First Rule of the Monroe Doctrine: Don’t Talk About the Monroe Doctrine

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No one ever accused John Bolton of failing to provide good copy. In a typically bombastic speech last week in Miami, the national security adviser took aim at the authoritarian governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua - the "three stooges of socialism" in Latin America - and announced new measures to isolate them economically and diplomatically. Bolton also warned Russia that using its security personnel to protect the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela would be considered "a threat to international peace and security in the region." Not least, he declared that the Monroe Doctrine, America's longstanding prohibition against foreign powers meddling in the Western Hemisphere, is "alive and well." 

Bolton isn't wrong that hostile powers such as China and Russia are reaching into the Western Hemisphere as a way of expanding their influence and unsettling the U.S. He isn't wrong to say that Washington should oppose this sort of extra-hemispheric intervention. But publicly invoking the Monroe Doctrine is still a mistake, and the Trump administration's policies may have the effect of inviting foreign interference rather than preventing it. 

The Monroe Doctrine was issued nearly 200 years ago. After the South American republics broke free of Spanish rule, there were rumblings that a coalition of European monarchs - the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia - might seek to subjugate them. When the British, who hoped to establish an informal economic empire in the vacuum created by the Spanish retreat, suggested a joint U.K.-U.S. declaration warning Europe's kings against the endeavor, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams persuaded President James Monroe instead to stake out the American position unilaterally. "It would be more candid," Adams argued, "as well as more dignified, to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France, than to come in as a cockboat in the wake of the British man-of-war." 

Monroe's subsequent declaration that the U.S. would view colonization of any free American republic as a hostile act rested on two interlocking fears. First, the presence of rival powers near America's soft southern underbelly would deprive the young nation of the strategic advantages conferred by its geographic isolation. Second, the encroachment of authoritarianism would be dangerous to American security and democracy. During the 19th and 20th centuries, these principles inspired numerous U.S. interventions - military, diplomatic, covert and otherwise - meant to keep foreign powers at bay. 

Today, the Monroe Doctrine remains important to U.S. security, because having a quiet "strategic rear" is what allows America to pursue such an expansive foreign policy in other regions of the world. If the U.S. faced more severe threats in the Western Hemisphere, it would have to focus on playing defense rather than shaping the global environment. (In the current climate, admittedly, some Americans might think that this sort of geopolitical retrenchment would be a good thing.) One can even make the case, as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did in 2018, that the Monroe Doctrine has been good for Latin America, because it has discouraged more aggressive authoritarian powers from exerting their influence in the region. 

The problem is that the doctrine has nonetheless offended the nationalist sensitivities of America's southern neighbors. As policymakers in the Carter administration admitted, the Monroe Doctrine had become "an imperialistic legacy which has embittered our relationships." Over time, U.S. officials gradually distanced themselves from the most obvious physical reminders of American dominance - control of the Panama Canal, for instance - while downplaying the Monroe Doctrine rhetorically, if less so in substance. "The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over," John Kerry, President Obama's secretary of state, announced in 2013. 

On many occasions, however, high-level Trump administration officials have reverted to the language of an earlier era by proudly declaring that the Monroe Doctrine remains in effect. They have done so because the threat of extra-regional intervention is again increasing. China is building up its economic, diplomatic and perhaps its military presence in the region. Russia, in addition to dispatching security personnel to support Maduro’s regime, is reportedly building an intelligence facility in Nicaragua, flying nuclear-capable bombers through the region, and arming some of the hemisphere's worst governments.

Yet talking about the Monroe Doctrine in public is not the most constructive solution. 

For one thing, the words "Monroe Doctrine" still produce an allergic reaction in many Latin American capitals. Even countries such as Colombia and Brazil, which support the use of sanctions and diplomatic pressure against Maduro, cannot openly endorse the idea of U.S. dominance and intervention in Latin America. The first rule of the Monroe Doctrine, in other words, is not to talk about the Monroe Doctrine. 

For another thing, publicly warning the Russians not to meddle in Venezuela raises the obvious "or what" question. How far is the administration willing to go to force the Russians to withdraw? If this is another case of the White House making threats against Maduro that it has little intention of carrying out, invoking the Monroe Doctrine risks devaluing American credibility instead of strengthening it. 

Talking about the Monroe Doctrine also sends the wrong message in U.S. competitions with China and Russia. U.S. officials - and the Trump administration's National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy - have stated that America objects to Russian and Chinese efforts to establish exclusive spheres of influence in which they can exert veto power over their neighbors' security and economic choices. Moscow and Beijing counter that they are just doing what Washington has long done - that China's "Asia for Asians" strategy is not so different from America's Monroe Doctrine.

This is an exaggeration: The U.S. has long exercised its influence in Latin America in ways that are relatively enlightened compared to how authoritarian great powers have traditionally behaved in their own backyards. But the more U.S. officials talk about a doctrine that many Latin Americans view as an imperialistic legacy, the more that distinction gets lost. 

Finally, there is the question of whether the administration's policies are making it harder or easier for extra-hemispheric powers to get a regional foothold. It is true, as Bolton alleged, that the Obama administration did not drive a particularly hard bargain in conducting its opening to Cuba. But the strategic virtue of was that it opened the door to an improved relationship that would presumably decrease Havana's incentives to align with Russia or China over the long term. By significantly tightening U.S. sanctions on Cuba, the Trump administration may be pushing an undeniably nasty regime to look for lifelines from those military superpowers.

Trump administration officials would probably answer this charge by saying that it is the authoritarian nature of the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan regimes that predisposes them to work with their authoritarian great-power brethren, and that the best way of avoiding this is to seek to the fall of these regimes. But if U.S. pressure is not sufficient to force democratic openings in these countries, isolated authoritarians may see stronger relations with Beijing and Moscow as their only hope. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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