Anti-Imperial Presidency: A 19th-Century Model for the Right Foreign-Policy

By Larison, Daniel | The American Conservative, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

Anti-Imperial Presidency: A 19th-Century Model for the Right Foreign-Policy


Larison, Daniel, The American Conservative


Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat to serve as president in the second half of the 19th century, and he was arguably the last conservative Democratic president in U.S. history. But what made him a truly remarkable and admirable figure was his opposition to European imperialism throughout his career. Cleveland's foreign policy was in many respects very traditional, but what set him apart from his contemporaries, and many of his predecessors, was his willingness to employ American power in a limited way for anti-imperialist ends.

Foreign policy was not a major part of the first of Cleveland's two nonconsecutive terms, although between 1886 and 1888 he successfully countered German ambitions in the South Pacific to take control of Samoa--risking diplomatic rupture with a great power over a place where no major U.S. interests were at stake. Upon entering office the second time, Cleveland delayed but ultimately could not prevent the annexation of Hawaii, which the outgoing Harrison administration had been eager to realize.

Following an 1893 coup by American settlers against the native Hawaiian government, Benjamin Harrison had tried to rush an annexation treaty through the Senate during his last days as president. Cleveland withdrew the treaty and tried to find some way to repair the damage that the annexationists had done. But nothing short of direct intervention against the coup government could restore the status quo ante, and that was something Cleveland could not and would not attempt.

Cleveland had more success when he came to the defense of Venezuela in a boundary dispute with Great Britain's colony in Guyana, a move that briefly increased tensions between London and Washington. Resolving the dispute paved the way for a long-term improvement in relations between the U.S. and Great Britain--though it did so by expanding the scope of the Monroe Doctrine beyond what its authors had originally intended.

The impasse between Venezuela and Britain was by far the most significant international episode in Cleveland's second term, and at first glance his decision to involve the U.S. seems hard to understand. Strictly speaking, the Monroe Doctrine didn't apply since the disagreement didn't touch on Venezuela's form of government or its ability to govern itself. Cleveland was bending the letter of Monroe's statement--which had said, "the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers"--while trying to preserve its spirit.

Britain initially rejected the administration's offer to mediate, leading Cleveland to make the dispute a high-profile issue in 1895. Cleveland and Secretary of State Richard Olney linked it directly to the Monroe Doctrine's guarantee of independence and sovereignty for the Latin American republics, and for a short time it seemed possible that Britain and America might go to war over the issue. …

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