The Monroe Doctrine: Modernity in Multiple Idioms

Among the thousands and thousands of well-written books about the undying fallacy of man’s fight to rule, subjugate and dominate, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is another brilliant account of bloodshed, suffering, famine and destruction driven by the quest to conquer and dominate lands and people—initially through inter-tribal warfare, and later through international politics, commerce and culture. The first conclusion of a close examination of books such as this is that, although our era seems to be replete with rocket science and high-tech innovation, we continue to be driven by our basic instincts to extend our influence over new regions beyond our national borders, anchoring all-embracing interests and scrutinizing matters by ‘looking from outside world to the inside’. This global urge to further national interests by wielding various unilateral (and frequently blunt) tools in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ exercises of power has always been cloaked in a variety of fancy geopolitical concepts—but very few of these have been applied as persistently and irresistibly throughout the history of humanity as those that focus upon geography-driven consequences. The basic instincts of ‘making the world to go round’ therefore remain as powerful as ever. This brings us to re-examine the Monroe Doctrine, heavily marked as it is by the urge to delineate, by force or persuasion, lands that ‘belong to us’ and that may not be crossed by others without our approval.

The Monroe Doctrine: Rehearsing for the Sake of Order

In very basic terms, the Monroe Doctrine is about using all the political, economic and military capabilities at one’s disposal to create a favourable security environment in a given territory and to drive unwelcome powers out and keep them away. Essentially, the doctrine and its iterations are aimed at accepting someone’s hegemony over a specific territory. Yet besides the ‘benevolent’ nature of such hegemony, which is now widely criticized by those in favour of revising international law, a less critical view of ‘drawing lines in the sand’ holds that, if anything, it helps to reign in rivalry in contested areas of the world, to avoid armed conflict and to preserve a semblance of order. The modern Monroe Doctrine can easily be attributed to the repeated aftershocks of the post-Cold War era and to profound shifts in the global security system. The fact that the doctrine’s facade is constantly renovated is also due to the fact that international law is unable to effectively address the challenges and answer the clamours of our deeply fragmented world.

The origins of the doctrine, whose advocates called for the international system to be updated in order to reflect new geopolitical realities, were already discernible at the outbreak of the War of 1812 that opposed the United States and the United Kingdom, but the doctrine itself only took shape in 1832, when U.S. President James Monroe declared during an annual message to Congress that the American continents were off-limits for foreign colonisation. Practically speaking, however, the doctrine warned European powers not to attempt to influence the balance of power in the countries of the vast area surrounding the United States, and not to resist ‘the divinely ordained spread of principles of liberty’ therein.

This theory of hegemony and zones of influence has undergone a series of transformations. Some of these (e.g. the Roosevelt Corollary in support of ‘intervening pre-emptively’ when needed, or Woodrow Wilson’s notion of ‘America as the World’s Conscience’) were the result of policies adopted by various American governments, whereas others were dictated by the devastating effects of the two world wars, the enduring legacy of the Cold War and the great ambivalence of our current ‘World Order 2.0’. The latter issue is perhaps the most pressing, as it is steadily upending the equilibrium we all knew and tilting the balance of power towards chaos and conflict. More interestingly, this process is usually driven in one way or another by the powerful combination of policy-making and territorial gain or geographical dominance—and all this, in turn, forces us to reinterpret the Monroe Doctrine according to different circumstances and priorities. To rephrase Theodore Roosevelt’s proverb, let us focus a bit on how various states are currently using this approach to ‘speak softly’ (does it?) while ‘carrying a big stick’ in different regions of the globe.

Modern “Monroe-ans” (In a Sense)

In our era, too, the Monroe Doctrine continues to be popular—under different names and policy concepts, of course. Its longevity and renewed impetus are, however, largely due to the ‘moment of truth’ in global politics in terms of who will set the rules of the global order in this century. The number of actors claiming to contribute (mostly on a regional scale) is limited, but the ones buckling themselves into the front seats of the new global ‘coming soon’ security logarithm are undoubtedly the U.S. and China. Both are currently engaged in a blossoming trade war (luckily just ‘trade’ for the time being), but China’s assertive revisionism is beginning to chip away at America’s historically preordained hegemonic geography, knocking off small pieces here and there but also some relatively big chunks. The Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC in 2018 characterises China’s policies in the initial two decades of the 21st century as a ‘period of strategic opportunity’ leading to the expansion of Beijing’s ‘comprehensive national power’. Currently, this comprehensiveness is arguably uncontested (or still insufficiently deterred) in China’s regional maritime outposts in the Spratly Islands, but those in favour of increasing Chinese clout within the framework of a national Monroe Doctrine are extending their claims to the South China Sea and maintaining the country’s presence in the Senkaku Islands. June 2017 saw a heightened military standoff between China and India over plans to extend a road in territory disputed with Bhutan near the Indian border, not to mention the constant tension with Taiwan which is one of the conceptual premises of President Xi’s ‘dream of national rejuvenation’. All in all, the Chinese Communist Party does not shy away from using coercive measures (both military and non-military) to further its interests in the region and weaken opposition from other countries—an approach which clearly corresponds to the gist of the Monroe Doctrine, albeit with a Chinese accent—and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness is even stronger in regions far beyond the borders of mainland China. That said, one should not draw too many parallels between the policies China pursues vis-à-vis her littoral neighbours and those she pursues within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): the latter is quite a different scenario in which China’s aim is to leverage her growing dominance by aligning the interests of BRI countries with her own and mitigating confrontation or criticism of her approach to a variety of sensitive issues. The BRI’s various policies may not, however, appear as soothing to various critics in the West or Russia—which is hardly surprising when one considers the fact that the ‘comprehensiveness’ of Chinese national power along the BRI’s path is not due to the economic dependence of various countries, but instead to Beijing potentially requiring access to selected foreign ports in order to pre-position logistical facilities and support. Such logistics are vital to China’s ability to perform long-range naval operations in order to safeguard the routes along which she imports her energy. In August 2017, for example, China officially opened her first overseas military base in Djibouti.

Regardless of official statements on entrenchment being the lodestar of U.S. foreign policy under Obama, and on the extreme selectiveness of U.S. engagement abroad under Trump (‘America First’), there is no doubt that America, as Stephen M. Walt shrewdly pointed out, is still ‘the 800-pound gorilla in the international system’. We quite agree, but would also add that Washington will most likely enjoy this unique position for decades to come thanks to America’s potent economic and military resources, as well as to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson’s liberal interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine—intervening whenever necessary to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ while having neither ‘selfish ends to serve’ nor the desire to conquer and dominate (‘we are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind’). This new diplomacy was further deepened during the Second World War and its aftermath, making it much harder for the current administration (and subsequent ones) to successfully disentangle the country from acting as ‘the world’s policeman’. And besides, even if America’s military and diplomatic retreat is maintained (which is hardly achievable and contradicted by many examples, even under the Trump presidency), there is a further element of the existing world order which is impossible to discard: U.S. dominance of the global economy. Even if Washington abandons its status of an ‘indispensable nation’ and continues to pursue the goal of ‘offshore balancing’ (i.e. relying on local allies and using its own forces as a last resort), the fractures this would cause to the global security architecture would be compensated to varying degrees and limits.

We have already extensively discussed Russia’s stance, acting at loggerheads with her rivals, in some previous articles. Briefly, Moscow draws the lines of its own ‘benevolent hegemony’ first and foremost in Eurasia, a vast area in which Russia’s zero-sum game is driven by a plethora of standalone or combined options—from direct and undisguised military coercion (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea) to ‘collective’ political (e.g. CIS) and security (e.g. CSTO) initiatives, even unto hybrid wars (Donbass). Russia’s ‘Monroean’ strategy is naturally more vivid close to her borders (the Kremlin’s ‘near neighbourhood’) than in regions further afield (e.g. Syria), where interventions mainly serve to demonstrate or acquire ‘influence’ over world affairs. Yet when speaking of such influence, it is also worth remembering that merely possessing it without knowing how to wield it is not always necessarily a force for good. Intervention is often no more than a means of seeking ‘recognition’. Given Russia’s economic and demographic problems, the country can be no more than a ‘near peer’ to the West—but being a ‘peer’ requires achieving a state of normalcy, a notion which Moscow finds hard to grasp internally. In any case, while the U.S. still have allies, Russia and the like merely have clients and scared neighbours, and Russian Monroe-style policies, although broad in statement, are (thankfully) restricted to adjacent territories in practice.

As we mentioned, the scope of this short article is restricted to those states that are writing the global rulebook. This does not mean that others do not contribute to the process, but their input is largely limited to a purely regional context (e.g. Japan and China in the East China Sea, or Saudi Arabia vs. Iran in the Gulf) or acts as a conduit for the interests of their allies (e.g. India and the US vs. China), and only major international shifts could give their voices a truly global significance.

Georgia vs. the Rise of Great Rivalries

Georgia has unquestionably held its course tenaciously over the past two decades. This course essentially reflects our stated foreign policy priorities and efforts to increase the transparency and accountability of our domestic political system, which is in turn based upon a truly open, competitive and inclusive economy.

Grand global rivalries are on the rise nowadays, and there are no signs that this trend will abate any time soon. This poses a critical question in terms of Georgia’s positioning within the expanding network of modern Monroe admirers: in a nutshell, how can the country make sure it is in the right place, ensuring it is at the confluence of favourable circumstances and will not be ‘run over’? This requires greater security. What is becoming obvious (although may still be disputed by some) is that strategic complacency and an appearance of idleness are detrimental to national security. Georgia must capitalize upon developments in the region and beyond—particularly given the advances made by certain major powers fuelled by expansionist and revisionist polices. One of these major developments is NATO’s shift towards the Black Sea region, as expressed in the Brussels Summit Declaration and the NATO-Georgia Commission Declaration referring to various instruments for closer co-operation. Another possible arena in which Georgia’s rapprochement with the Alliance could be accelerated is the Middle East, a region in which the country could play a much more important role: compared to its neighbours, whose foreign policies have been hard to comprehend over the past few years, Tbilisi offers its allies a much more reliable anchor in the neighbourhood. All things considered, the way the international winds and gales are blowing makes it hard to foresee the future chapters of our world, but it is Georgia’s duty to ensure that the country maintains its presence on the international stage.

By Victor Kipiani

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