A profound change was taking place across the Americas in the 1820s. The gigantic realm of New Spain, once a pinnacle in the European domination of the New World, stretching from the depths of Cape Horn to the heights of modern California, was breaking apart. In place of the massive Spaniard dominion emerged a series of new nations which dotted the landscape, fighting for their political independence and bringing an end to Castile as the dominant power in the Western hemisphere. A new regional order was born.
In the midst of it all, a young United States was expanding westwards and consolidating its place in the world. In the fires of its birth, Washington wrestled and haggled with the lingering presence of European colonial powers in a struggle to dominate the still up for grabs New World. Only years previously had the union fought off an invasion from Great Britain’s dominion to the north. Under such uncertainty, if the USA was to develop and prosper, realizing the dream of its manifest destiny and reaching the Pacific, it would ultimately need to reach out beyond its borders and consolidate a regional hegemony which served its interests.
Thus was declared in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine: That is the declaration that the Americas represented an exclusive sphere of Washington’s own interests and that any efforts by European countries to intervene or expand their presence would constitute a direct threat to the security and national interests of the United States, therefore giving the President a mandate to intervene with force. As the Spanish Empire had dissolved into a spectrum of smaller and weaker countries, the doctrine aimed to preserve the status quo and keep out the influence of rival powers. Over time, the influence of the British and French would fade away, Mexico would be cut down to size and as James Monroe envisioned, Washington would attain exclusive dominance over the Americas.
Centuries later, even if not professed in name, the legacy of the Monroe doctrine has continued to find relevance pre-requisite for American strategy for central and Latin America, even if the tone of emphasis has shifted from President to President owing to the context. In the Cold War, it found new life. John F. Kennedy sought to contain the pro-Soviet revolutionary regime in Cuba and crush the spread of Bolivarian uprisings throughout the region. As the Cold War neared its end, Ronald Regan and George H.W Bush similarly used the brunt of American military force to stamp out suspect regimes with the potential to change the US-centric order. Then the Cold War ended, and seemingly with America’s victory apparently guaranteed, the term “Monroe Doctrine” faded away into history, as if it was no matter.
But the world would change. The decade of the 2010s saw history turn in a way that was not expected, that is the Cold War victory of liberal-democracy was no longer a given or an inevitability. Instead, the world started to drift towards nationalism, isolationism and for many countries, resurgent authoritarianism. Russia re-emerged once again as a challenger to the United States, whilst far more notably the People’s Republic of China did not become a democratic nation as was anticipated but grew increasingly powerful with a vision to cement its own model and civilizational legacy in the world. Thus in this decade, international relations coverage and discourse changed drastically. American hegemony was no longer the fabled “end of history” as Fukuyama assumed, but it was now being challenged in a way not seen after 1991.
The Donald Trump administration has been the first Presidency to react to this shifting context. Although the administration itself is a challenge to the U.S. led order by its contempt for international norms, multilateralism, pursuit of nationalism and emphasis on naked self-interest, it has nevertheless pursued a series of policies which sought to aggressively recuperate American hegemony in the midst of challenges. Most notably that has involved taking a harder line against China. What it also involved, however, crucial to this analysis, is that for the first time since the Cold War the administration is also moving to reassert American hegemony in the Americas, if you will, a neo-Monroe doctrine. The aim of such? To bring an end to anti-U.S. regimes in the region and expel the influence of Moscow and Beijing, the latter one has formed increasingly close ties with Latin America.
How is this being done in practice? The first flashpoint is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Although this seems at first glance a simple Trump-related “American jobs first” this trade agreement is “the worst ever” fiasco, the President’s renegotiation of the agreement has been strategic. When it was resigned in late 2018, commentators noted the addition of a clause forced on Canada and Mexico which gave the United States a right of veto to the entire treaty if either party signed a free trade agreement with a “non-market economy” – who would that be? In light of Washington’s trade war demands to Beijing, who else but China? In essence, the President had effectively excluded the PRC from the sphere of North American trade unless it caves to every structural reform and market access concession Washington wants. Thus, it is a reaffirmation of U.S. economic hegemony over North America.
Secondly, regime changes have been put back on the cards. The crisis in Venezuela has obviously been the most notably cited example of such a “Neo” Monroe doctrine. The United States is seeking the removal of Nicholas Maduro as the country’s President in favor of Juan Guido, slapping a number of sanctions on the Bolivarian country. Similarly, Cuba has been on the receiving end of American pressure. One of the first actions the Trump administration undertook was to shoot down elements of Barack Obama’s deal with Havana and re-instate sanctions. Hostile rhetoric towards the country on a diplomatic level has resumed, sphere headed by individuals such as Marco Rubio. In addition, Nicaragua is also being spoken of as a target for future pressure, as mentioned by Nikki Haley and John Bolton.
Finally, countries that seek to form closer ties with China or Russia are to be punished. In late March, the Trump administration announced that it was slashing aid to a number of countries in Central America, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Although casual observers interpreted this in the light of Trumpesque anti-Latino racism, the motive was in fact geopolitical. El Salvador recently switched ties from Taiwan to China, the latter two are considering it. With the Trump administration utilizing aid in a transactional “America First” manner than on an ethical basis, the President was singling out these nations for punishment. Other countries in the Americas who had already switched ties to Beijing, including the Dominican Republic and Panama, had their U.S ambassadors recalled as a show of disapproval for doing so.
In summary, U.S. power politics is returning to the Americas for the first time since the Cold War. In an emerging multipolar environment with Washington now anxious about its hegemony, the Trump administration has taken the initiative in attempting to reassert its traditional undisputed dominance in the Western hemisphere. The administration is likely to continue in taking a hard line against any country which does not share American strategic preferences and has been given a welcome boost by the election of the pro-US Javier Bolsonaro in Brazil. The extent the administration will succeed in this policy remains to be seen, as it is worth remembering that China is not the Soviet Union and in turn, regional countries ultimately will continue to see benefits in economic ties with Beijing. In essence, the Americas again have become a theatre of great power competition.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a British analyst, columnist and writer specializing in Politics and International Relations. He has graduated from the University of Oxford. Tom has written extensively on China and North Korea related issues.