Monroe and Aquinas

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By George Weigel

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GW: In your book you make what struck me as a charming, if bold, intellectual move, describing the Monroe Doctrine as an early form of what we came to call in the 1980s the “democracy initiative.” That is, the Monroe Doctrine was not simply an attempt to seal the Western Hemisphere off from Europe; it was an attempt to foster something positive within the Western Hemisphere (although, to be sure, that “something positive” was understood to redound to the benefit of the United States). Would you say a word about that analysis?


EA: It’s possible, even easy, to become very cynical about U.S. activities in this hemisphere: so easy, in fact, that virtually every Latin American specialist and every historian who has touched the Monroe Doctrine has done so in pages dripping with scorn. I think that’s a mistake.

Without question, the Monroe Doctrine had imperialist aspects to it. But it was more than that, because it was a product of the view that many of Europe’s problems—and especially Europe’s endless wars—stemmed from a princely system of governance that Americans were proud to escape. Thus the Monroe Doctrine had an ideological dimension, which people tend to forget. The Monroe Doctrine was not simply about keeping the Europeans out, in the sense of preventing new imperial adventures in our hemisphere. It was also about proscribing, in this hemisphere, the princely or monarchical system of governance. Now this did crop up here, briefly in Mexico, briefly in Brazil…


GW:…and briefly in the mind of Aaron Burr.


EA: That’s right. But it was always the American view that a republican form of government was specially fitting in this hemisphere, in our hemisphere, and thus we would try to prevent monarchies from growing here—especially monarchies implanted by the Europeans.

We tend to forget the power, the compelling power, of the view that this new hemisphere, this Western Hemisphere, was something fresh, something different, something that, almost as if by nature, had a distinctive form of government attached to it. But as Raymond Aron pointed out, nobody even spoke of the “Western Hemisphere” until Americans invented the term. We were the ones who developed the notion that there were, in a sense, not only two hemispheres, Eastern and Western, but two hemispheres, the Old and the New.


GW: For anyone who’s studied the history of ideas about war and peace, this has a certain familiar Kantian ring to it. I’m thinking, of course, of Immanuel Kant’s claim that “perpetual peace” required that all states adopt republican forms of government. Kant wasn’t a diplomat, and his argument was cast largely in the abstract. Are you suggesting that, in his own way, James Monroe was a kind of crypto-Kantian? And if not, where did this American idea about peace requiring the universalization of republican governance come from? There are hints and traces of it in the claims bruited during the Founding, particularly in aspects of the Founders’ critique of monarchy; but how did those get applied to the dynamics of America’s relationship with the world?


EA: Well, it was pragmatic and experiential, I think. The early American idea that monarchies made for wars was really based on observation. European princes and dynasties frequently acted without very much regard for the interests of those they governed; they acted in ways that would enhance the interests of the princely family or the individual ruler, or to make some money …


GW: … to expand the tax base …


EA: Exactly—but without respect to the interests of those who were being ruled. And that wasn’t an abstract proposition for the Founders (or the “Founding Fathers,” as I suppose I’m permitted to say in these precincts). They had seen the monarchical principle at work. Take the example that every American schoolboy used to know: the Hessians fighting in the American Revolution. That certainly wasn’t the result of a referendum in Hesse.

So it was, I expect, common sense to suggest that unless people were provoked, they would tend to shy away from foreign adventures, and wouldn’t want to see their children shipped off to fight in others’ wars. Still, we have to remember that there was a debate about this from the start. The popular view that monarchy was the source of war was challenged by Alexander Hamilton’s view, which was that human nature is the source of war. On the Hamiltonian understanding, political arrangements, however useful, weren’t going to solve the problem of war, because war was a problem of human nature—a problem of sin, if you will.


GW: So we have Hamilton in the role of Augustine, with Monroe emulating Thomas Aquinas: an interesting congeries of personalities and theories.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.