James Monroe's Presidency

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Was the Monroe Doctrine a justifiable policy for the United States?

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It's important to view the Monroe Doctrine in the context of its time. First stated in 1823, it declared that the United States would not tolerate European nations making further colonial inroads in the Western Hemisphere (and setting up in the Americas a U.S. zone of influence). From the perspective of Nineteenth Century statecraft, this sort of foreign policy was not entirely unreasonable on its own merits—European Great Powers were unapologetic when it came to monopolizing their own territorial interests and zones of influence after all. What complicated things, however, and what (from a European perspective) would have made it more unreasonable, was the simple reality that, during early nineteenth century, the United States had very little real political capital to spend in support of that claim. Ultimately, you must keep in mind that the U.S. at this point in time was still a fledgling nation, and it therefore lacked the political clout necessary for European nations to take this kind of policy claim seriously.

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In theory, the Monroe Doctrine was much more justifiable than in practice.  In addition, it was a much more justifiable policy in the context of the 19th century than it seems today.

On its face, the Monroe Doctrine is eminently justifiable.  All that it says is that European countries should not come in and try to colonize the newly independent countries of Latin America.  It does not say that the United States should be able to dominate those countries or to interfere in their affairs.  This is completely justifiable.  However, the doctrine has been used to justify US interference in the affairs of other countries.  It has even been used to justify occupations of those countries.  This is much less justifiable.

We must also note, however, that such domination of other countries was far from rare in the 1800s.  While such actions would be met with great disapproval today, they were commonplace in their time.  Therefore, we should be at least somewhat careful about saying the policy was unjustifiable since that involves imposing our values and attitudes from today on people from the past.

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Was the Monroe Doctrine a reasonable policy for the United States?

There are at least two ways in which to look at this question.

We can ask if it was a reasonable policy in terms of the United States’ ability to back it up at the time that it was issued.  If we look at it like that, it was not a reasonable policy.  The reason for this is that the US was not a very strong country at that time.  If a truly strong European country (England, for example) had wanted to colonize a Latin American country in 1820, there was no way that the United States was going to be able to stop them.  Issuing a policy that you cannot enforce does not seem reasonable.

A second way to look at this question is to ask if it was reasonable for the United States to want to keep European countries from colonizing independent countries in the Western Hemisphere.  Most people would say that this was a reasonable goal for the US.  The US had been founded on the idea that countries should be able to break away from colonial masters and rule themselves.  It was reasonable for the US to want other countries in its region to be able to do the same.

Therefore, this policy can be seen as reasonable or unreasonable, depending on how you look at it.

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