Argument

Let the Monroe Doctrine Die

The Trump administration is committing national security malpractice in Latin America by resurrecting a policy that has outlived its purpose.

A poster for The Monroe Doctrine, a 1939 film starring Charles Waldron as James Monroe.
A poster for The Monroe Doctrine, a 1939 film starring Charles Waldron as James Monroe. LMPC via Getty Images

To the surprise of most of Latin America, and perhaps some Americans, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has taken to announcing that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” He invoked a historical U.S. policy to convey that the United States will dictate the terms of governance and commerce in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, by military force if necessary. The threat is evidently intended to intimidate the Nicolás Maduro government of Venezuela from using military force to quell civil rebellion. This is national security malpractice, a squandering of the political goodwill the United States has earned by discarding a historical policy that outlived its purpose.

But it is apt that Venezuela should be prominent in discussion of the Monroe Doctrine, for it was over Venezuela in 1895 that a U.S. president first invoked its use. President James Monroe had declared in 1823 that “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.” This marked the moment when U.S. foreign policy first broke from European traditions and attempted to shape the world in its republican image. But the United States lacked the military strength to carry out the policy for the subsequent 70 years. The policy got its first actual test when a corrupt regime in Caracas attempted to manipulate the United States into defending it.

Venezuela in 1895 was barely a country, with little governance provided by a succession of caudillos: rulers who exhibited a pattern of using the military to grab power for personal enrichment. The grift involved serially selling concessions to European companies, then defaulting on the loans, the response to which was gunboat diplomacy: European governments sending military forces to control customs and extract resources to satisfy their companies.

The United States got involved in Venezuela because of the Monroe Doctrine, abandoned Venezuela despite it, committed to enforce European contracts against governments in the Western Hemisphere with President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the doctrine, but eventually committed to the political independence of countries of the region—a policy that eventually resulted in the United States’ first collective defense agreement, with the countries of the Western Hemisphere in the 1940s.

The story begins with Venezuela losing ground in negotiations with Great Britain over the boundary demarcating British Guyana. Enter an enterprising American lobbyist, who encouraged the caudillo to invoke Monroe’s doctrine and flooded U.S. newspapers with taunts that the United States was abandoning a 70-year policy of protecting Latin America against European depredation. U.S. President Grover Cleveland—who was so anti-imperialist he withdrew from congressional consideration the annexation of Hawaii—was disinclined to become involved, preferring “to avoid a doctrine which I knew to be troublesome.” Cleveland nevertheless became the first U.S. president to successfully enforce the Monroe Doctrine, affronted by Britain’s derision about U.S. power, getting a unanimous vote of support from both houses of Congress for confronting against Great Britain. Chalk one up for Thucydides’s belief that honor can be a cause of war.

The outcome was not beneficial to Venezuela: In arbitrating between Venezuela and Britain, the United States sided with every British claim, even expanding beyond what Britain had sought. But Washington accomplished its aim: As a rising power, the United States received acknowledgment by the superpower of the age, with those two democratic states and their citizens coming to see each other as brethren. Britain acknowledged a U.S. sphere of influence, and in return the United States supported British claims. This was so satisfactory to Britain that Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil declared in Parliament, “We are entire advocates of the Monroe Doctrine. … you will not find any more convinced supporters of it as a rule of policy than we are.”

For the United States, the intervention in Venezuela marked its transformation into an unexceptional great power, practicing diplomacy, military intervention, and predatory political economy just like all other powerful states. The change would be manifest in 1898, when the United States took possession of Cuba, the Philippines, and a number of Pacific islands. It extended even further in 1903, during yet another Venezuelan debt crisis, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that countries using military force to compel contractual compliance should have first draw on debt repayment. Fearing that would incentivize European military interventions in the Western Hemisphere, President Theodore Roosevelt committed the United States to “international policing” of Latin American states on behalf of foreign economic interests.

While the Monroe Doctrine had support of countries in Latin America because it protected them from predatory Europeans, the Roosevelt corollary was reviled because it resulted in U.S. military occupations of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Mexico’s Veracruz port; the separation of Panama from Colombia with the U.S. taking control of the canal; and the annexation of Puerto Rico.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that U.S. policy changed in a fundamental fashion. The same threat of hostile European powers colonizing fragile states in Latin America that provoked the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 emerged again during World War II in concern about Nazi Germany making inroads. But instead of the gunboat diplomacy that characterized U.S. policy from the 1890s through 1914, President Franklin Roosevelt orchestrated hemispheric solidarity.

Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy succeeded where imperialism had failed the United States: building the Western Hemisphere into a U.S. bastion. At Montevideo in 1933, countries of the Americas agreed that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another”; at Buenos Aires in 1936, they agreed that “whenever peace of the Americas are threatened, the 21 countries will consult together with the thought of cooperating to preserve the peace of the Continent”; at Havana in 1940 they agreed (in a precursor to the language that would later resound in the North Atlantic Treaty) that “any attempt on the part of a non- American State against the integrity or inviolability of the territory, the sovereignty, or the political independence of an American State shall be considered as an act of aggression against the States which sign this declaration.”

The United States not only mastered the art of positive engagement with its southern neighbors but also acted in ways that persuaded the Western Hemisphere to participate in U.S. policies. The Havana declaration essentially multilateralized the Monroe Doctrine into a collective policy of self-defense, giving all the countries in the hemisphere responsibility for preserving one another’s independence from interference on the part of non-American states. So much had relations changed between the United States and other countries of the Western Hemisphere because of this good neighbor policy that after Pearl Harbor was attacked, all of the countries of the hemisphere, save Argentina and Chile, broke diplomatic relations with the Axis powers.

And that is what the Trump administration consistently gets wrong: The United States is strongest when it provides positive inducements for cooperation, not opaque threats of military intervention. The United States may not take troop numbers on a memo pad and vague threats of U.S. attacks seriously, but Latin American countries do. And with good reason: they have a long history of the United States intervening. It clouds the picture of what is otherwise a pretty sensible Trump administration policy toward Venezuela.

Threatening invasion or resurrecting the dark history of American imperialism is a terrible way to advance U.S. interests and help the forces for positive change in Venezuela. Supporting greater activism by regional allies is both cost-effective and appreciated by countries in the region. And there are many worthy policies coming from the region: Venezuela’s neighbors are banding together to take in refugees, provide humanitarian assistance, facilitate negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition, and bring Maduro’s apparatchiks before the International Criminal Court. Russia and Cuba, both of which are deeply complicit in Maduro’s crimes and intermeshed with the Venezuelan military, have been exposed for the malevolent forces they are. There’s plenty of room, in short, for the United States to continue the policy of Franklin Roosevelt, rather than revert to the policy of Theodore Roosevelt.

This article was partially adapted from the book Safe Passage: the Transition from British to American Hegemony.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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