John Kerry’s worst moment as secretary of state—and this is a crowded category—came in 2013 when he declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Kerry went on to explain that now the United States now sees the other American states as equals.
Which is, simply as a matter of geopolitics, objectively nonsensical. America is larger by population than any other country in the Americas. Its economy, as measured by nominal GDP is roughly four times the size of every other country in North, Central, and South America combined. In terms of military power, the disparity is, if anything, larger. Costa Rica doesn’t even have a standing military—it relies solely on the American security umbrella.
One might make the argument that the United States and the other countries of the Americas are equal in terms of dignity, or inherent moral worth, or natural beauty, even.
But in the terms which the American secretary of state is supposed to deal in, this remark was not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.
The Monroe Doctrine was drafted by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and delivered in a State of the Union address to the Congress by President James Monroe. It affirmed that the United States would play the role of the arbiter in the Americas and would not countenance foreign intervention.
The United States did not invoke the Doctrine formally until 1895, when Venezuela defaulted on its debts to the United Kingdom. At the time (and under Republican pressure) President Grover Cleveland invoked the policy and declared the U.S. to be the arbiter of the dispute between the two countries. The United Kingdom then recognized the United States’ right to be the hegemon in the Americas. The dispute ended, and the United States helped reach a resolution as an impartial party.
A second Venezuelan crisis developed less than a decade later after Venezuela defaulted on its debts again. The United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, backed by several other European states, created a naval blockade against Venezuela in order to make the country pay. President Theodore Roosevelt objected to the blockade and tasked Admiral George Dewey to sail a fleet to the Caribbeans, near the European vessels. After negotiations and diplomatic threats, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague again recognized the right of the United States to be sole arbiter of the conflict. Again, the dispute ended after the United States brokered a deal.
The fact that this intra-American partnership has been unequal has benefited all sides. The United States benefits because its adversaries cannot pose a threat close to the American homeland. The other American countries benefit because they can spend their resources however they like, without worries about external security threats.
Republican and Democratic administrations have successfully invoked the doctrine to reach outcomes favorable to the United States. Kennedy invoked it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan used it to prevent the installation of Soviet military bases in Nicaragua. By abandoning it, Secretary Kerry undermined not only the interests of the United States, but of the entire continent.
For the last 200 years, the Americas has been a relatively peaceful neighborhood, at least relative to the rest of the world. During the Cold War, despite popular Marxist movements, the United States kept the continent mostly safe from Soviet influence. Today, most American countries are democratic.
Which brings us, again, to Venezuela. Because words have consequences.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported that the Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro had been ready to flee to Cuba, but that Vladimir Putin convinced him to stay. And Russia is not the only player exercising influence. Inside and outside of Venezuela, China, Iran, and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah are increasing their activities in the continent, including in Mexico.
Will this stand? National Security Advisor John Bolton recently suggested that “in this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase Monroe Doctrine. [Venezuela] is a country in our hemisphere; it’s been the objective of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere.”
The recent Russian interference in Venezuela is a golden opportunity to do so. But the opportunity is double-edged.
It’s one thing for the United States to say that it has abandoned the Monroe Doctrine in the name of some nebulous form of equality.
It would be quite another thing for the United States to ratify that decision by saying that it will invoke the Monroe Doctrine and then failing to do so.
The power of the Monroe Doctrine stemmed in large part from its standing as the status quo. The Obama administration weakened this standing and opened the door to change. If the Trump administration does not act to reassert the United States’ interests in our hemisphere, then there will be a new status quo—one in which foreign powers are free to project power close to our home. And it will be that much harder for future administrations to alter it.