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From Isolation to Leadership


THE Monroe Doctrine and the policy of political isolation are two phases of American diplomacy so closely related that very few writers appear to draw any distinction between them. The Monroe Doctrine was in its origin nothing more than the assertion, with special application to the American continents, of the right of independent states to pursue their own careers without fear or threat of intervention, domination, or subjugation by other states. President Monroe announced to the world that this principle would be upheld by the United States in this hemisphere. The policy of isolation was the outgrowth of Washington's warning against permanent alliances and Jefferson's warning against entangling alliances. Both Washington and Jefferson had in mind apparently the form of European alliance common in their day, which, bound one nation to support another both diplomatically and by force in any dispute that might arise no matter whether it concerned the interests of the first state or not. Such alliances were usually of the nature of family compacts between different dynasties, or between different branches of the same dynasty, rather than treaties between nations. In fact, dynastic aims and ambitions were frequently, if not usually, at variance with the real interests of the peoples affected. It will be shown later that neither Washington nor Jefferson intended that the United States should refrain permanently from the exercise of its due influence in matters which properly concern the peace and welfare of the community of nations. Washington did not object to temporary alliances for special emergencies nor did Jefferson object to special alliances for the accomplishment of definite objects. Their advice has, however, been generally interpreted as meaning that the United States must hold aloof from world politics and attend strictly to its own business.

The Monroe Doctrine was a perfectly sound principle and it has been fully justified by nearly a century of experience. It has saved South America from the kind of exploitation to which the continents of Africa and Asia have, during the past generation, fallen a prey. The policy of isolation, on the other hand, still cherished by so many Americans as a sacred tradition of the fathers, is in principle quite distinct from the Monroe Doctrine and is in fact utterly inconsistent with the position and importance of the United States as a world power. The difference in principle between the two policies can perhaps best be illustrated by the following supposition. If the United States were to sign a permanent treaty with England placing our navy at her disposal in the event of attack from Germany or some other power, on condition that England would unite with us in opposing the intervention of any European power in Latin America, such a treaty would not be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, but a distinct recognition of that principle. Such a treaty would, however, be a departure from our traditional policy of isolation. Of the two policies, that of avoiding political alliances is the older. It was announced by Washington under circumstances that will be considered in a moment.

In the struggle for independence the colonies deliberately sought foreign alliances. In fact, the first treaty ever signed by the United States was the treaty of alliance with France, negoti


ated and ratified in 1778. The aid which France extended under this treaty to our révolutionary ancestors in men, money, and ships enabled them to establish the independence of our country. A few years later came the French Revolution, the establishment of the French Republic followed by the execution of Louis XVI, and in 1793 the war between England and France. With the arrival in this country of Genêt, the minister of the newly established French Republic, there began a heated debate in the newspapers throughout the country as to our obligations under the treaty of alliance and the commercial treaty of 1778. President Washington requested the opinions in writing of the members of his cabinet as to whether Genêt should be received and the new government which had been set up in France recognized, as to whether the treaties were still binding, and as to whether a proclamation of neutrality should be issued. Hamilton and Jefferson replied at great length, taking as usual opposite sides, particularly on the question as to the binding force of the treaties. Hamilton took the view that as the government of Louis XVI, with which the treaties had been negotiated, had been overthrown, we were under no obligations to fulfill their stipulations and had a perfect right to renounce them. Jefferson took the correct view that the treaties were with the French nation and that they were binding under whatever government the French people chose to set up. This principle, which is now one of the fundamental doctrines of international law, was so ably expounded by Jefferson that his words are well worth quoting.

“I consider the people who constitute a society or nation as the source of all authority in that nation, as free to transact their common concerns by any agents they think proper, to change these agents individually, or the organization of them in form or function whenever they please: that all the acts done by those agents under the authority of the nation, are the acts of the nation, are obligatory on them, and enure to their use, and can in no wise be annulled or affected by any change in the form of the government, or of the persons administering it. Consequently the Treaties between the United States and France were not treaties between the United States and Louis Capet, but between the two nations of America and France, and the nations remaining in existence, tho’ both of them have since changed their forms of government, the treaties are not annulled by these changes.”

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