A 19th-century boundary dispute that started between Venezuela and Great Britain ended up bringing Britain and the United States to the brink of war in 1895.
After decades of disagreement regarding the location of the western boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana, in 1887 Venezuela finally cut off diplomatic relations with Great Britain. Although Venezuela had tried many times to involve the United States in settling the dispute, it wasn’t until their government hired former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela William Scruggs to lobby for them that the United States took any major interest in the situation.
Scruggs successfully invoked the Monroe Doctrine, which had begun to be interpreted more broadly as meaning the United States was justified in getting involved in anything in the Americas that threatened its interests or reputation. Scruggs then got Congress to pass a resolution that suggested the dispute between the two other countries be settled through arbitration.
After Britain’s navy occupied a Venezuelan port in May 1895, the U.S. secretary of state sent a document to the British government explaining America’s “right” to be involved based on the Monroe Doctrine. When Britain didn’t take the letter seriously, in December President Cleveland addressed Congress in a speech that was essentially seen as a war threat if Britain didn’t recognize the application of the Monroe Doctrine. To avoid conflict with the United States, in January Britain finally agreed to settle the boundary dispute through arbitration.
The arbitration panel consisted of two members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the British Lord Justice of Appeals and the Lord Chancellor, and a Russian diplomat (chosen by Venezuela from a list provided by Britain). After a year and half of both sides preparing and submitting arguments, the arbitration panel spent almost another year making their decision.
Finally, in October 1899, the panel awarded Britain almost all of the disputed territory, providing virtually no explanation for their decision; though disappointed, Venezuela abided by the ruling. But in the long run, perhaps more important than the boundary outcomes were the political ones: Britain’s tacit acceptance of the Monroe Doctrine and the establishment of the United States as the major power in the Western Hemisphere.