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The Return of James Monroe

Walter Russell Mead

“The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States in 2013. It was, like many foreign-policy declarations of the Obama years, gloriously optimistic and utterly wrong.

President James Monroe’s declaration in 1823 that the U.S. would not permit the establishment of hostile powers in the Western Hemisphere has become the most famous idea in American foreign policy. The so-called Roosevelt Corollary of 1904 adds that if other nations in the Western Hemisphere default on their international obligations or endanger their neighbors through misgovernance, the U.S. has a “police power” to intervene.

Monroe’s original doctrine and Roosevelt’s extension have never been popular in Latin America, but U.S. presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton have taken an activist role in the region when they saw fit.

Latin America policy has set off one firestorm after another in U.S. politics, especially during the Cold War. Notable examples include the Eisenhower-backed coup in Guatemala; the Kennedy administration’s Bay of Pigs fiasco; President Lyndon Johnson’s deployment of troops to the Dominican Republic; the Nixon administration’s opposition to Chile’s Marxist government ahead of the 1973 coup; and President Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal.

Yet after the Cold War it seemed that U.S.-Latin American relations could relax. The fall of the Soviet Union reduced American concerns about Latin American leftism. Radical governments took power in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and even Venezuela, but this didn’t prompt a vigorous American response.

Meanwhile, some Latin American nations—most notably the regional giants of Mexico and Brazil—seemed to be completing a swift transition to modern democracy and stable growth. When Mr. Kerry proclaimed the death of the Monroe Doctrine in 2013, he did so on the belief that the U.S. not only faced no great-power competition in the region, but that the leading Latin American states had achieved such stability and prosperity as to make “policing” concerns obsolete.

The situation looks less rosy now. The main problem isn’t Washington’s Cold War nightmare of a triumphant Latin left spreading communism in the Western Hemisphere. It’s precisely the opposite: The implosion of Venezuela’s leftist government is driving a regional crisis. As waves of refugees flee the socialist utopia, bad actors ranging from Vladimir Putin to Hezbollah are nosing around in the ruins of the Bolivarian republic. This weekend’s alleged assassination attempt against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a harbinger of more violence to come.

In better times, Venezuela’s oil wealth allowed it to lavish aid on its neighbors. Now that aid is drying up. Choices are narrowing for countries like Nicaragua, where near-civil-war conditions exist, and Cuba. Farther north in Guatemala, where some of the world’s highest homicide rates coincide with severe food shortages, asylum seekers stream toward the U.S. Washington can’t ignore so much instability so close to home.

The growing interest in the region by revisionist powers like China, Russia and Iran adds another dimension to American concerns. With China seeking political influence through strategic investments in Argentina and elsewhere, and Hezbollah cutting deals with Venezuelan drug lords and politicians, the U.S. has to think once again about geopolitical competition in the Western Hemisphere.

The only practical alternative to increased American activism in the region is stronger leadership from Latin American powers. But the prospects for this are bleak. Mexico’s new president appears determined to return to his country’s traditional foreign policy of committed non-interventionism, verbal sympathy for the left, and measured distance from the U.S. Brazil is paralyzed by the implosion of its political class in a series of corruption scandals and spiraling polarization.

Mr. Kerry’s post-Monrovian moment did not last. In February then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Monroe Doctrine is “as important today as it has ever been.” That viewpoint has not changed under Secretary Mike Pompeo. If anything, the urgency of Latin American problems has increased.

A return to a more Monrovian hemispheric policy may be necessary at a time of intensifying geopolitical competition, but it will likely be costly. Many U.S. interventions, military and political, have exacerbated rather than solved the problems Washington sought to address while the polarizing domestic controversies they produced embittered American politics. The Trump administration faces stiff challenges in the region even as the global scene remains threatening; the return of James Monroe is not a sign that things are going well.

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