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R.I.P.: The Monroe Doctrine

With the rise of democratic governments in Latin America, as well as increased trade between some countries and the European Union and China, comes decreased U.S. policy and economic influence — the United States is no longer The One among superpowers.
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The Monroe Doctrine, long used to assert the United States’ political, military and economic hegemony in the Americas, passed away some time this century. Cause of death included post-9/11 geopolitics, economic competition from China and the European Union and the rise of democratic institutions in the area. Although the exact date of death is unknown, the Doctrine was believed to be at least 180 years old.

The obituary for President James Monroe’s most famous creation appears in “Requiem for the Monroe Doctrine,” an article by Daniel P. Erikson in the February issue of Current History. “Instinctually, the U.S. government believes Latin America is its backyard, and it should have a decisive role in current events,” said Erikson, a senior associate for U.S. policy at Inter-American Dialogue. “But if you look at the realities of the region, it’s seeking diverse ties with a wide range of actors like China and the European Union, and there are emerging powers like Brazil and Venezuela. The Doctrine is dead, but no one has issued the death certificate.”

Proof of the Doctrine’s postmortem condition can be found in the recent diplomatic flare-up involving Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. The crisis was triggered by the Colombian military, which pursued, and then killed, anti-government rebels inside Ecuadorean territory. While the three governments exchanged charges and countercharges, Uncle Sam essentially sat on the sidelines, as impotent as a neutered house cat.

“This was obviously an inflammatory situation, and one where the U.S. could find no role,” said Erikson. “It was not going to force its way into the confrontation, and none of the countries looked to the U.S. to broker a resolution. What you’re seeing is a waning of U.S. policy influence in the hemisphere, accompanied by a waning of U.S. economic influence in some countries.”

Erikson’s article proposes a number of reasons for this. The collapse of the Cold War means there are essentially no dangerous enemies left to fight in Latin America. The rise of democratic governments in the region — even such foes as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega were democratically elected — means many regimes now have a legitimacy they never had during the decades of military dictatorship.

This has also led to an independent streak on the part of some countries — particularly Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina — which has caused them to set their own diplomatic paths and cut their own trade agreements. And with the increase in global markets, especially trade between the European Union and China, the U.S., still Latin America’s biggest trading partner, now finds itself truly challenged in this area for the first time.

Plus, there are two long-standing diplomatic issues that the U.S. has been unable, or unwilling, to deal with: immigration and the question of Cuba.

“Americans have become as isolated as the Cubans,” said Erikson. “Almost 180 countries have diplomatic relations with Cuba. The U.S. has always envisioned they would play a major role in the post-Fidel scenario, but with Fidel Castro turning the reins of power over to his brother Raul, we have entered that, and U.S. influence is limited. It’s almost exhibit A in the decline of U.S. influence. Who would have thought we would allow a Communist succession to unfold smoothly without any interruptions?”

And who would have thought that President Bush, whose first diplomatic visit was to Mexico, would almost completely abandon any interest in Latin America after 9/11, leaving the hot-button issue of immigration to metastasize and become cancerous?

“In terms of U.S.-Mexican relations, there is so much disappointment in Mexico and Latin America because there were so many promises made early on in the Bush administration,” said Erikson. “After 9/11 we blew off Mexico and the region as a whole. And there has been no effort to address (the immigration issue) in any regional and cooperative manner with the Mexicans, so you end up building a wall, which has incredibly damaging symbolism. There’s a sense that the immigration issue can be solved unilaterally by the U.S. government, and that’s not the case.”

Yet things might not be as bleak as they seem. Erikson believes there is movement on the Cuban issue, that some members of the Cuban-American community and the Cuban government realize the current political estrangement is counterproductive. He also feels all three presidential candidates “have a strong interest in restoring U.S. reputation in the world, and Latin America is a key component of that.”

But it’s crucial, added Erikson, that any incoming U.S. administration “try to restore trust in the region by setting a new tone with the relationship — less didactic, more collaborative, work jointly to solve region-wide problems. The U.S. must realize it’s in a very competitive environment in Latin America. Several countries are powers; the European Union is a power; China is a trading issue. The U.S. is not the lone superpower anymore. The Latin Americans have other options today that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and those options will continue to multiply.”

In other words, reports of the Monroe Doctrine’s demise are not — repeat, not — exaggerated.