One of the most bizarre things that Obama administration officials said, or did, on U.S. policy toward Latin America was believing that the era of the Monroe Doctrine was over. It was not as if the Secretary of State at the time, John Kerry, needed to say it to make it so. From Cuba to Colombia to Venezuela and more, Obama administration officials put U.S. interests last.
The region became more unstable and democratic institutions weakened; it also gave license to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran and other adversaries and enemies of the United States celebrated. By November 2013 when Kerry decreed that the era of the Monroe Doctrine was over, the president’s words and deeds signaled to leaders the world over that America would not be policing the region as it once did.
Here is what John Kerry said three years or so ago:
“When people speak of the Western Hemisphere, they often talk about transformations that have taken place, but the truth is one of the biggest transformations has happened right here in the United States of America. In the early days of our republic, the United States made a choice about its relationship with Latin America. President James Monroe, who was also a former Secretary of State, declared that the United States would unilaterally, and as a matter of fact, act as the protector of the region. The doctrine that bears his name asserted our authority to step in and oppose the influence of European powers in Latin America. And throughout our nation’s history, successive presidents have reinforced that doctrine and made a similar choice.
“Today, however, we have made a different choice. The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over. (Applause.) The relationship – that’s worth applauding. That’s not a bad thing. (Applause.) The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It’s about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”
With the exception of this blog post in 2013, I generally ignored it when he said it because, by the time Kerry had said this, U.S. influence in the region was, well, in decline. It had been for at least a decade. The Obama national security team just made it worse. Foreign interests, good and bad, have been meddling in the Americas since colonial days and will continue to do so. Forever.
And while my fellow Republicans may think this was another Obama administration special, another talking point for the hustings, not so fast. The Bush administration was only slightly better containing foreign adventurism in the region for, it too, given too much space to the likes of Russia, China, Iran and many others. Don’t believe me? Embedded at the end of this post is SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral Kurt Tidd’s 2018 posture statement. It will give you a very good flavor of what I’m talking about.
For example, Obama inherited the Venezuela political bramble from the Bush administration because many officials during the Bush administration, officials also had this romantic notion that the Venezuela problem could be solved with elections and international pressure. The Obama administration mostly continued the Bush administration approach. How did that turn out? Without liberty in Venezuela, elections are a waste of time and, in some respects, a destabilizing activity.
China has been allowed to run unchecked for decades. At the end of the Cold War, Russia never really left. Iran, Hizbollah, and other bad actors have, in their unique way, made themselves at home in various perches. The Venezuela disaster of today is two administrations in the making, but President Obama’s embracing of Hugo Chavez just about guaranteed the humanitarian crisis not just in Venezuela, but in the Andean region. The Iran Deal of Latin America, the so-called peace deal with terrorists in Colombia, will add to U.S. headaches for years to come. Of course, the biggest capitulation of all was Cuba.
It was a pleasant surprise when I heard Secretary of State Rex Tillerson say in a speech at the Univerity of Texas on February 1, 2018, that “sometimes I think we have forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere and maintaining those shared values. So I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written.” This sort of thinking is consistent with President Donald Trump’s America First message and, robustly executed, will lead to many good things for the American taxpayer as well as all peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
No one applauded during Tillerson’s remarks, but I’m certain Latin America’s Left was not pleased one to hear one word of it. And that is a good thing. Here is the rest of Secretary Tillerson’s answer to the moderator’s question on what he thought of the Monroe Doctrine:
Well, I think it clearly has been a success, because as I mentioned at the top, what binds us together in this hemisphere are shared democratic values, and while different countries may express that democracy not precisely the same way we practice democracy in this country, the fundamentals of it – respect for the dignity of the human being, respect for the individual to pursue life, liberty, happiness – those elements do bind us together in this hemisphere. So I think it clearly was an important commitment at the time, and I think over the years, that has continued to frame the relationship.
Having said that, it’s easy for the United States as a country, because of our size and our engagements with so many countries and regions around the world, to, through nothing more than just perhaps a period of neglect, to let certain relationships atrophy a bit. And we’ve gone – I think we’ve gone through those periods of time in our history as well, and if you look back and whether – you can go by individual country or regionally as well, due to other events, sometimes I think we have forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere and maintaining those shared values. So I think it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written.
I have not had time to scan the literature on this topic, but I expect that the Monroe Doctrine may generate more than a few blog posts and, if we are lucky, a few academics will take the time to write a monograph or two or more on the subject. The Monroe Doctrine is as relevant today, with adaptions, as when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe put the ideas on paper in 1823. It telegraphs to leaders the world over to please keep your political, economic, and other problems outside of our immediate sphere of influence. If you don’t, America will respond.
By the way, the Russians wasted no time responding:
“We noted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech at the University of Texas on U.S. policy in Latin America. The main takeaway is that the Monroe Doctrine continues to hold sway in Washington, even though it will turn 200 years old fairly soon, in 2023. The world has changed significantly over the years, but the America-for-Americans principle appears to be alive and well. Like President James Monroe in his time, Secretary Tillerson cited Russia to justify his conceptual framework, and so we would like to express our view of the region without arguing ‘by contradiction.’
… Our policy towards Latin America is open and not driven by ideology. There is no hidden agenda, and it is not directed against anyone. Latin American is an inherently valuable component of our country’s international activity … We are developing defence industry cooperation to the extent that there is mutual interest. Our approach is based on respect for the balance of forces in the region. Disrupting military-political stability, or provoking mistrust and conflict is unacceptable.
It may sound like a kindler and gentler Russia, but it is that same old song, an old familiar score.
You can read the rest of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement here.