Return of the Monroe Doctrine: Making Latin America Irate Again

By Max Paul Friedman*

monroe_doctrine

Uncle Sam stakes his claim in the Western Hemisphere in a political cartoon outlining the basic tenants of the Monroe Doctrine (1912). / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

A vigorous resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine may well be at hand under U.S. President Donald Trump, even though history shows us that it will contradict another favored policy – “America First” – which signals a desire to return to the most notorious isolationist organization in U.S. history.  The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 as a means of blocking external interference in the Western Hemisphere, was the central pillar of U.S. policy toward Latin America until Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, told a roomful of Latin American diplomats in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  The statement was part of an effort to rehabilitate the U.S. image in a region long accustomed to seeing the United States as seeking to control it through persuasion when possible, and force when necessary.  In a policy paper published last December, Craig Deare, a dean at the U.S. National Defense University and now Trump’s top Latin America advisor on the National Security Council staff, denounced Kerry’s statement “as a clear invitation to those extra-regional actors looking for opportunities to increase their influence.”  He specifically mentioned China.

A revitalized Monroe Doctrine, however, contradicts the Administration’s other strong impulse, present in its statements far beyond Latin America, toward isolationism.  Trump is promising to build a literal wall between Latin America and the United States, but the Monroe Doctrine was decisively unilateral and interventionist.  It stated that the United States would not intervene in European affairs if European powers did not intervene in the Americas, but Monroe carefully did not state that the United States would not intervene in the region.  Indeed, Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and other U.S. leaders desired and expected the future annexation of parts of what was then Spanish or Latin American territory in Cuba, northern Mexico (later Texas), and beyond.  Later, even in the “isolationist” early decades of the 20th century, the United States was vigorously engaged in military intervention and outright occupation of several countries in Latin America.  The Marines were in Nicaragua (1912-33), Haiti (1915-34), and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

  • Latin American resistance prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which supplanted the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism with respect for national sovereignty, but during World War II, FDR threatened Latin American governments with economic embargoes and other measures if they didn’t round up and intern thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese. After the tide in the war turned in 1943, the Latin American deportation and internment program was continued by U.S. officials seeking to turn the program to economic advantage by crushing commercial rivals.

Even Obama had difficulty reversing the United States’ longstanding desire to guide political and economic developments in Latin America – continuing, for example, Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba and elsewhere – but steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and other initiatives made important strides toward assuaging Latin American irritation with U.S. imperiousness.  Obama went further than any president since FDR in restoring good relations, and ended the Cold War in Latin America.  Donald Trump’s competing impulses – the interventionism of Monroe and the isolationism of “America First” – will keep U.S.-Latin America relations on edge.  His unilateralist style has already hit its first victim, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, and is likely to claim more soon.  If Trump revives the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism more broadly in response to a perceived threat from China throughout the region, he is likely to succeed only in making Latin America irate again.

February 2, 2017

* Max Paul Friedman is a Professor in the History Department at American University and author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.

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