the occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that 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 powers.
While the main message of the text is usually interpreted as U.S. opposition to European empire-building efforts, there is more to the text than this one point. Commenting on a revolution in Spain which produced a brief respite from absolutist rule between 1820 and 1823, and on the subsequent resumption of absolutism in Spain, Monroe adds:
It was stated at the commencement of the last session that a great effort was then making in Spain and Portugal to improve the condition of the people of those countries, and that it appeared to be conducted with extraordinary moderation. It need scarcely be remarked that the result has been so far very different from what was then anticipated. Of events in that quarter of the globe, with which we have so much intercourse and from which we derive our origin, we have always been anxious and interested spectators.
The citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellow men on that side of the Atlantic. In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do.
Sorting through the garbled syntax of the speech, Monroe seems to be saying that while many Americans were privately disappointed at the resumption of absolutist rule in Hapsburg Spain, the United States would not intervene in European matters. A war between European states, or a civil war inside a European state, would not be an occasion for U.S. military action. This is a clear and noteworthy statement by a U.S. president. Monroe goes on to specify the conditions under which the United States would mobilize its military:
It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers.
The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted.
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere, but with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained 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.
In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgment of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.
Having established then, that the United States would not interfere in a conflict between two European powers, but that it would intervene in a conflict between a European power and an American nation, Monroe explains the apparent asymmetry - why would he justify military intervention in the one case, but not the other?
The different responses which the United States would be intelligible, Monroe argues, because the European situation is remote, while the other American nations are close to, in some cases even bordering, the United States. The extent to which the other European powers chose to intervene in the situation in Spain in the early 1820s, he adds, is a matter for the private judgment of the respective nations.
The late events in Spain and Portugal shew that Europe is still unsettled. Of this important fact no stronger proof can be adduced than that the allied powers should have thought it proper, on any principle satisfactory to themselves, to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain. To what extent such interposition may be carried, on the same principle, is a question in which all independent powers whose governments differ from theirs are interested, even those most remote, and surely none more so than the United States.
Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none.
The neutrality, despite private sentiments, which the United States was able to demonstrate regarding Spain will not be demonstrated regarding nations in the western hemisphere. Any European aggression toward a nation in the two American continents will be seen not only as a threat to U.S. security, but also as a violation of the principle of self-determination, a violation of Locke's vision of a government obtaining its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, a violation of the vision of a republic with freely-elected representatives, and a violation of the principle of majority rule.
But in regard to those continents circumstances are eminently and conspicuously different. It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference. If we look to the comparative strength and resources of Spain and those new Governments, and their distance from each other, it must be obvious that she can never subdue them. It is still the true policy of the United States to leave the parties to themselves, in the hope that other powers will pursue the same course.
Thus the Monroe Doctrine not only states that the U.S. will defend other western hemisphere nations against imperialistic encroachments, but it also states that the United States will remain out of conflicts inside Europe, and it gives a justification for the distinction.
For nearly a century, this guiding principle was solidly a part of American foreign policy. That would change with the Progressive Era, as historians sometimes label the early part of the twentieth century. Speaking to Congress in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, a representative of such Progressivism, articulated a change in the Monroe Doctrine:
It is not true that the United States feels any land hunger or entertains any projects as regards the other nations of the Western Hemisphere save such as are for their welfare. All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. 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. If every country washed by the Caribbean Sea would show the progress in stable and just civilization which with the aid of the Platt Amendment Cuba has shown since our troops left the island, and which so many of the republics in both Americas are constantly and brilliantly showing, all question of interference by this Nation with their affairs would be at an end. Our interests and those of our southern neighbors are in reality identical. They have great natural riches, and if within their borders the reign of law and justice obtains, prosperity is sure to come to them. While they thus obey the primary laws of civilized society they may rest assured that they will be treated by us in a spirit of cordial and helpful sympathy. We would interfere with them only in the last resort, and then only if it became evident that their inability or unwillingness to do justice at home and abroad had violated the rights of the United States or had invited foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations. It is a mere truism to say that every nation, whether in America or anywhere else, which desires to maintain its freedom, its independence, must ultimately realize that the right of such independence can not be separated from the responsibility of making good use of it.
Roosevelt's policy innovation is, of course, famously known as the Roosevelt Corollary, although it is not, strictly speaking, a corollary. Roosevelt's stance is his own creation. A corollary is a proposition which is logically entailed by another proposition; a proposition which follows necessarily from another, already proven, proposition. Roosevelt went beyond anything implied or entailed by Monroe.
It would be President Woodrow Wilson who would explore the full possibilities in Roosevelt's brainchild. Both Roosevelt and Wilson belong to the progressivist movement, despite the fact that they were members of different political parties. The progressivists rejected the anti-imperialism put forth by William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie, and William James. This anti-imperialism appeared in the late 1890's and early 1900's, partially in the context of the aftermath of the Spanish-American War.
By contrast, the progressivists like Wilson and Roosevelt embraced an activist and internationalist foreign policy. Roosevelt argued that some situations "require intervention by some civilized nation." That nation might be the United States, and his adjective 'civilized' manifests an air of imperialistic superiority. The United States might have to be "an international police power," and, bluntly, the USA's "interference" might be both necessary and justified.
Although Roosevelt made some minor actions in central America which demonstrated his policy, Woodrow Wilson understood the far greater implications. Just as the original Monroe Doctrine shaped not only America's actions in the western hemisphere, but also America's actions elsewhere, so also, Wilson saw, Roosevelt's corollary not only opened the door for an activist policy in central America, but also an international activist intervention elsewhere in the world.
In calling for war in 1917, Wilson combined the rhetoric his audience expected to hear, the rhetoric he knew was necessary to get approval for his declaration of war, and hints at his progressivist foreign policy agenda:
The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.
Clearly, Wilson had no hesitation in assuming the role of 'international policeman' for the other countries in the world. What precisely he meant by 'liberty' and 'freedom' must be understood in light of his willingness to impose significant restrictions on free speech and his willingness to impose various planned economies and social engineering experiments on the citizens of the United States.
Wilson's embrace of Roosevelt's corollary led to U.S. involvement in WWI, to Wilson's nation-building efforts vis-a-vis Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, and to Wilson's idealistic formation of the League of Nations.
Progressivist foreign policy led to the deaths of millions in WWI, and set up the deaths of millions more in WWII.
If the U.S. exceeded its proper role, if it disrespected the sovereignty of Latin American nations, if it intervened beyond propriety - then it is because of Wilson's stretching of Roosevelt's corollary to its outer limits.
After the bitter experiences of two worlds wars, a failed effort at isolationism between them, and the start of the Cold War after them, President Harry Truman worked to define a new direction for U.S. foreign policy. The progressivism of Woodrow Wilson was a failure. In March 1947, as overt and covert Soviet efforts threatened Greece and Turkey, Truman enunciated his policy:
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion. This was a fundamental issue in the war with Germany and Japan. Our victory was won over countries which sought to impose their will, and their way of life, upon other nations.
To ensure the peaceful development of nations, free from coercion, the United States has taken a leading part in establishing the United Nations. The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed upon free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.
The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation, in violation of the Yalta agreement, in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments.
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.
One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.
The Truman Doctrine, as it came to be known, can perhaps be seen as a moderation of progressivist foreign policy. While going beyond the Monroe Doctrine in allowing U.S. involvement overseas, it curbed the imperialism and adventurism of Wilson's willingness to consider U.S. involvement nearly anywhere for nearly any reason.
Truman's criteria for intervention seem to be narrower than Wilson's. Truman works to give some definition to his concept of freedom, creating at least some notion of the test for whether or not intervention is appropriate in any given concrete situation. By contrast, Wilson seemed willing to intervene overseas motivated either by the domestic political opportunities created by foreign wars, or by the desire to impose a progressivist internationalist framework on the nations of the world, or by a sheer desire for adventurism.
Specifically, Truman argued that the U.S. should respond against aggression, whereas Wilson did not restrict himself in this way, i.e., Wilson would be willing to consider intervention even in the absence of aggression. The complex political dynamics which led to the start of WWI forestall any simplistic analysis in which one nation is cast as an aggressor and the other as victim. The Cold War, on the other hand, was a clear case of ambition on the part of the USSR over against smaller nations of eastern Europe.
Unlike Wilson's enthusiastic romp into WWI, motivated at least in part by his notion that a foreign war would give him prerogatives in implementing his domestic policies, Truman's 1947 announcement of his doctrine was directly motivated by geopolitical realities. As Charles Krauthammer writes:
In March 1947, with Greece in danger of collapse from a Soviet-backed insurgency and Turkey under direct Russian pressure, President Truman went to Congress for major and immediate economic and military aid to both countries.
More than sixty years later, Secretary of State John Kerry would attempt to adjust U.S. foreign policy again, with a statement about the Monroe doctrine. In November 2013, he said:
When people speak of the Western Hemisphere, they often talk about transformations that have taken place, but the truth is one of the biggest transformations has happened right here in the United States of America. In the early days of our republic, the United States made a choice about its relationship with Latin America. President James Monroe, who was also a former Secretary of State, declared that the United States would unilaterally, and as a matter of fact, act as the protector of the region. The doctrine that bears his name asserted our authority to step in and oppose the influence of European powers in Latin America. And throughout our nation’s history, successive presidents have reinforced that doctrine and made a similar choice. Today, however, we have made a different choice. The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.
Careful analysis shows that Kerry cannot have meant what he said, and that he cannot have said what he meant. A latecomer to the Obama administration, Kerry is inheriting a policy which might be described, not as ending the Monroe Doctrine, but rather going even farther in the same direction as the Monroe Doctrine. The Obama administration has worked to change the status of the Falkland Islands. Under the original understanding of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States was content to allow England to retain the Falklands, because the islands did not represent an imperialistic expansion on the part of Britain, but rather were already long-held and long-established British holdings by the time President Monroe issued his statement. The Monroe Doctrine was designed to keep European powers from barging into the New World and claiming territory as colonies. The Monroe Doctrine is content to allow nations from outside the western hemisphere to retain their already established holdings. Monroe was interesting in prevented new acquisitions, not in confiscating old ones.
The Obama administration, however, is attempting to transfer ownership of the Falklands from the English to the Argentinians. Although most of the administration's actions on this topic occurred before Kerry became Secretary of State, Kerry is still carrying the flag of the administration. The administration not only retains the Monroe Doctrine, but goes much further and embraces the much more interventionist and activist Roosevelt corollary. Kerry continued his statement:
The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It’s about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.
A clearer insight into the Kerry/Obama foreign policy can be gained to ascending to a broader global level. The Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary, and the Truman Doctrine are neither sincerely embraced nor sincerely rejected by Obama; instead, they are used or ignored depending on the policy needs of a higher order.
At the macro level, one of Obama's foreign policy goals is to weaken the USA's relations with its allies: recall the incident in which he rejected the bust of Winston Churchill. Another goal is to weaken those allies themselves: hence the desire to pry the Falklands from England. A final goal is to weaken the United States: in part by means of the first two goals, in part by relinquishing power and failing to project an image of power, and in part by a self-abasing rhetoric.
In the service of these goals, which are the core of Obama's global vision, the historic foreign policy doctrines of the United States are mere tools, to be used, reinterpreted, misinterpreted, or discarded in the service of dismantling a reliable diplomatic structure. While Obama and Kerry may have some acquaintance with the Monroe Doctrine, neither cares about it.