Eugene, April 9, 2014 (Alochonaa): In Bangladeshi foreign affairs discussions, the historical term “Monroe Doctrine” appears quite regularly. The term has special significance in the Bangladeshi foreign policy community because our small country is placed snugly in the lap of an aspiring global power. The ‘Monroe Doctrine’ has a wholly negative connotation to its users and readers in Bangladesh. It is known as an early 19th century American imperialistic proclamation that declared the western hemisphere, North and South America, as America’s own backyard and warned European powers to desist from any interference in the countries of that part of the globe. With perceived emphasis on ‘backyard’, the doctrine and its architects are regarded as the epitome of US imperialism and arrogance.
As there is a wide perception that India has assertively influenced the political course of Bangladesh in 2013-14 and thwarted interference of Western powers, the term Monroe Doctrine is probably going to be invoked with increased frequency in the coming days. But contemporary users of this geopolitical term greatly misunderstand the context, the formulation and evolution of this doctrine. The doctrine famously proclaimed in 1823 by the fifth president of the USA, James Monroe, was actually a declaration of anti-colonialism and freedom for newly independent countries of Latin America. A short lesson in its history may be illuminating to foreign affair enthusiasts.
Students of colonial history know that the most important factor that precipitated the great decolonization wave in the second half of 20th century creating all these independent countries in Asia and Africa was the two World Wars. World War I and II so greatly weakened already declining colonial powers like Britain, France and Holland that they had no means to hold onto their colonial possessions. A similar decolonization wave happened in the Americas when the great wars of 19th century, the Napoleonic wars, fatally weakened two declining empires of that time – the Spanish and Portuguese empires.
Inspired by the American War of Independence (1775-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99), the politically restive people of different Latin colonies were already thirsting for freedom from their distant European overlords. While Europe was gripped with the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte, Latin American leaders and people seized the chance and began their struggle for independence. The island country of Haiti was first to revolt and, after a long war, gained independence from France in 1804. Uprisings spread from country to country and, by 1810, revolution spread throughout South America. Historically known as the Latin American Wars of Independence, these freedom struggles were long, hard and full of twists and turns. By 1820 most of the countries were independent or were in the process of becoming so.
After the defeat of Napoleon, the Spanish monarchy was restored and the old European powers conspired to get some of the rebel American colonies back into their empires’ fold. Although it was clearly never practical for weakened powers like Spain or France to regain all their former imperial possessions they did harbor ambitions for reasserting economic and political influence in many places. The counter-revolution to crush independence movements was also still ongoing, whilst Russia, a big victor of Napoleonic Wars, claimed the whole Pacific seaboard of North America as its exclusive area.
The United States was very wary of European colonial powers re-exerting influence in the Western Hemisphere. An ex-colony itself, US popular sentiment was very much against more European colonialism. Also, US wanted to develop trade and business relationship with newly independent countries, a relationship which was previously hard to build because of protectionist colonial policies.
First enunciated in December, 1923, the Monroe doctrine is basically a very progressive and benevolent declaration. Its basic principles were that US would not interfere in the internal affairs of or the wars between European powers; the Western Hemisphere was closed to future European colonization; and any attempt by a European power to oppress or control any nation in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as a hostile act against the United States. The declaration said, ” with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain 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”.
It is essential to know that the new nations of South America welcomed the Monroe declaration wholeheartedly. Revolutionary leaders like Simon Bolivar openly embraced this offer of protective shelter by the USA. But both U.S. and Latin American leaders knew that in 1820’s America did not have sufficient naval and military power to enforce such a doctrine. It was closer to a bluff than an assertion. Fortunately, Britain, the world’s premier naval power, also wanted South America free from protectionist colonial powers so that it could trade freely. The British Navy was the instrument that helped enforce the doctrine in 19th century.
The progressive origin of Monroe Doctrine doesn’t mean that the current negative reputation is wholly undeserved. By the end of 19th century the U.S. was a world power and its major companies were dominating trade throughout the Americas. The U.S. intervened in different Latin American countries many times with different pretexts. Reflecting the new American mood, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, asserting that United States has right to intervene in Latin America in cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation”. The Roosevelt Corollary essentially turned Monroe Doctrine on its head; in place of seeking to stop the imperial designs of European powers in Latin America, it declared America’s intention to take their place.
It is interesting to compare the role America played during the post-Napoleonic wave of anti-colonialism and the post-Second World war anti-colonialism. During WWII in 1941, America took lead in declaring the Atlantic Charter, the declaration codifying the aims of allied nations fighting against rapacious tyranny of Axis powers. The most important part of the charter was that it proclaimed all nations and all people have right of self-determination. The British and the French tried to insist that this right of self determination do not apply to their colonies in Asia and Africa but Franklin Roosevelt and American people was insistent that America would not shed blood to save European colonies. The American insistence on anti-colonialism played a large part in British and French withdrawal from many parts of Asia, Africa and Middle East after the end of war.
USA lost the moral guidance of the Atlantic charter when the Cold War with Soviet Union started of a worldwide confrontation. In trying to fight the bogeyman of communism, USA often took side of colonial and anti-democratic regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These confrontations with nationalist forces, most illustratively in Vietnam, have tainted USA in the third world as an arch imperialist to this day.
However much the Monroe Doctrine was later tarnished by U.S. imperialism in South America, we should remember that, originally, the Doctrine and its namesake had very wholesome motives. The newly independent countries heartily welcomed the protective umbrella that the Doctrine provided. Before using the term ‘Monroe Doctrine’ to describe current geopolitical situations, in both near and far neighborhoods, the users should ponder whether subject countries now welcome their ‘protectors.’ If not, it isn’t really a Monroe Doctrine at all, it’s just Theodore Roosevelt-style imperialism.
* Shafiqur Rahman is currently pursuing a PhD in Operations Management in the USA. He obtained an MBA and a Masters degree from Penn State University. Prior to that he was an engineering student in his home country, Bangladesh. Rahman worked in the technology and trade sector for ten years before becoming a PhD researcher.
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