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IR - One Definition A Day: Open Door

IR - One Definition A Day: Open Door Doctrine (p. 402, Ref. 1)

Used in a general sense it refers to policies that favour the encouragement of free trade. More specifically, the Open Door doctrine refers to a series of notes issued by US Secretary of State John Hay in 1899 and 1900 which invited various governments - principally Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia - to adhere to the principle of equal economic opportunity in China. 

The notes stated that while the US recognized the lead to a discriminication against US interests in respect of railway tariffs, harbour dues and other commercial matters. American foreign economic policy had for some time been seduced by the lure of the 'China market' and the Open Door policy was supported by the Committee on American Interests in China, an influential lobby group which claimed that US business interests in the potentially lucrative Chinese markets were damaded by the spheres of influence system. 

At the same time increasing interest was being shown in the market for Chinese souls by missionary activists in America. In an instance of what would be termed 'cultural imperialism', Christian missionaries implicitly confronted aspects of Chinese society - notably the treatment of women. In summary it is possible to identify a triangle of interests or constituencies: business, spiritual, and political within America during these years which favoured the Open Door doctrine and its implementation in the context of China.

The emergence of the United States as a significant actor in world politics dates from this period. The acquisition of the Philippines following the United States' victory over Spain in 1898 was a watershed in this process. The Open Door principle thus provided the rationale for US interests in the area and indicated a new role for the rapidly developing US naval power. US military revolutionary and anti-foreign forces - known as 'Boxers' - in 1900 confirmed that US interests would be advanced or protected by the use of force if necessary. 

Theodore Roosevelt's reference to the region as 'America's Achilles heel' was indicative of the new ideological framework within which American foreign policy was now being made. The strategic, economic and spiritual lure of China remained an important twentieth-century definition of the situation and it helps to explain why the victory of the communist forces in 1949 was perceived as a 'loss' of China in America.

The term Open Door is also used in the historiography of American foreign policy. Essentially associated with the writings of William Appleman Williams and in particular the provocative 1959 publication, the Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the 'Open Door thesis' argues that the search to open doors was an informal imperialism. 

The history of American foreign relations shows an inherent contradiction between self professed beliefs in self-determination and the strongly held preference that other peoples should follow the American way. 

Williams argues that the Open Door's transmogrification from a policy ideal into an ideology is the key to understanding US expansionism and the informal American empire that took off at the end of the nineteenth century (however in later works Williams sought to argue that America had been expansionist from the Founding Fathers onwards). Although he disclaimed credit, Williams founded an informal 'school' of revisionist writers, examplified by LaFeber's 1963 volume The New Empire and Parrini's 1969 work Heir to Empire.


(Source: Penguin Dictionary of IR)

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