The US Renounces the Monroe Doctrine?

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In a move that has oddly flown under the radar thus far, earlier this week the Obama administration renounced the Monroe Doctrine.

The announcement came in a speech Secretary of State John Kerry made to the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C. on Monday. Kerry began the speech by noting that since President James Monroe’s famous State of the Union Address, the U.S. has “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.”

He continued: “Today, however, we have made a different choice. The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over…. 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… to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

If Kerry is to be believed, this represents a dramatic break in American foreign policy. Indeed, the Monroe Doctrine has formed the backbone of U.S. foreign policy both in the Western Hemisphere and abroad since it was delivered in December 1823.

In the relevant part of the speech, Monroe noted the threat posed by European powers, and stated:

“We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But 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.”

The speech was delivered in the context of the formation of the Holy Alliance and the breakdown of Spanish colonial rule throughout much of Latin America. The fear was that the Holy Alliance powers would seek to restore European monarchy rule in Spain’s former colonies. The general ideas espoused by Monroe were actually first proposed to the U.S. by British Foreign Minister George Canning, who suggested the U.S. and U.K. make a joint declaration. With an eye toward the future, however, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams rejected Canning’s overture and instead issued the doctrine unilaterally, knowing full well that British naval power would still enforce it.

As I’ve noted before, the Monroe Doctrine was one part of America’s two-pronged strategy for establishing regional hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. It was also at the heart of foreign policy debates within the United States during the 19th century, although—as recent scholarship has shown—this was just as often for domestic political reasons as for foreign policy ones.

In a broader sense, the Monroe Doctrine has underpinned much of what the U.S. has done abroad to date. Its participation in WWI, WWII and the Cold War, for example, was aimed at preventing a regional hegemon from emerging in Europe and Asia. The rationale behind this objective was/is that if another regional hegemon emerges in a crucial region, it will have the power and the interest to challenge U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. So long as states are busy vying for power regionally, they will not have the motivation to mount a serious challenge to the U.S. in its own neighborhood. Thus, the U.S. has expended enormous blood and treasure in Europe and Asia in what amounts to a preventive defense of the Monroe Doctrine. It appears ready to do so again in Asia in the decades ahead.

So then why is the Obama administration calling for an end to the Monroe Doctrine even as it continues to call for a pivot to Asia?

The truth of the matter is that the Obama administration is almost certainly not disavowing the spirit of the Monroe Doctrine. If a country like Russia or especially China were to try and station large numbers of troops in Central America, it’d likely have to go through the U.S. military first, as Moscow learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, the Obama administration rightly calculates that such a possibility remains remote and, in any case, America’s true feelings on the matter can be communicated to leaders in Moscow or Beijing privately should the need arise.

More importantly, the Obama administration understands the central role soft power plays in sustaining regional hegemony. Although America’s superior military power is what ultimately ensures its regional hegemonic status, this is an instrument that should only be used overtly as a last resort.

The better, more efficient way to sustain regional hegemony is for the hegemonic power to legitimize its status through non-coercive means. The U.S. has usually done a decent job of this historically. However, it has seen a number of setbacks in recent months, which likely prompted Kerry’s speech.

First, it leaned heavily on Latin American countries like Ecuador to persuade them not to offer Edward Snowden asylum, with Congress threatening (i.e. coercing) the Ecuadoran government with the removal of favorable trading terms. Then, the extent of U.S. surveillance operations in Latin American countries was made public by Snowden, which sparked a strong backlash in places like Brazil. All of this comes at a time when there is growing anger in the region over America’s war on drugs.

Kerry’s speech was an effort to begin repairing the damage. The unilateralism and parentalism of the Monroe Doctrine has long been a source of resentment in Latin America. Renouncing it was a symbolic gesture that was likely appreciated by many in Latin America (even if they felt it was long overdue). Moreover, after denouncing the Monroe Doctrine to much applause at the OAS meeting on Monday, Kerry proceeded to outline a vision for the region’s future in which equal states cooperate based on mutual respect in pursuit of common ends like peace, prosperity, and freedom. He even sounded a somewhat optimistic note in talking about Cuba.

This is the type of benevolent leadership that makes the job of a regional hegemon relatively easy. China would do well to take notes.

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