Must foreign policy doctrines be doctrinaire? Many scholars and practitioners decry so-called doctrines because they put policymakers into the straightjacket of a one-size-fits all strategy that is not always appropriate to a varied and changeable world. If however policymakers deviate from doctrine in the name of prudence, they are often pilloried for inconsistency and the nation loses credibility when the application of the doctrine’s principles really would serve the national interest. Other experts argue that for some nations, democracies in particular, doctrines can serve as a strategic compass—even if they do not always point to true north, they provide the basic orientation with which to navigate through the dark forests of international relations. Churchill, for instance, invoked “the wonderful unconscious tradition” of British statecraft, that is, “to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the Low Countries falling into the hands of such a Power.”

In his new book on the granddaddy of all American foreign policy doctrines, The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America, Oxford Professor Jay Sexton finds a strategic concept that seems well-nigh protean, at least as articulated by its leading advocates and practitioners. As Sexton points out, Monroe himself did not intend to set forth a unified doctrine in his Annual Message of 1823, and the major points-non-colonization, noninterference, and strategic isolationism—were made at different places in the document. Historians have long known that the policies articulated by Monroe resulted from a compromise negotiated within the cabinet, principally by Monroe, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun. Adams got his way on most (but not all) things, especially his determination to remain independent of British foreign policy and to resist London’s commercial domination of the hemisphere. Yet all recognized that the Doctrine would have to be underwritten by the Royal Navy if a strategic threat to Central and South America actually emerged. Monroe stated the Doctrine in negative terms—what the United States would oppose in the New World and what it would avoid doing in the Old—but he did not commit the United States to take any action to deal with impending or future European encroachments. Nor did he define how the views of other American states were to be taken into account. Those compromises, ambiguities, and paradoxes soon came to the surface, especially as Americans attempted to formulate a positive agenda towards the Western Hemisphere and to continue the process of nation-building while excluding foreign interference in domestic affairs. There were intense political debates over the meaning and implementation of the Doctrine and especially over a number of its controversial corollaries. In the run-up to the Civil War, arguments over the Doctrine reflected the bitter divisions among the north, south, and west and within each section (there was no single “southern” or “slaveholding” version of the Monroe Doctrine, for instance). Some statesmen attempted unsuccessfully to offer specific interpretations of the Doctrine that would help to hold the Union together. As the 20th century approached, Americans debated the degree to which the Doctrine should be expanded to include greater “responsibilities” (e.g., to manage the financial affairs of truculent regional states to prevent a pretext for European intervention) and to a greater geographical range—or whether it should be declared altogether obsolete.

The ambiguities and paradoxes never went away, as exemplified by the so-called Olney Corollary, when Secretary of State Richard Olney declared in 1895 that the United States was “practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law,” while demanding that Britain agree to American arbitration over a disputed boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. Olney’s bombastic phraseology was especially striking, coming as it did from the administration of Grover Cleveland, which had a well-deserved reputation for staunch foreign policy anti-interventionism. Yet upon closer examination, Olney’s apparent shot across Britain’s bow appears as a clever political attempt to narrow, not expand, the scope of the Doctrine against some of its most jingoistic proponents, such as Theodore Roosevelt. By proclaiming American hegemony, Olney hoped to discourage an all-out imperial scramble that would require more, not less, American intervention in Central and South America, and that would threaten to undermine limited government at home.

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Sexton’s history offers a provocative and insightful study of how foreign policy is actually shaped in a democracy—and especially how “doctrine” is not delivered in finished form on tablets from Mt. Sinai. Rather, doctrine results from a dynamic, contentious process that occurs within the executive and legislative branches and in the public arena, including both foreign policy and domestic considerations, from high matters of nation-building to electoral politics. The wheel never stops turning. Although doctrine does not provide absolute guidance, over time the interpretation of the doctrine provides a means of registering something of a workable consensus about the nation’s conception of national security. The doctrine of containment, despite its many critics and its varied interpretations, is illustrative of this point.

For a doctrine to be as enduring as that of Monroe’s, there must have been something fixed and appealing to the general public as well as to the officials who shaped it. Sexton appears to believe that the Doctrine, in the end, had a clear vector: “imperial anti-colonialism.” He writes in the revisionist tradition of historians William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber. Driven by exaggerated fears of foreign threats—often deliberately exaggerated—and by liberal capitalist ideology, Americans concluded that only by controlling the entire Western Hemisphere could the United States survive and prosper. American policymakers, especially after the difficulties of the mid-19th century, concluded that this hemispheric empire should not be the traditional one of foreign governance of territorial colonies but rather an informal empire based on less direct and expensive means of control. Policymakers debated heatedly over the means of indirect control—economic penetration being the most popular—but the end was clear.

Such an interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine is, to say the least, a bit suspect. The term “empire” is thrown around in the literature about American foreign policy with a remarkable lack of precision and discrimination. Sexton, to be fair, does not push that argument as far as some and never to the point where a reader with a different perspective cannot usefully learn from the basic narrative. That is honest history. One can easily apply a more exoteric reading of the Doctrine—that Americans were determined to exclude European strategic threats and associated non-democratic ideologies from regions proximate to the Union, where they could threaten domestic tranquility, prosperity, and physical safety.

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That said, we might dip into the story of the Monroe Doctrine to see how, and how differently, a few prominent statesmen sought to apply the Doctrine to particular situations. For instance, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Whig Senator William Seward offered extensive remarks to the Senate in 1853, in the context of debates over the future of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, which provided for Anglo-American cooperation over a potential trans-isthmian canal, and over the desirability of annexing Cuba and other territories in Central America to the Union. For Douglas, such an agreement over a prospective canal was a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Monroe Doctrine because it created an “entangling alliance” with Britain, one cleverly designed by London and the American Whigs to limit American expansion. He also criticized the compromise agreement with Britain over the delineation of the boundary in the Pacific Northwest (the Oregon Territory), negotiated by a Democratic president under Whig pressure, as another abandonment of the Doctrine. Douglas believed that the whole of North America was destined to be filled with (white) men who would enjoy equal social status with each other, their democratic liberty expressed through the exercise of popular sovereignty. Essential to this political-strategic goal was the complete freedom of action to acquire territory within the North American sphere of influence at times and places, and with means, of the United States’ own choosing. “This is an age of rapid movements and great changes…. [W]ho is authorized to say that the time will not arrive when our interests and safety may require us to possess some portion of Central America, which lies half way between our Atlantic and Pacific possessions and embraces the great water lines of communications between the two oceans?” Any self-denying ordinance reached with any European power, whether over the status of a trans-isthmian canal or the mutual non-acquisition of Cuba, was an unconscionable violation of the strictures of the Monroe Doctrine, even if that ordinance was qualified and limited in time.

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Seward, on the other hand, argued that although Cuba might be acquired in the fullness of time, this depended on the fulfillment of certain conditions, none of which obtained at the present moment. These included a genuine threat to the island by European powers, which did not exist, and that Cuba enter the Union without the taint of slavery, which was presently impossible. “Americans are a practical people, engrossed with actual business affairs, and they will not act upon abstract principles, however approved, unless there be a necessity, or at least an occasion.” The Monroe Doctrine was the right policy in the 1820s, “a sagacious discovery of the tendency of the age.” The United States had since become “the Great Continental Power of America” and as a practical matter existential European threats to American independence had ceased to be a practical concern. For that reason the United States could consider selective cooperation with Great Britain in the Western Hemisphere, such as over the control of a trans-isthmian canal, without sacrificing its strategic principles.

With the United States basically secure in the Western Hemisphere, it could now come to grips with the new tendency of the age. For Seward, this was the migration of power to the west, “on the Pacific Ocean, and its islands, and continents,” where the empire of the future lay, a commercial rather than a territorial empire. If the United States required a foreign policy doctrine, it was one to cover this new region: “disregard not France, and England, and Russia. Watch them with jealousy and baffle their designs against you…where they are to be found—on those continents and seas in the [far] east where the prize which you are contending with them for is to be found.”

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Finally, we note briefly John C. Calhoun’s views from this same period. Calhoun’s perspective is of particular interest because he was involved in the original Cabinet deliberations and, as a senator, he engaged in a cross-branch colloquy with Congressman John Quincy Adams about who was responsible for what in the document. Calhoun had become quite interested in the European Revolutions of 1848 and their implications for his view of modern politics. He wrote his famousDisquisition on Government with those events in mind, as well as the question of American expansion and security in the Western Hemisphere-above all, the security of the institution of slavery. (Although Calhoun’s Disquisitions was not published until after his death in 1850, he previewed the arguments in congressional speeches, as noted below.) In his congressional speeches over this period, Calhoun laid out one of the Disquisition‘s major themes. He bluntly criticized “the most false and dangerous of all political errors,” which was a misunderstood “hypothetical truism,” that “‘all men are born free and equal.'” Calhoun argued that that expression was literally, politically, and socially untrue; and that its inclusion in the Declaration had nothing essential to do with the justification for American independence, which was based on the violation of the established rights of British citizens.

“Liberty,” Calhoun asserted,

is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances. Instead, then, of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won—and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.


Revolutions like those of the French in 1789 or 1848, based on philosophical abstractions that viewed liberty as the beginning, rather than as the end, of civilization, were doomed to failure.

The attempt to carry into practice this, the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined.


Calhoun also saw this dangerous spirit at work when Polk invoked the Monroe Doctrine in a Message to Congress in April 1848. Polk had warned that “our own security” might require American intervention to prevent the Yucatán peninsula—then in the midst of a civil war after claiming independence from Mexico—”from becoming a colony of any European power…and at the same time to rescue the white race from extermination or expulsion from the country.” Polk cited the Doctrine to justify opposition to such a transfer and to provide humanitarian relief to the “white race.” In support of his argument Polk referenced his own 1845 emendation to the Doctrine, the so-called Polk Corollary: “We must ever maintain the principle that the people of this continent alone have the right to decide their own destiny. Should any portion of them, constituting an independent state, propose to unite themselves with our Confederacy, this will be a question for them and us to determine without any foreign imposition.”

Calhoun challenged what he regarded as Polk’s unwarranted expansion of the limited strategic purpose of Monroe’s approach. “I did hope that the experience of the Mexican war—that precipitate and rash measure, which has cost the country so dearly in blood and treasure—would have taught the Administration moderation and caution, and induced them to shun any course of policy calculated to plunge the country in a similar cost and sacrifice.” Polk was wrong in mixing “what ought to be an appeal purely to our humanity” with the threat to U.S. national security if Britain or France intervened and took possession of the Yucatán. That threat, in Calhoun’s mind, was specious. The European powers, rocked by the aftermath of revolutions of 1848 and continental rivalries, had neither the interest nor capability to intervene. And even if Britain or France did occupy the peninsula, the Yucatán did not sit astride any key shipping routes, unlike the island Cuba, for which Calhoun indicated he was prepared to fight. Calhoun attempted to pull rank, as it were, as an authority on the Monroe Doctrine. President Monroe, Calhoun said, had set forth a policy, not a doctrine—a policy confined to a particular time and place and not meant to be applied in all circumstances for all time. Polk’s Corollary, in effect, meant to Calhoun that

when any power on this continent becomes involved in internal warfare, and the weaker side chooses to make application to us for support, we are bound to give them support for fear the offer of the sovereignty of the country may be made to some other power and accepted…. It puts it in the power of other countries on this continent to make us a party to all their wars; and hence I say, if this broad interpretation be given to these declarations, we shall for ever be involved in wars.


For Calhoun, the particular case of the Yucatán also revealed certain general truths about politics and the legitimate means of political reform, whether in the Western Hemisphere or Europe. Calhoun feared that America’s attempt to apply the false principles in the Declaration of Independence would be refracted dangerously through the prism of a broadly interpreted Monroe Doctrine:

The people of Yucatán, after they threw off the Spanish yoke, acting on the idea that all men are qualified to enjoy the blessing of liberty, and ought of right to possess it, liberated the large mass of their population, consisting of aborigines in a state of ignorance and subjection, and raised them to a level with themselves, by making them citizens. The result is such as we this day witness. They were too ignorant to appreciate liberty, or exercise the rights it conferred; and instead of gratitude, they have turned round and murdered those who conferred it on them, and laid waste and devastated the country.


This pattern, unfortunately, held throughout all of Central and South America:

The white and mixed races led in casting off the yoke of Spain. They, everywhere, elevated the Indian race to an equality with themselves. It was done most imprudently, and inculcates as solemn lesson.

They conferred upon the Indians full political rights, subjecting them at the same time to unequal civil burdens. While they gave them the power of voting—the highest political power—they imposed a tax upon them exclusively of a most onerous character, so as to throw almost the whole burden of supporting the Government and the Church upon them. If the order had been reversed; if they had given them all civil rights, and dealt out to them more sparingly political rights, elevating the more intelligent, and extending the basis of suffrage as the intelligence of the Indian population increased, a very different result might have taken place…. All will, I fear, be revolutionized in turn, and the whole of them subjected to one melancholy fate, in spite of all that we can do.


Calhoun concluded:

If the white race be overthrown and Indian ascendancy established, there will be a directly opposite tendency to end in a despotic government, like that of Haiti. Perhaps a capable man may at first be elevated to power, and may govern tolerably well, but it will undoubtedly follow the course of Haiti. The tendency of power will be downwards, until it comes down to the very bottom, and end in a savage state.


For the United States to intervene in the Yucatán to try to prevent such a downward spiral, using the Monroe Doctrine as justification, was difficult if not impossible even if it was a one-off affair. Calhoun feared however that it would set a dangerous precedent for further interventions throughout Spanish America. “The first duty of every nation is to itself—and such is the case preeminently with the United States,” Calhoun insisted.

They owe a high duty to themselves—to pursue a line of policy which will secure their liberty. The success of their great political system will be of infinitely more service to mankind than the security of the ascendency of the white race in the southern portion of this continent, however important that may be…. [W]hile I see the greatest reason for caution, I think this Government, upon all occasions, ought to give encouragement and countenance, as far as it can with safety, to the ascendency of the white race—that it ought to be the guardian of civilization, progress, and liberty of this continent, in reference to those portions of it where they are exposed to this danger. I will not say that in no case should we ever give them military aid, but for a case to justify this, it must be an extraordinary one, and to be judged of by its intrinsic merits, and not judged by a general rule.


It is perhaps worth reflecting that Calhoun’s “doctrine” of American non-interventionism was not based on the liberalism of the Declaration, as is often the case, but on quite the opposite grounds. Thus the complexity of doctrine.