Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat to serve as president in the second half of the 19th century, and he was arguably the last conservative Democratic president in U.S. history. But what made him a truly remarkable and admirable figure was his opposition to European imperialism throughout his career. Cleveland’s foreign policy was in many respects very traditional, but what set him apart from his contemporaries, and many of his predecessors, was his willingness to employ American power in a limited way for anti-imperialist ends.

Foreign policy was not a major part of the first of Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, although between 1886 and 1888 he successfully countered German ambitions in the South Pacific to take control of Samoa—risking diplomatic rupture with a great power over a place where no major U.S. interests were at stake. Upon entering office the second time, Cleveland delayed but ultimately could not prevent the annexation of Hawaii, which the outgoing Harrison administration had been eager to realize.

Following an 1893 coup by American settlers against the native Hawaiian government, Benjamin Harrison had tried to rush an annexation treaty through the Senate during his last days as president. Cleveland withdrew the treaty and tried to find some way to repair the damage that the annexationists had done. But nothing short of direct intervention against the coup government could restore the status quo ante, and that was something Cleveland could not and would not attempt.

Cleveland had more success when he came to the defense of Venezuela in a boundary dispute with Great Britain’s colony in Guyana, a move that briefly increased tensions between London and Washington. Resolving the dispute paved the way for a long-term improvement in relations between the U.S. and Great Britain—though it did so by expanding the scope of the Monroe Doctrine beyond what its authors had originally intended.

The impasse between Venezuela and Britain was by far the most significant international episode in Cleveland’s second term, and at first glance his decision to involve the U.S. seems hard to understand. Strictly speaking, the Monroe Doctrine didn’t apply since the disagreement didn’t touch on Venezuela’s form of government or its ability to govern itself. Cleveland was bending the letter of Monroe’s statement—which had said, “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 trying to preserve its spirit.

Britain initially rejected the administration’s offer to mediate, leading Cleveland to make the dispute a high-profile issue in 1895. Cleveland and Secretary of State Richard Olney linked it directly to the Monroe Doctrine’s guarantee of independence and sovereignty for the Latin American republics, and for a short time it seemed possible that Britain and America might go to war over the issue.

Of course, Cleveland had no intention of plunging the U.S. into an unwinnable war against the preeminent military power of his day. But he also wasn’t content to ignore European colonial expansionism in the Western Hemisphere. As Cleveland saw it, the possibility that Britain was taking advantage of a weaker state to establish a boundary favorable to its interests was an intolerable intrusion into the sovereignty of a fellow republic by a major European state. The disparity in power between the disputants, and Britain’s colonial projects elsewhere during this same period, led Cleveland to be extremely suspicious of British goals.

March/April 2013No less important for Cleveland than this interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine was his faith in arbitration as a mechanism for resolving international disputes. Cleveland saw an obvious role here for the United States, as the world’s greatest neutral republic, but he also placed great importance on arbitration as a means of avoiding war. Fortunately for all parties, Britain wished to avoid conflict over the Venezuelan issue as well. In 1897, Britain and Venezuela signed a treaty in Washington agreeing to submit to arbitration, and by late 1899 the dispute had been resolved. Venezuela was a test case for the American use of arbitration, and Cleveland hoped it would establish a precedent to be followed by his successors and other nations.

His aversion to unnecessary military conflicts was most obvious in his reaction to the war fever that erupted in 1898, the year after he left office. As Alyn Brodsky recounts in Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character, he believed it would be “an outrage to declare war” on Spain even after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, and he ridiculed the yellow journalism that clamored for bloodshed. “I decline to allow my sorrow for those who died on the Maine to be perverted to an advertising scheme for the New York Journal,” he said. After the war, Cleveland objected strongly to the idea that the U.S. should annex the Philippines and joined the Anti-Imperialist League to protest against that move and America’s subsequent war against the Filipinos.

Cleveland followed the admonitions of the Founding generation against foreign entanglements and in favor of a policy of non-interference and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. But he also pursued a more activist course in opposing European and U.S. colonial schemes than any president had before him. The results were mixed, but they remain an instructive example how a powerful republic might conduct its foreign policy without the constant recourse to military action to which we have become accustomed in the modern era.

Daniel Larison blogs at www.theamericanconservative.com/larison.