Why we need to renew the Monroe Doctrine
The Birth of the Monroe Doctrine, 1823

Why we need to renew the Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine just celebrated its 200th birthday. The anniversary was overlooked by most Americans – and understandably so, given Putin’s war in Europe, Xi’s outlaw behavior and outright aggression in the Indo-Pacific, and the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah-Houthi war in the Middle East. Yet those security challenges in the Middle East, Indo-Pacific and Europe affect the security of this hemisphere – and so does the Monroe Doctrine. 

Brothers. In the early 1820s, with the Russian Empire eyeing parts of North America and the Spanish Empire reeling from revolutions in South America, “it was not at all certain that the newly independent republics to the south would be able to retain their sovereignty, and there was even talk that France, Austria and Russia might help Spain restore it, or perhaps attempt to assume it themselves,” historian John Lewis Gaddis explains. “The British, alarmed by this prospect, had suggested a joint Anglo-American statement ruling out future European colonization in the Western Hemisphere.”

Instead, President James Monroe issued his own statement. Largely crafted by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the Monroe Doctrine put the Eastern Hemisphere’s empires on notice.

“With the governments who have declared their independence and maintained it … we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States,” Monroe declared. “It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness.

“The American continents are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by European powers,” he added.

Monroe and Adams arrived at that conclusion not because the United States opposed all things European, but because the United States opposed the “political system” of European powers – a system which was “essentially different” from ours.

While Monroe sought to keep Europe’s alien political systems out, some of his successors used his doctrine as an excuse to intervene in our neighbors’ internal affairs. U.S. forces intervened repeatedly in Haiti and Cuba. U.S. troops deployed to the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. The United States supported a coup in Guatemala, backed a thuggish regime in Argentina and supported a military junta in Chile.

Many of these interventions triggered hostility toward the United States. But it could be argued these episodes flow from a distortion – rather than a proper application – of what Monroe intended. Recall that Monroe championed the independence of “our southern brethren” and opposed efforts aimed at “controlling … their destiny.” Many U.S. interventions have been in response to our neighbors’ calls for help.

The Spanish Empire’s brutal treatment of Cuba in the 1890s outraged the American people. “The fact that many believed they could do something,” historian Robert Kagan observes, “helped convince them they should do something, that intervention was the only honorable course.”

During the Cold War, U.S. assistance helped steer most of this hemisphere away from the prison yard of communism. Underscoring the Monroe Doctrine’s role in development, President Harry Truman called it “a Marshall Plan for the Western Hemisphere.” A decade later, the entire hemisphere came together to oppose Castro and Khrushchev.

In a happy reversal of earlier episodes, recent decades have seen U.S. interventions to restore democracy and oust dictatorships.

Working together, the Americas have crafted mutually beneficial trade partnerships: NAFTA/USMCA, the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA-DR, the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, the U.S.-Panama Trade Agreement.

The Mérida initiative and the Plan Colombia partnership helped contain the scourge of drug cartels.

The United States devotes enormous resources to disaster response throughout the Americas:

· The United States has poured $523 million into Latin America and the Caribbean to fight COVID-19.

· In the wake of hurricanes Irma, Maria, Iota and Eta, U.S. troops delivered thousands of tons of supplies, tens of thousands of gallons of desalinated water, and tons of temporary-shelter systems; evacuated and treated thousands of people; and transported aid workers into the disaster zones.

· After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, U.S. forces reopened Haiti’s main airport; rescued the trapped and injured; repaired ports, bridges and critical infrastructure; provided security assistance; and delivered humanitarian aid. The U.S. task force saved tens of thousands of Haitians.

In these examples, we see what Monroe envisioned: a true spirit of brotherhood, more secure neighbors, a more stable hemisphere.

Crosshairs. Today, as when Monroe issued his doctrine, the Western Hemisphere is in the crosshairs of unfriendly political systems.

Beijing cajoled Colombia into a “strategic partnership” in 2023. Beijing has a stake in Ecuador’s oil and mining reserves, Brazil’s oil fields, Peru’s and Bolivia’s mines, Venezuela’s oil sector and Argentina’s transportation system. Beijing is building schools in Uruguay, completing a port in Peru and managing both ends of the Panama Canal. Plus, China is the primary provider of 5G systems throughout Latin America, exposing our neighbors to massive intelligence vulnerabilities.

That brings us to the military strings attached to China’s largesse. PRC personnel are manning a military satellite-tracking facility in Argentina. PRC forces have conducted joint military maneuvers in Peru; joint naval maneuvers with Chile, Argentina and Brazil; and military exchanges with Brazil, Mexico, Suriname and Chile. Bolivia has a military cooperation agreement with Beijing. Beijing has delivered rocket systems to Peru; surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and artillery to Bolivia; SAMs and anti-tank missiles to Ecuador; and infantry fighting vehicles, missiles and helicopters to Venezuela -- $629 million in weapons to Caracas since 2006.

And then there’s Cuba. It was revealed in 2023 that China opened an intelligence-gathering facility on that imprisoned island in 2019. Beijing is now laying the groundwork for a military-training facility on Cuba’s northern coast.

Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina have granted Russia access to their airspace and ports. Russia has military-training agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 2015, Russia and Peru inked an agreement enfolding cooperation in defense and economic development.

Venezuela fields Russian shoulder-fired SAMs, tanks, armored vehicles, fighter-bombers and attack helicopters.

Nicaragua in 2022 authorized the deployment of Russian aircraft, ships and troops on its territory. Moscow stood up a satellite station in Nicaragua in 2017, and Moscow donated dozens of tanks to Nicaragua in 2016.

Tehran has opened 80 cultural centers in Latin America. Doubtless, some are used as cover for Iran’s top export: terrorism. In late 2023, Brazilian authorities moved against a Hezbollah cell that was planning attacks in the country against Jewish targets. Companies based throughout Latin America have been sanctioned for laundering money for Hezbollah, which receives $700 million annually from Tehran.

Iran is shipping drones to Bolivia. High-level military officials from Iran and Nicaragua have openly discussed military cooperation. Iranian warships have visited Brazil. Iran has delivered anti-ship missiles and fast-attack boats to Venezuela. In 2022, Iran and Venezuela signed a long-term pact enfolding defense exchanges and energy development.

Messages. A decade ago, Washington’s message was that the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over. The above litany reveals the consequences of that approach.

Perhaps there’s a happy medium between scrapping the Monroe Doctrine and misusing it. Indeed, it seems the United States and its Western Hemisphere partners would be better served renewing Monroe’s vision. Call it “Monroe 2.0.”

Monroe 2.0 shouldn’t be a pretext for U.S. intervention. Rather, like the original intent of Monroe and Adams, it should be a shield against intervention by external powers whose political systems are “essentially different” from that of the Americas. Washington should emphasize that just as the nations of South and Central America are not U.S. colonies, they should not allow themselves to become Chinese or Russian colonies. They should reject -- for their sake, for their security, for their sovereignty – arrangements with Beijing, Moscow or Tehran that would erode their independence. After all, “partnership” with these ruthless regimes never ends well. See muzzled Hong Kong, brutalized Xinjiang, suffocated Belarus, occupied Donetsk, rubbled Yemen, smashed Syria.  

Monroe 2.0 would make it clear that the Americas don’t oppose all things Russian or Chinese, but that we are opposed, as Monroe explained, to the “political system” of these powers. (As President John Kennedy explained, “If there is one principle which has run through the long history of this hemisphere, it is our common determination to prevent the rule of foreign systems or nations in the Americas.”) The Monroe Doctrine was deft in its vagueness about consequences. Washington would do well to give itself similar room for maneuver in enunciating Monroe 2.0. Still, if China, Russia or Iran force Washington to brandish the big stick, it should be directed into their neighborhoods, thus shielding this hemisphere from conflict and further encroachment.

Related, Monroe 2.0 could emphasize to Beijing and Moscow that while the Americas welcome efforts to conduct trade in this hemisphere, we look unfavorably upon the sale of Chinese and Russian arms in this hemisphere, the basing of Chinese and Russian military assets in this hemisphere, and any attempt to export their form of their business-suit autocracy into this hemisphere. To borrow Monroe’s genteel language, those are “unfriendly” actions “endangering our peace and happiness.”

Finally, the definition of “our” should be broadened in Monroe 2.0 to include all the freedom-loving nations of this hemisphere. Indeed, to underscore that Monroe 2.0 marks something new, democratic leaders from throughout the hemisphere could join together to issue such a statement of shared principles.

Actions. The words of Monroe 2.0 would need to be underscored by actions.

Washington must stop taking the Western Hemisphere for granted. That begins with diplomacy, but diplomacy presupposes having diplomats. The American Foreign Service Association keeps a tally of ambassador-post vacancies. Of the 27 countries without a confirmed U.S. ambassador, nine are in this hemisphere. That sends a terrible signal to friend and foe. Diplomats are needed to articulate U.S. interests. Diplomats are needed to ask our neighbors, “Where are Russia, China and Iran when disaster strikes?” And diplomats are needed to remind our neighbors where the United States is when disaster strikes.

Total U.S. trade with Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean is $1.5 trillion annually (double U.S. trade with China). Yet Washington has allowed trade deals in the Americas to languish, leading some to turn to Beijing.

Washington should be proactive on hemispheric security, building on successful partnership-oriented models in Colombia. But that presupposes U.S. military capacity, which serves as another argument for a more sizable, more sustained commitment to defense spending. Russia is on the march. China is on the rise. Iran is setting the Middle East on fire. And all three are on the prowl in Latin America. Yet the United States is spending just over 3% of GDP on defense – not enough to deter our enemies or protect our hemisphere.

The origin of the threats may change, but the principles of the Monroe Doctrine remain an important guide for the security of our hemisphere. Washington should use it as a roadmap in dealing with hostile political systems that are challenging yet again “our peace and happiness.”