s silent partner in enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. As a result, the United States could afford not to construct a large battle fleet to uphold the Monroe Doctrine and defend other interests. The US Navy remained little more than a police force composed of a handful of frigates and lesser craft. As John Paul Jones observed ruefully, this skeletal US Navy was ‘unable to meet (European) Fleets and dispute with them the sovereignty of the Ocean.’ But it had little need to. The US government used the resources that would have gone into shipbuilding and armaments to finance internal improvements, support the republic’s westward spread across North America, and undertake the multitude of tasks associated with nation building.
The Free-rider phase persisted throughout the 19th century, with the brief exception of the American Civil War. But the US Navy atrophied from neglect throughout the 1870s. So decayed and out-dated were the navy’s warships, so shrunken its numbers, and so intellectually inert its leadership that when Washington demanded to mediate an end to the Chilean War of the Pacific (1879-1883), Chilean leaders were able to thumb their noses at the northern colossus. The Chilean Navy possessed modern battleships, while the US Navy possessed none. In fact, Santiago made it known that it would send a fleet to bombard San Francisco if Washington refused to butt out. Not so coincidentally, Congress authorized the Navy’s first modern armoured men-of-war not long after this fiasco. The new fleet ultimately put teeth into the Monroe Doctrine. The timing for a US naval build-up was fortuitous. British sea power was coming under strain across the globe. By the end of the century, in fact, the British Isles faced dire peril across the North Sea in the form of Germany’s emerging High Seas Fleet. No longer could the United States free-ride on an external protector. Its long strategic holiday was drawing to a close.
Second, the United States briefly acted as a ‘strongman’ of the Western Hemisphere during the 1890s. In 1895, it appeared that Britain and Venezuela might come to blows over a resource-rich strip of borderland between British Guiana and Venezuela. The Grover Cleveland administration decided to act. Washington demanded the right to mediate despite having no real stake in the dispute. In one diplomatic note to Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister and foreign secretary, Secretary of State Richard Olney announced in lordly tones that the United States would get its way not only in the Venezuelan border dispute, but in any regional controversy in which it chose to involve itself. ‘Today,’ proclaimed Olney, ‘the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition’ (my emphasis). The United States could state such a policy—the Monroe Doctrine was never law per se, although it took on a kind of permanence once other nations started deferring to it—both because of its moral stature and because ‘its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.’
For Olney and Cleveland, the United States was a better steward of hemispheric affairs than any outsider could be. The objectionable thing about the controversy wasn’t Washington’s goal—again, the administration only wanted to mediate a peaceful settlement—but the language in which US officials couched their diplomatic correspondence. A sovereign state controls the territory, waters, and skies where it holds sovereignty. The fiat of the ruling regime is indeed law. To take Olney at his word, and interpreting the words of the Monroe Doctrine literally, the United States now claimed the right to dictate events across half the globe.
Unsurprisingly, Olney’s message and a subsequent note from Cleveland himself sat well neither with the British government nor with Latin Americans who had consented to no such arrangement. The encounter nonetheless paved the way for a discreet British exit from the Western Hemisphere. London realized it could no longer keep a North American squadron on station that was stronger than the US Navy, and it had the High Seas Fleet to contend with. By the turn of the century, Royal Navy fleets came home from the Far East and the Americas to concentrate on the main challenger, Imperial Germany.
The Monroe Doctrine’s strongman phase was thankfully short-lived and the doctrine morphed into a ‘constabulary’ instrument after the turn of the century. The sea lanes in the Caribbean Sea were the main worry for President Theodore Roosevelt, the architect of a constabulary doctrine. Weak Caribbean governments commonly defaulted on their debts to European banks. Bankers appealed to their government for redress following a default. Unless government-to-government negotiations yielded satisfactory results, the European government sent warships to collect. Sometimes this meant punitive action. More often it meant seizing the customhouse in the Caribbean state in order to repay European creditors from the tariff proceeds.
In 1902, for example, a joint European naval squadron had mounted a blockade of Venezuela. This expedition prompted Roosevelt to order Adm. George Dewey’s fleet to the area to shadow the European fleet and deter any breach of the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt had little objection to debt collection. What vexed him was the prospect that Europeans might convert customhouses—coastal territory in the Caribbean basin—into naval bases adjoining the new sea lanes that would come into being once a transoceanic canal opened at Panama or Nicaragua.
Warships based along these sea routes would pose a direct threat to shipping in waters of vital US interest. Roosevelt therefore set out to deny the great powers any excuse for occupying US territory. He used his 1904 message to Congress to affix a ‘corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine. He quietly dropped Richard Olney’s over-the-top language while offering quasi-legal grounds for US intervention in Latin American affairs. He declared:
‘Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized 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.’
In practical terms this meant that the United States reserved the right to step in when weak Latin American governments failed to discharge their obligations to foreigners, and when such failures imperilled US geopolitical interests in southern waters. In 1905, the Roosevelt administration negotiated a ‘modus vivendi,’ or working agreement, with the Dominican government. The compact empowered the US government to take control of the island’s customs facilities, apportioning tariff revenue between the government and its creditors. A US customs agent stationed on Santo Domingo administered the agreement.
No military action was necessary to adjust the Dominican dispute or hold European fleets at bay—a fact in which TR took great satisfaction. Yet for Roosevelt, as for his predecessors, the Monroe Doctrine was a function of naval might. ‘The Monroe Doctrine,’ he wrote, ‘is as strong as the United States Navy, and no stronger.’ Fellow navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s evangelist of sea power and the intellectual forefather of the modern US Navy, has likewise been dubbed a ‘disciple of Monroeism.’ To enforce the doctrine in an age of British decline, the United States had to amass sufficient maritime strength to make good on US purposes.
Monroe Doctrines in Asia
The Monroe Doctrine is a fixture in strategic discourses in Asia today. As noted at the outset, Indians explicitly invoke the doctrine as one source of inspiration for their foreign policy and maritime strategy. Fifty years ago, Nehru modelled his ‘broad doctrine’ on its US precedent. Indeed, Nehru honed the doctrine to a keener edge than did Monroe and Adams, declaring that ‘any attempt by a foreign power to interfere in any way with India is a thing which India cannot tolerate, and which, subject to her strength, she will oppose’ (my emphasis). Commentator C. Raja Mohan reports that the Monroe Doctrine has become ‘an article of faith’ within the Indian strategic community. In policy terms, this means building a ‘blue-water navy’ capable of high-seas combat. According to Mohan, it also means discouraging fellow South Asian governments from ‘granting military bases and facilities to great powers.’
Despite officials’ rhetoric, however, India’s very modest shipbuilding and weapons-procurement patterns suggest that New Delhi remains in free-rider mode. Economic development remains a work in progress on the subcontinent, limiting the resources available for sea power. Any Chinese naval threat remains remote and diffuse for now. And it’s far too soon to conclude that US naval power will wane further, demanding the sort of build-up undertaken by the United States to offset the decline of British naval mastery at the close of the 19th century. In short, New Delhi evidently discerns no serious power vacuum in the Indian Ocean.
For their part, Chinese pundits excoriate the United States for keeping up its forward presence in their backyard while heatedly denying that Beijing harbours any desire to substitute its own Monroe Doctrine. Yuan Peng, director of American studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, reprimands ‘people with blurred vision or people with ulterior motives’ for suggesting that China is now ‘practicing an Asian version of the “Monroe Doctrine”’ designed to usher the United States out of the Western Pacific ‘while China itself becomes the regional hegemony.’
But Chinese words and deeds vis-à-vis Southeast Asia bring Chinese attitudes into sharp focus. Officials have asserted ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over most of the South China Sea. Last year, the Chinese foreign minister pointedly told his Southeast Asian counterparts that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’ Such language is reminiscent of Richard Olney’s insistence that Washington was ‘practically sovereign’ in the New World. Yet even Olney and Cleveland never dreamt of actually asserting title to the Caribbean basin, despite their overbearing diplomacy during the Venezuelan border crisis. If Beijing is pursuing a Monroe Doctrine by another name, it’s a hyper-Monrovian offshoot of the original. In rhetorical terms, China appears to be a regional strongman in the making. Whether the People’s Liberation Army yet boasts the wherewithal to execute a policy of regional supremacy is another question.
While Indian and Chinese history won’t precisely repeat fin de siècle US history, then, the Monroe Doctrine offers a useful standard against which to compare the evolution of sea power in East and South Asia. To apply the Free-rider, Strongman, and Constabulary models as an intellectual gauge for Asian sea power, it’s worth asking several questions:
1) Does an aspiring sea power meet the basic standards set forth above? Is it a natural hegemon with a nonaligned tradition and sizable potential for sea power?
2) Does it make special claims to primacy in its neighbourhood, and if so, does it appeal to the Monroe Doctrine by name? How interventionist is its foreign policy and strategy?
3) How does it view the maritime security environment? Is it comfortable with the degree and kind of outside involvement in the region?
4) Does it have the luxury of free-riding on an extraregional sea power, or must it trust to its own economic, military, and naval resources to put its security doctrine into effect?
Lastly, it’s crucial to bear several caveats in mind when undertaking this mental exercise. Some aspects of Asia’s geopolitical rise are troubling. First and foremost, two rising sea powers arguably espouse security doctrines reminiscent of Monroe’s. But unlike the Western Hemisphere of the 19th century, which witnessed the rise of a single nautical hegemon that was remote from great power politics, two powers given to Monrovian thinking share a disputed land frontier, along with a past punctuated by intermittent conflict and warfare. How an Indian Free-rider would interact with a Chinese Strongman remains to be seen.
Second, as they gaze out to sea, it’s unclear where the Indian zone of maritime primacy ends and that of China begins. The arc formed by the Malay Peninsula, the Strait of Malacca, and the Indonesian archipelago represents one intuitive frontier between the two Monroe Doctrines, but it’s a permeable frontier. Indian ships occasionally ply the South China Sea, while New Delhi’s ‘Look East’ policy mandates courting economic ties with Southeast Asian nations.
For their part Chinese vessels patrol the western Indian Ocean to help suppress piracy, while Beijing is financing seaport development projects throughout South Asia. Third, vital economic interests rivet the attention of both nations on the Indian Ocean—that is, on India’s domain. The region represents a source of seaborne oil, gas, and other raw materials critical to both nations’ economic development. Critical sea lanes also crisscross the region not far from the subcontinent. Whether Beijing and New Delhi can devise a modus vivendi governing their relations in South Asia remains an open question.
And finally, US maritime decline is by no means predestined. Great sea powers have bounced back before. Great Britain did it after being humbled during the War of American Independence. Indeed, the greatest days of the British Empire lay before it in 1781, when Lord Cornwallis capitulated to George Washington at Yorktown. It’s entirely possible that the United States will make the conscious choice to remain the administrator of the global commons and find the resources to act on that choice.
In short, the principles laid down by John Quincy Adams and James Monroe two centuries ago represent a point of departure for appraising Asian politics and strategy today. One thing becomes clear from this initial foray: inhabitants of Asia and the United States will live in interesting times for many years to come.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and the co-author of 'Red Star over the Pacific' an Atlantic Monthly Best Book for 2010. This essay is drawn from remarks to the Theodore Roosevelt Association this month. The views voiced here are his alone.