Tillerson Charts a New Course in Latin America
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.
No other great powers will be allowed in Latin America, and liberal democracy is the only political system allowed in the region (or, in practice, no socialist or Marxist rule will be tolerated in the region). These are the two tenets of the Monroe Doctrine established by the United States in 1823, a successful and long-standing strategy that perpetuated Washington’s hegemony in Latin America until November 2013, when then-U.S. chief diplomat John Kerry declared its “end” at the Organization of American States.
Yet the recent trip to Latin America by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests this may only have been a short parenthesis in the history of the strategy. Indeed, Tillerson seems determined to revive the Monroe Doctrine.
Kerry and the “End”
The Monroe Doctrine has undergone several alterations. In the 19th century it was directed against the European monarchies and their colonialist ventures, and during the Cold War its focus shifted against the Soviet Union and socialism/Marxism. After 1989, the doctrine shifted again, with no clear “enemy” to focus against. As the United States enjoyed its unipolar moment, the “backyard” of Washington did not need any supervision, and therefore Latin America was no longer a priority.
Washington’s lack of attention left a door open for other great powers. Several countries began to engage with the region, China being the most assertive. Beijing has increased its influence in Latin America significantly since 2001, with the Sino–Latin American relationship intensifying as trade jumped from $12 billion at the beginning of the century to approximately $250 billion in 2015. Political and military engagements gradually increased between Beijing and several Latin American countries Washington regarded with distrust; namely Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina.
China increased its arms sales and military engagements in Latin America. The growth of these exchanges was limited until 2015 when Beijing signed an arms deal with Argentina that would take Chinese military sales to the region from $100 million to as much as $1 billion. China also struck an agreement for the construction of a Chinese space-monitoring base in the Argentinean Patagonia, controlled by the People’s Liberation Army, announced in 2014 and intended to be fully operative this year.
Beijing has also helped sustain the socialist regimes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and the Kirchners in Argentina by directing them 75 percent of the $119 billion in Chinese loans provided to Latin America since 2005. Despite concerns raised by a few U.S. academics, Washington did nothing to counter China’s actions in this regard.
During the prime of the Monroe Doctrine, between 1823 and 2001, such influence would never have grown unchecked. It was a sign of the decreasing capacity of the United States to be an omnipresent hegemon.
This reality was officially acknowledged by the Obama administration in November 2013, when Kerry delivered an address to the Organization of American States entitled “The United States and Latin America: The Power of Partnership.” His speech was striking:
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 not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.
Along with the symbolic significance of the end of the Monroe Doctrine, the speech demonstrated a willingness to engage Latin America in softer and cooperative terms. It did not mention the involvement of China or other great powers in the region, or any Latin American political situation in particular. Kerry acknowledged a need to develop a strategy more in tune with U.S. power in the new regional and global context.
The Tillerson Revival
Then arrived Donald Trump. A tough approach on immigration and constant insults to Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, such as Haiti and El Salvador, rendered Obama-era efforts to engage the region almost useless. Latin America did not feature within Trump’s inward-looking strategy of “America First”; the region south of the Rio Grande only arose when talking about the wall, drugs, illegal immigration, or renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
However, if the visit by Tillerson to the region is any guide, a significant shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin American might be underway. Tillerson seems willing to develop a newly assertive approach, a glimpse of which was evident in a speech delivered on Feb. 1 at the University of Texas, shortly before his trip began, in which he developed several ideas about the geopolitical situation of the region. His remarks are worth quoting at length:
Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people. China’s state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past. It doesn’t have to be this hemisphere’s future …
Russia’s growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values …
Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region …
Today, China is gaining a foothold in Latin America. It is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit. The question is: At what price?
During his speech, Tillerson reasserted the importance of the region’s shared democratic values. He also called for action against the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, and pointed to recent “steps taken against corruption in Guatemala, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil,” and how these “underscore the importance of directly addressing” the problem.
A couple of days later, Tillerson focused on Venezuela’s political crisis again, declaring that the United States would use “all economic, political, and diplomatic tools” at its disposal, and later announced an intention to establish sanctions against Nicholas Maduro’s regime.
Contrasted with Kerry, Tillerson seems to be determined to say and do something about what he considers as external (Chinese) and internal (Venezuelan) threats to the region. It appears that the Monroe Doctrine is back.
Diego Leiva is a PhD Candidate at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. His research focuses on Sino–Latin American relations in the twenty-first century, from an International Relations Theory perspective. His latest publication is “Xi Jinping and Sino–Latin American Relations in the 21st Century: Facing the Beginning of a New Phase?” (2017), in the Journal of China and International Relations (JCIR).