US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson started his tour of Latin America this month by invoking the success and relevance of the controversial two-century-old Monroe Doctrine. If his intention was to mend fences and re-establish relations in the region for his boss Donald Trump, the reference was truly bizarre.
He cited the doctrine against China’s supposed neo-imperialism because Beijing has expanded ties and economic plans across South America. But for the US to invoke the doctrine for its Latin American friends is like Britain praising the Opium War and the unequal treaties while trying to improve relations with China.
The doctrine has been a perfect example of American imperial hubris. That was why the Obama administration in 2015 repudiated it. “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past,” he said.
Now, Trump wants to revive it. But surely it’s entirely up to countries in South America to decide who they want to do business with, no? Not so under the doctrine; it’s actually up to Uncle Sam.
Quite simply, the Western hemisphere is and has long been America’s backyard, or sphere of influence. In the 19th century, the doctrine was invoked against European imperial monarchies; in the 20th, against communism and socialism inspired by the Soviet Union, and now, China. Most South American countries had been client states of Washington, usually with a right-wing dictatorial regime, and each had been invaded or covertly interfered with, often multiple times, in the past two centuries.
From its inception, the doctrine was cast in hypocrisy. While then president James Monroe recognised the right to independence of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, his administration and subsequent ones refused to recognise the same principle vis-à-vis North American Indian tribes. In fact, they pursued the opposite: genocide. The historical symbolism was not lost as Tillerson visited Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Colombia.
Monroe’s original message to the US Congress was also superfluous. Spain was too debilitated after the Napoleonic War to resume imperial control, and the Holy Alliance of several European monarchies had no wish to offer material support besides voicing ideological affinity.
The doctrine is a complicated way of saying the US is the boss. But in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s way past its use-by date.