The diplomatic crisis that occurred in the mid 1890s is a perfect reference to study America’s changing role in the world during that period. This event had far-reaching consequences, and it is the first example of the United States behaving as a hegemon in world affairs. Sometimes called the Anglo-Venezuelan Crisis, or the Venezuela Question, today it is most often known as the Venezuela Crisis of 1895.
A piece of territory was disputed between Venezuela and Britain’s colonial possession Guiana. The United States demanded the right to arbitrate the dispute, though the British were at first hostile to the US arbitrating, and then hostile to certain disputed areas of the territory being open for negotiation. On both of these points they caved however, for their own reasons. Britain was so heavily invested in the successful outcome of this dispute for a couple of reasons. While it would appear that the British Empire, in 1895 soon after the height of its power, would have little reason to complain about this stretch of South American rainforest, scholars such as R.A. Humphreys say the whole event can be viewed as a turning point in world relations.
The gold mines that were prominent in the region were an essential interest for the British. They did not want to lose these mines, especially since they were already mostly worked and owned by Brits. As conflict brewed in South Africa with the Boers, where 75% of the world’s gold was coming from in the 1890s, the Empire had a choice to make: grant America what she wanted and recognize her demand to arbitrate, or potentially risk another war in a far-off colonial possession over a precious metal. Britain meekly decided to allow America to arbitrate.
America’s eagerness to be involved is a product of circumstance. The American public was led to believe that the dispute was of vital national interest, and that the Monroe Doctrine was under assault. So as the public clamored for war, and President Cleveland and Secretary of State Olney made statements from which they could not back down, and as Venezuela pushed Washington for intervention via their man William Scruggs, the British decided that the issue would be solved diplomatically.
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The effect of this had far reaching consequences.
Britain, at this point still the world’s great power, bowed and recognized that, as Secretary Olney said in his ‘twenty-inch gun’ (a 12,000 word defense of the Monroe Doctrine and argument for US arbitration in the matter sent to the British) “The United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” This was a major reversal from the head of the Foreign Office, Lord Salisbury’s, position just eight months earlier when he said of the Monroe Doctrine: “The Government of the United States is not entitled to affirm as a universal proposition, with reference to a number of independent States for whose conduct it assumes no responsibility, that its interests are necessarily concerned in whatever may befall those States, simply because they are situated in the Western Hemisphere.”
Fareed Zakaria sees these actions not as the final gasps of a dying empire, but rather a pragmatic calculation by an overstretched, conflict weary nation, seeking to preserve what it could of its territory, and ally itself as it must with regional powers. So what happened in the end?
The US created a 5-man tribunal. Britain chose two of their leading jurists, and America put up two Supreme Court justices. Venezuela added Fredric de Martens, a Russian jurist. The panel deliberated for six days, and reached a unanimous decision awarding a majority of the contested territory to Britain. The American jurists were vehemently against this outcome, but were given the option of a 3-2 vote even more favorable to the British, or a unanimous one that was a little more generous to Venezuela.
The mouth of the Orinoco was to be Venezuela’s, to Britain’s dismay. The goldfields were to remain British, to the Venezuelans’ dismay. Venezuela, after appealing to the US for help in the matter, ultimately was betrayed by their incompetence at selecting an amicable jurist. Their support for the Monroe Doctrine helped give the USA license to act in South America at its own discretion. Britain’s acceptance of the US claims to such action further enhanced the position of the US in the hemisphere.
This episode can help us reveal major tectonic shifts in the international system occurring at this time. Britain was on the decline, and sought to resolve her more troublesome and less vital interests through diplomatic means. As Zakaria says in his book Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role “America’s two key objectives had been attained. First, Britain had implicitly acknowledged America’s right to intervene in any matter relating to any state in the hemisphere. Second, Britain had been forced to accept America’s proposals on arbitration and rights. The United States had involved itself in this conflict mainly to establish influence in the region. Never in the one and a half years of the conflict did America consult Venezuela.”
Ultimately the USA was the only winner in the dispute. Venezuela begged for intervention, citing the Monroe Doctrine. This set a dangerous precedent that many South American nations wish Venezuela would not have set. For Britain, it was a loss of pride mostly, as they won most of what they were asking for materially. Olney’s interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine would fall out of favor a few decades later as the American public’s desire for idealistic interventionism died on the battlefields of World War One. However that does not change that this momentous act, over a stretch of South American rainforest, marked the ascendancy of the United States to a power in the game. Progressing in time, she would dominate the remnants of the Spanish empire a few years later, before belatedly tossing her weight around to end World War I. The successful outcome of this event however, has to be considered when reflecting on decisions made in the following couple decades, because it gave America some of the confidence it needed to act on a global scale.