Does anyone remember the Monroe Doctrine?

By Paul Fallavollita
web posted April 24, 2000

For much of its history, the United States has been reputed to be in a safe geographic location, situated between two oceans on its east and west and two placid countries to its north and south. America was isolated from the tumultuous struggles that had for centuries taken place in Europe and Asia. America enjoyed the freedom to unilaterally choose when and where she would fight, and on her own terms.

But in recent days, dark clouds have blown over our sunny American paradise. Canada balked at our proposed national anti-ballistic missile defense system, making it an issue in the renewal of the bilateral NORAD air defense treaty that protected us during the Cold War years. On our southern border, Mexican army personnel engaged in a shoot-out with agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, each believing the other was violating the border. The Mexicans ultimately admitted they were at fault, claiming they believed the U.S. agents were drug smugglers. Further south, reports of Chinese-owned companies gaining influence and control of the strategic Panama Canal, built with American blood and treasure, threaten to undermine the sense of security Americans had as the premier denizens of the Western Hemisphere.

These events prompt one question by some observers: whatever happened to the Monroe Doctrine? One wonders if the Monroe Doctrine is a concept seriously taught to American students anymore, or worse, whether it is even taken seriously by American policy makers. The Monroe Doctrine was first enunciated in 1823 by President James Monroe and established that the powers of Europe were permanently barred from interfering in the Western Hemisphere. The basis for American security was solidified by the Monroe Doctrine, and it served Americans well.

Following the First World War, the tradition created by the Monroe Doctrine led the U.S. Congress to reject American entry into the League of Nations, precursor to today's UN, on the grounds that it would impede American freedom to determine its own destiny and defend itself on its own terms. Today, American policymakers such as Strobe Talbott have turned this venerable tradition on its head, announcing that the days of the nation-state are over, celebrating not mere American participation in the "new world order," but the total absorption of America into it.

The natural corollary to the Monroe Doctrine is the concept that America is the master of her own backyard-the Western Hemisphere. Yet, as the Canadians and Mexicans have demonstrated, America is now hemmed-in on both borders. These two formerly placid nations have now become embarrassing obstructions. The Canadians browbeat America with the neo-Wilsonian rhetoric of maintaining treaty obligations with a Soviet Union that no longer exists, and the Mexicans unwittingly threaten American lawmen as they attempt to police the porous border, making a caricature of both law and sovereignty. If we continue on our present course, we will be completely disconnected from our past and our future. The sacred chain of those who came before, those who live now, and those generations who will follow us will be broken, as that great philosopher Edmund Burke taught us.

The road to recovery of the geographical advantage that America has been given lies largely in a reassertion of the national will. Such a thing, of course, is easier said than done. Americans not only have to rediscover what the Monroe Doctrine means intellectually, but also to feel enough of a commitment to it emotionally that it becomes a motivating tool for political change on the foreign policy scene. Most discussions of foreign policy seem to forget, or even forcibly repress, consideration of the Monroe Doctrine. Many academics today consider it, like the U.S. Constitution itself, a quaint piece of history rather than a relevant and practical guide to action. We can see in the recent news events prompted by our Canadian and Mexican neighbors the potential price Americans will pay for neglecting this aspect of their political heritage. What we all too often cannot see is the reason behind the high price.

Paul Fallavollita is currently a first-year graduate student in political science, studying international relations and political theory, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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