Latin America: America Needs A Monroe Doctrine 2.0

20 May 2018

The current administration should re-apply the Monroe Doctrine to deter growing Chinese and Russian influence.


It has been 195 years since President James Monroe outlined the Monroe Doctrine. It asserted that America would see as a national security risk any foreign government involvement in Latin America. In its application, the Monroe Doctrine deterred countries from challenging America’s undisputed sphere of influence in Latin America. The current administration should re-apply the Monroe Doctrine to deter growing Chinese and Russian influence.


The long history of US interventions in Latin America demonstrates the broad application of the Monroe Doctrine vis-a-vis US strategic interests, be those political, social or security related. From the late 1800s to the 1980s, the US asserted its dominance over the region through a mixture of diplomacy, leadership, and indirect and direct military and political interventions.


In 1898, as a consequence of the Spanish-American War, the US took control of Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1914, the US actively intervened in the Mexican Revolution supporting the government’s fight against the nationalist government. From that point through much of the last century, the US intervened either militarily or through covert action in Haiti, Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Granada, Panamá, Chile, and Argentina.


In each instance, the US aimed to prevent undue communist ideologies, sometimes at the expense of democratic values. Regardless of whether these actions were grounded in American values, they highlighted America’s resolve to dominate the region and warned its geopolitical rivals that anything more than a minor presence in Latin America would not be tolerated. By this measure, the Monroe Doctrine proved effective.


Since the 1990s, however, US interests in Latin America have taken a backseat to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global war on terrorism, and later to President Obama’s “pivot to Asia”. This backseat was evident not long ago when the administration canceled Mr. Trump’s plans to attend the Americas Summit sending Vice President Pence in his stead.


Despite continued close security and economic cooperation with most of Latin America, Washington assumed it could afford a hands-off approach in the region. This assumption was clear when in 2013 then Secretary of State John Kerry announced the Monroe Doctrine was dead. Mr. Kerry’s declaration came with a message that America was willing to treat countries as equal and that America’s longtime dominion of “superiority” would be over.


Mr. Kerry’s message was not all bad. It called for multilateral cooperation, a positive theme for regional integration, but it failed to recognize that America’s rhetorical dominance and presence was a necessary factor to hold the geopolitics of the region. And with that philosophy, strong American leadership was largely absent from the region allowing events such as the Venezuela crisis, Nicaragua’s proposed Chinese-backed canal, and Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Andres Correa push to the left. In essence, Washington thought that Latin America did not need a physical or even rhetorical presence, just strong economic and security ties.   


Washington’s hands-off approach was at best a prioritization exercise gone wrong; at worst, it was a complete miscalculation of the region’s shifting allegiance and of the willingness of America’s rivals to exploit the vacuum. Russia and China jumped proactively, albeit in distinct approaches and with different goals, to reassert influence in Latin America at the expense of US retrenchment.  






For Beijing, the calculus to approach Latin America centered on economic partnership--one that seemed benign to Washington but that reaped extreme rewards and slowly crafted an intertwined Chinese presence in the region. China applies the ‘development for natural resources’ model i.e. China promises to build vast infrastructure projects in return for leases on the host’s countries natural resources.


According to the New York Times, China’s foreign direct investment in the region grew nearly tenfold from 2005 to 2013. In Ecuador alone, it has funded multiple multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects such as the Sinohydro, a hydrogen plant in Ecuador’s northeastern corner. Chinese investment now accounts for 57 percent of Ecuador’s total foreign direct investment.  Venezuela and Argentina share a similar fate.


Chinese state-owned banks loaned millions of dollars to Venezuelans when the West refused to engage with Venezuela’s crippling economy. In Argentina, Chinese state-owned banks have invested in multiple infrastructure plans similar to those in Ecuador.


More generally, according to the Brookings Institute, Chinese-Latin American trade expanded from $10 billion in the 1990s to $270 billion in 2012.  But Beijing is not keen to stay in the economic partnership lane. According to The Economist, in 2015 the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, signed a $1 billion agreement to buy Chinese fighter jets and ocean-going patrol vessels.


The agreement took China’s arms sales in the region into new proportions. More alarming for Washington, President Kirchner and later President Macri approved Beijing’s plan to establish a satellite-tracking station in Patagonia. Beijing denies the station is for military use but the technology can certainly be dual use.  


For now, Beijing vehemently opposes any notion that it seeks to challenge America’s hegemony in the region. But Washington should worry. As President Trump scoffs at and chastises immigrants, NAFTA, and even Colombia--arguably the staunchest ally in the region--Chinese President Xi Jinping is implementing plans to double already record numbers in investment and trade.





While Beijing waves its economic prowess to acquire new friends in the region, Moscow has clear geopolitical objectives. During the Cold War, its intentions were never short of challenging the US-led Western liberal world order. To that end, it did not falter to secure Cuba’s cooperation and to prop up left-leaning governments in Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself cashless and left the region to favor other priorities.


President Putin’s accession to power and Russia’s subsequent comeback to world affairs changed Moscow’s calculus. Counter to China, Russia is more narrowly focused on its approach to Latin America. Since the early 2000s, Moscow has built stronger security cooperation with historical Soviet satellites such as Nicaragua and Cuba.


In Nicaragua, Russia constructed a facility near the US embassy outside Managua for communicating with its GLONASS satellite constellation, which can be used for espionage. It has also secured permission for its warships to use Nicaraguan ports and has actively sold military equipment to aid Managua’s efforts to modernize its military.  In Havana, Russian firms signed new petroleum donation deals and recently committed to rebuilding one of the island’s railroads.


For now, Moscow’s aims have been limited to its historical allies. But with the US retrenched from the region and with the upcoming election marathon across Latin America, there is an opportunity for Moscow’s aims to expand not least with its nefarious cyber activities in elections. Russia’s goal would certainly be to place Kremlin-friendly candidates in power to drive a bigger wedge between Latin America and the US.  In December 2017, then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke to this effect when he said the US had seen initial stages of Russian meddling in the upcoming Mexican election.


Then in February, the Department of Justice indicted thirteen Russians for their roles in the Kremlin-backed scheme. Professor Evan Ellis from the US Army War College summarises what Russia’s endgame could be when he cited Mexico as an example: “A victory by leading leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in the July 2018 presidential elections could push Mexico even further toward collaboration with the Russians.”

Monroe 2.0




Washington’s response should be the re-application of the Monroe Doctrine to the alarming and increasing Sino-Russian influence in Latin America. At first instance, however, the administration should not reinterpret the Monroe Doctrine as the US did in the 1960s. It should avoid airs of imperialism and direct political intervention. Washington needs to proactively re-engage with the region in order to effectively curtail Sino-Russian influence. The US should refocus its efforts via three main mechanisms. 


First, it should reignite its multilateral, value-driven diplomatic leadership. The US should once again leverage its great power influence and use targeted diplomatic efforts with the UN and the Organization of American States. The US diplomatic stick holds tremendous weight in Latin America. This weight was evident when the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa sided with the democratically elected president, effectively ending days of turmoil in Honduras.


The push from the administration to sanction Venezuela in conjunction with the twelve Lima Signatories sent a strong message of American diplomatic leadership against a corrupt and lawless Venezuelan government.  But Washington should do more. It should utilize the Organization of American States and leverage multilateral groups to promote democracy, peace, and value-driven societies in the region. It should re-engage bilaterally with countries like El Salvador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador with developmental, security, and economic aid on value-driven propositions and preconditions.


Beyond pursuing a value-driven diplomatic reengagement, Washington should push forward with economic partnerships as President George W.Bush did in the first years of his presidency. The US should also sign free-trade agreements with important regional economies like Brazil and Argentina, and eventually attempt to complete as many as possible (the US currently has only eleven FTAs in Latin America). Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed the expansion of US energy exports to various countries in Latin America.


The opportunity to become the chief energy supplier would only reinforce the US’ long-standing commitment to the economic and development of the region and should be a top priority for the administration. With Mexico, it should seek to clarify and finalize NAFTA renegotiations and prevent further divide by discontinuing public chastising. Likewise, a strong public messaging campaign should highlight the weaknesses of China’s ‘development of natural resources’ model. This messaging would compound already heavy suspicions of Chinese influence throughout Latin America. It is why Mr. Tillerson’s warning about the Chinese model is beneficial and should be followed up with stronger messaging.


Lastly, Washington's security cooperation should not only include traditional allies like Colombia but should also reignite and elevate military cooperation across the region, to include closer anti-narcotics operations with Mexico and Peru. Moreover, the Pentagon and SOUTHCOM should conduct a push for military-to-military partnerships with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, including increased US military equipment sales, counter-terrorism training, intelligence sharing, and anti-narcotic efforts.


Washington can no longer afford to stay idle in Latin America or it will face irreversible Chinese and Russian influence that will challenge its strategic and national interests in the region. A Monroe Doctrine 2.0 is necessary and its application should be a total re-engagement with Latin America.




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