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Altruism or Self-Interest?

The Monroe Doctrine and American superpower.

9:16 AM, Mar 24, 2011 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The Monroe Doctrine
Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America
by Jay Sexton
Hill and Wang, 304 pp., $27

The Monroe Doctrine was a parenthetical item inserted in President James Monroe's 1823 message to Congress. Drafted by a committee that included Monroe, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, it declared opposition to colonial expansion in the Americas, and has proved the most enduring "doctrine" in two centuries of American statecraft.

From the American standpoint, the Monroe Doctrine has proved both durable and principled. It has survived as the United States developed into the premier power in the Western Hemisphere--and, in due course, the world--and it has protected the American republic from foreign encroachment, from the immediate post-Napoleonic age to the era of the Fidelistas and Sandinistas and Hugo Chavez. Since the 1820s no European power has seriously challenged American supremacy in this hemisphere, and the Doctrine has been consistently invoked in American relations (and confrontations) with foreign powers ranging from Victorian England to Soviet Russia. The great diplomatic historian Dexter Perkins titled his (1929) abridged account of the Doctrine Hands Off--and rightly so.

Such self-evident success, of course, invites a certain measure of skepticism, and a young Oxford historian here relates the history of the Doctrine with a certain clinical (and cynical) detachment. The Doctrine, argues Jay Sexton, not only establishes the American purpose but, hidden behind principle, advances American interests. Indeed, as he demonstrates, the Monroe Doctrine has been so usefully and consistently invoked on the long road to superpower that it has achieved mythological status--with the emphasis, in Professor Sexton's view, on myth. This is not unfair. Just as a self-described missionary impulse helped the British Empire gain dominion over palm and pine, the sacred tenets of the Monroe Doctrine have disguised American ambition in the cloak of self-defense, moral principle, and righteousness.

Fair enough. The only argument to be made here is that Professor Sexton is not the first foreign observer to discern self-interest in American altruism, and some of the severest critics of the use and misuse of the Doctrine--especially at the time of the Spanish-American War--have been Americans, in and out of the academy. I should emphasize, however, that The Monroe Doctrine is not a polemic: Professor Sexton is thoroughly objective in his account of the growth of American power, and his careful dissection of the substance of the Doctrine, and the way it has been pulled and stretched over time for the sake of political expediency and empire-building, is discerning and even-handed.

Having said that, this is also a first-rate, comparatively brief, and comprehensive introduction to a subject that is, at once, pertinent and fascinating. The Monroe Doctrine, and its application over time, teaches us a lot about the growth of the American republic. It also tells us something about American and European statecraft, the art of diplomacy, the extent to which mythology informs realpolitik, and right or wrong, the enduring value of our nation's founding principles.

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