IT WAS BURIED DEEP in his State of the Union address to Congress. A warning to the great powers of his day that any attempt to once again colonise the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as a direct threat to the national security of the United States of America. The year was 1823. The President delivering the State of the Union address was James Monroe. And the declaration that the entire Western Hemisphere of the globe was an American sphere of influence became known as “The Monroe Doctrine”. It remains a core principle of US foreign policy to this very day.
What amazes historians about the Monroe Doctrine is the sheer affrontery of the United States in declaring half the world off-limits to powers in possession of considerably more wealth and military strength than itself. One can only imagine the lips of the rulers of Great Britain, France, Russia and Prussia curling in contempt at this jackanape of a republic presuming to teach the world its business.
Not that the great powers of the day misunderstood the reasoning motivating President Monroe and his advisers. The Spanish Empire: which had once embraced the whole of the South American continent (except Brazil) Central America and what is now Mexico, the South-Western states of the US and California; had just lost, or was in the process of losing, her American possessions – just as, forty years earlier, Great Britain had lost her thirteen North American colonies. Monroe’s Doctrine warned Europe’s rulers: “Don’t even think about trying to take them back!”
Why, then, is it so difficult, one year from the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, for the United States to comprehend why the Russian Federation might want to declare Eastern Europe, the Ukraine in particular, off-limits to the NATO alliance?
Twice, in just over a century, vast armies have swept eastward across the Great European Plain to wreak havoc upon the peoples of, first, the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union. In the last invasion, led by Nazi Germany (in alliance with Romania, Hungary and Italy) more than 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives. Had the Nazis won, it was their plan to starve as many again to death, emptying the broad wheatlands of the Ukraine of human inhabitants in preparation for their permanent “Germanisation”.
It is a melancholy fact that the only American president who truly appreciated what had happened to the Russian people was John F. Kennedy. Hardly surprising, really, since his refusal to tolerate the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, which he deemed to be a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, had brought him face-to-face with the certainty that casualties numbering in the scores-of-millions would be America’s fate if he and General-Secretary Khrushchev did not step back from the brink of Armageddon.
In his famous 1963 speech to the students of the American University, in Washington DC, Kennedy described the Soviet Union’s experience in terms these young Americans could understand:
“[N]o nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis was, of course, sparked by the United States decision to install Jupiter nuclear-tipped missiles along the Soviet Union’s border with Turkey – a NATO ally. The quiet withdrawal of those missiles was the quid-pro-quo for Khrushchev’s withdrawal of his Cuban missile batteries.
If the United States President, Joe Biden, has forgotten the lessons of 60 years ago, then the Russian Federation President, Vladimir Putin, has not. Unacceptable in 1962, the stationing of significant military resources (including tactical nuclear weapons) along Russia’s borders remains unacceptable in 2022.
Would the United States tolerate a hostile, Russian-backed, military alliance refusing to rule out inviting Mexico to become a member? Any US President who allowed a nuclear-armed rival to establish a puppet regime just across America’s southern border would be rightly accused of abandoning the Monroe Doctrine, and impeached.
Why, then, can’t President Joe Biden acknowledge that President Putin is asserting no more than President Monroe – and with considerably greater justification?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 January 2022.