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The Monroe Doctrine and the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute

James Holmes correctly describes [1] the Monroe Doctrine, and distinguishes it from Chinese maritime claims:

Far from being a writ for American meddling, the Monroe Doctrine was popular in Latin America for decades following its inception. Why wouldn’t it be? It was a declaration that Europeans could keep their holdings in the New World but not expand them. It was a kind of ratchet. Once Latin American republics had wrested their independence from the great empires, it was permanent. Washington vowed to construe any effort to restore imperial control of American states – whether direct or by proxy – as an unfriendly act toward the United States. Few in Central or South America objected to a strong neighbor’s guaranteeing their independence against extraregional predators.

Quite right. I suspect one of the reasons that someone might liken current Chinese claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere with the Monroe Doctrine is that many Americans have a very warped and inaccurate understanding [2] of what [3] the [4] Monroe Doctrine [5] originally was [6]. Because of Teddy Roosevelt’s later perversion of the doctrine, it is usually misconstrued as a license for American domination and interference in the affairs of America’s neighbors, but this was exactly the opposite of what Monroe proposed.

Holmes mentions President Cleveland’s involvement in the Venezuelan boundary dispute as the beginning of increased U.S. meddling in Latin America, which is partly right but also potentially misleading. Cleveland’s view of the boundary dispute was informed by his own anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist convictions. As Cleveland saw it, the disagreement over the location of the border between British Guyana and Venezuela was an opportunity for a European power to take advantage of a weaker republic. In theory, this was exactly the sort of dispute to which the original Monroe Doctrine applied. As it happened, the U.S. realized that the boundary dispute was’t such a clear-cut case of British perfidy, and then the boundary dispute was resolved through arbitration, which was actually what Cleveland had wanted from the beginning. The far more serious distortions of the Monroe Doctrine came later under Roosevelt.

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5 Comments To "The Monroe Doctrine and the Venezuelan Boundary Dispute"

#1 Comment By James Canning On June 20, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

The Monroe Doctrine was based on the position of the British Foreign Secretary, George Canning. He said France or other European powers would not be permitted to try to retake any of the portions of the Spanish empire that had gained independence.

#2 Comment By Alan Vanneman On June 20, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

If you read English histories of the late 19th century, you’ll find that the English found Cleveland’s decision to insert the U.S. as “fact-finder” for the dispute enormously offensive, and largely motivated by a desire to “twist the lion’s tail,” as the saying went back then, to curry favor with Irish voters and other disreputable types.

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On June 20, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

Of course they were offended. Our involvement in the dispute was unnecessary and provocative. We were interfering in something that wasn’t really any of our business. Stoking anti-British feeling was always useful then, especially for Democratic politicians, and not just because of the Irish. There was a general anti-British mood that Cleveland was tapping into at the time, which continued on after the dispute was resolved and took the form of strong American sympathy for the Afrikaners during the South African War.

#4 Comment By JonF On June 20, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

Were the Republican anglophiles by that time? They certainly were not a few years earlier when the British “tilt” toward the CSA was a source of anger. Grant’s willingness to settle claims peacefully with Britain was resented in his own party,

#5 Comment By James Canning On June 21, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

JonF – – The Republicans played a trick on the British ambassador in Washington, during the 1888 presidential content. Cleveland liked the ambassador (Lord Sackville), but was forced to demand his recall (which ruined Sackville’s career). Both parties pandered to the Irish-American voters – – out of necessity. By “Irish-American” I mean Irish Catholic.