The Global Monroe Doctrine

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, September 9, 2023

Remarks for second session of Kateri Peace Conference, September 9, 2023

Two hundred years ago this coming December, a local boy from my town gave a speech. In the years that followed pundits and politicians took an excerpt of that speech, carved it in marble, lit it with eternal white phosphorus bombs, and prayed to it before every shareholders meeting. They named it the Monroe Doctrine. It created the model, used ever more frequently up to this day, of picking out the worst thing a U.S. president has said and declaring it to be their doctrine. There’s nothing in U.S. law about the presidential power to create doctrines, much less the power of newspaper columnists to do so, but here we are.

Almost everyone accepts doctrines. Almost everyone pretends that the half of the Monroe Doctrine about the U.S. staying out of wars in Europe never happened. Half of the U.S. political establishment proudly promotes the Monroe Doctrine, meaning subjugation of Latin America, and by extension the rest of the world. The other half does the exact same thing but less proudly and while declaring themselves opposed to the Monroe Doctine.

The notion that the United States can arrogantly dominate the rest of the Western Hemisphere long preceded its ability to do so, and was followed up — including in subsequent presidential doctrines — with the notion that the rest of the world was next. The U.S. and its NATO sidekicks now treat Africa similarly, and with similar results. How do these countries that manufacture no weapons or military trainers manage so many well-armed and well-trained coups? It’s not even a mystery in U.S. discourse; it’s just understood as a reflection on the backward cultures of Africa. Which itself says something about the backwardness of a culture, but it isn’t a culture in Africa.

Also 200 years ago this year, President James Monroe’s buddy, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall put the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law — the doctrine that the U.S. government, as a replacement for European governments, could steal any non-European land it wanted. Monroe was the leading militarist and warmonger of his day but probably wouldn’t have been needed had someone else been president. The people who developed the Monroe Doctrine justified imperialism to themselves with the following ideas:

  1. We’re opposing European imperialism, so we can’t be doing imperialism.
  2. Anybody who had the chance would want to be part of the United States, so we’re not forcing anything on anyone.
  3. These people are subhuman animals or ignorant heathen who don’t know that they want to be part of the United States, so we have to show them.
  4. What people? The lands are basically empty.

The story of U.S. conduct in New York State during Monroe’s presidency (1817 to 1825) probably lacks no outrage ever committed in Central America under the banner of the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe himself in 1784 had been the first member of the Congress of the Confederation to go “west” when he took a tour of New York state and Pennsylvania to explore the edges of the empire. When Monroe was president, nations of people who had assisted the United States in its revolution were forced to give up their land by their “great father” President Monroe, in the interests of profitable corporations like the Ogden Land Company, facilitated by modern transportation improvements like the Erie Canal (built between 1817 and 1825). In Ohio, the U.S. bribed chiefs to sell lands. In Indiana, native nations were forced out, west of the Mississippi. Treating the Doctrine of Discovery as law meant that Monroe and his bloodthirsty subordinate Andrew Jackson could take land from people who could be said not to legally possess it. Marshall later, in 1831, would rule against the Cherokee Nation, citing the use of phrases like “great father” to claim that Indigenous nations were related to the U.S. government as a “ward” is to “his guardian.”

In his fateful speech, President Monroe denounced Russian efforts to claim non-U.S. territories as an outrage against good republican governments and a threat to spread bad systems of government. It would eventually become the “manifest destiny” of the United States to take over much of North America, in part to keep Russia out of it. If any of this sounds familiar, or if you’re struck by how powerful Russiagate or Ukraine War propaganda has been, it’s because the tradition is long — broken principally by that moment when the Soviets defeated the Nazis, which we’ve all been conditioned to pretend never happened.

This background can help explain why it has taken so long to see peace activism in the United States grow in opposition to the war in Ukraine.

From a certain perspective, it’s very strange that it’s taken so long. Nothing in my lifetime has done more to increase the risk of nuclear apocalypse than the war in Ukraine. Nothing is doing more to impede global cooperation on climate, poverty, or homelessness. Few things are doing as much direct damage in those areas, devastating the environment, disrupting grain shipments, creating millions of refugees. While death and injury counts in Iraq were heatedly disputed in U.S. media for years, there’s widespread acceptance that deaths and injuries in Ukraine are already near half a million. There’s no way to precisely count how many lives could have been saved around the world by investing hundreds of billions in something wiser than this war, but a fraction of that could end starvation on Earth.

Last week in the New York Times we read about villagers in Ukraine whose plows turn up weaponry in their fields from both the current war and still to this day from World War II. While Russians blowing things up and killing people is supposed to be understood as horrible or noble depending which of those two wars it’s part of, the poisons and dangers left in the fields look about the same to the people who live there. Both sides of the current war are adding cluster bombs to the mix, and at least the U.S. side is adding depleted uranium.

From another perspective, it’s clear why there has been so much acceptance of this war. It’s U.S. weapons, not U.S. lives. It’s a war against a country demonized in U.S. media for decades and centuries, for its actual crimes and for fictions like imposing Donald Trump on us. (I can understand not wanting to admit that we did that to ourselves.) It’s a war against a Russian invasion of a smaller country. If you’re going to protest U.S. invasions, why not protest a Russian invasion? Indeed. But a war is a not a protest. It’s mass slaughter and destruction.

Manipulating good intentions is part of the standard package, and it’s our job to help people see through that. Destroying Iraq was marketed in the United States as for the benefit of the Iraqis. The most obviously provoked war in recent years, in Ukraine, was christened “The Unprovoked War.” U.S. and other Western diplomats, spies, and theorists predicted for 30 years that breaking a promise and expanding NATO would lead to war with Russia. President Barack Obama refused to arm Ukraine, predicting that doing so would lead toward where we are now — as Obama still saw it in April 2022. Prior to the “Unprovoked War” there were public comments by U.S. officials arguing that the provocations would not provoke anything. “I don’t buy this argument that, you know, us supplying the Ukrainians with defensive weapons is going to provoke Putin,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) One can still read a RAND report advocating creating a war like this one through the sorts of provocations that senators claimed wouldn’t provoke anything.

But what can be done? Provoked or not, you have a horrendous, murderous, criminal invasion. Now what? Well, now you have endless stalemate, with years of killing or nuclear war. You want to do what you can to “help” Ukraine, but the millions of Ukrainians who have fled, and those who have stayed to face prosecution for peace activism, look wiser each day. The question is whether keeping a war going is more helpful to Ukrainians or the rest of the world than ending it with a compromise aimed at a sustainable peace. According to Ukrainian media, Foreign Affairs, Bloomberg, and Israeli, German, Turkish, and French officials, the U.S. pressured Ukraine to prevent a peace agreement in the early days of the invasion. Since then, the U.S. and allies have provided mountains of free weapons to keep the war going. Eastern European governments have expressed concern that if the U.S. slows or ends the weapons flow, Ukraine might become willing to negotiate peace.

Peace is viewed by some on both sides of the war (many of them quite far removed from the fighting), not as a good thing, but as even worse than ongoing slaughter and devastation. Both sides insist on total victory. But that total victory is nowhere in sight, as other voices on both sides quietly admit. And any such victory would not be lasting, as the defeated side would plot vengeance as soon as possible.

Yet both sides persist in declaring victory imminent. Yesterday the New York Times wrote, “The images of Russian troops retreating from a village in Ukraine under fire leave little doubt of the impact of cluster munitions.” You’re supposed to read that and obediently have little doubt, even if you’re pretty sure that videos exist of soldiers retreating under fire with non-cluster munitions.

Compromise is a difficult skill. We teach it to toddlers, but not to governments. Traditionally a refusal to compromise (even if it kills us) has more appeal on the political right. But political party means everything in U.S. politics, and the President is a Democrat. So, what is a liberal thinking person to do? We have to encourage them to think a bit more or differently. Nearly two years of peace proposals from around the globe almost all include the same elements: removal of all foreign troops, neutrality for Ukraine, autonomy for Crimea and Donbas, demilitarization, and lifting sanctions. This is a consensus view of expert observers. Should we pay attention?

At this point, some observable action must precede negotiations, because trust is non-existent. Either side could announce a ceasefire and ask that it be matched. Either side could announce a willingness to agree to a particular agreement including the elements above. If a ceasefire is not matched, the slaughter can be quickly resumed. If a ceasefire is used to build up troops and weapons for the next battle, well then, the sky is also blue and a bear does it in the woods. Nobody imagines either side as capable of switching off the war business that quickly. A ceasefire is required for negotiations, and an end to weapons shipments is required for a ceasefire. These three elements must come together. They could be abandoned together if negotiations fail. But why not try?

Allowing the people of Crimea and Donbas to determine their own fate is the real sticking point for Ukraine, but that solution strikes me as at least as big a victory for democracy as sending more U.S. weapons to Ukraine despite the opposition of the majority of people in the United States.

War is the opposite of democracy and should not be waged in its name. New alliances like BRICS are not international law and will not save us from war though it’s possible they’ll move things in that direction. But a globe with two or more nations or alliances enforcing Monroe Doctrines would surely kill us all. Even just the one original Monroe Doctrine might do that yet.

I encourage you to organize a local burial of the Monroe Doctrine on December 2nd. Two hundred years is enough. I encourage you to build a bigger movement over the coming months with events that take part in Code Pink’s summer of peace, that mark the International Day of Peace, that include watch parties for World BEYOND War’s annual conference online September 22nd to 24th, that join in Defuse Nuclear War’s week of action September 24-30, Campaign Nonviolence’s weeks of action September 21st to October 2nd, that add to the global days of action for peace in Ukraine September 30th to October 8th, and the Keep Space for Peace Week October 7th to 14th, Armistice Day November 11th, and the Merchants of Death Tribunal November 12th. Plus there are wars not in Ukraine, and I encourage you to join World BEYOND War’s Africa conference online November 23rd to 25th.

If that’s not enough to work on, just let me know.

Thank you.

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