Is Trump resurrecting the Monroe Doctrine?

John Kerry, secretary of State under Barack Obama, declared the Monroe Doctrine to be over. It seems already to be experiencing a resurgence under President Trump.

Jorge Duenes/Reuters
Artists paint a section of the wall separating Mexico and the United States, in Tijuana, Mexico.

A version of this post ran on American University's AULA Blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

A vigorous resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine may well be at hand under President Trump, even though history shows us that it will contradict another favored policy: “America First.”

The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 as a means of blocking external interference in the Western Hemisphere, was the central pillar of US policy toward Latin America until Barack Obama’s secretary of State, John Kerry, told a roomful of Latin American diplomats in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  The statement was part of an effort to rehabilitate the US image in a region long accustomed to seeing the United States as seeking to control it through persuasion when possible, and force when necessary. 

In a policy paper published last December, Craig Deare, a dean at the US National Defense University and now Mr. Trump’s top Latin America advisor on the National Security Council staff, denounced Kerry’s statement “as a clear invitation to those extra-regional actors looking for opportunities to increase their influence.” He specifically mentioned China.

A revitalized Monroe Doctrine, however, contradicts the administration’s other strong impulse, present in its statements far beyond Latin America, toward isolationism. Trump is promising to build a literal wall between Latin America and the United States, but the Monroe Doctrine was decisively unilateral and interventionist. It stated that the United States would not intervene in European affairs if European powers did not intervene in the Americas, but Monroe carefully avoided saying that the United States would not intervene in the region. 

Indeed, Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and other US leaders desired and expected the future annexation of parts of what was then Spanish or Latin American territory in Cuba, northern Mexico (later Texas), and beyond. Later, even in the “isolationist” early decades of the 20th century, the United States was vigorously engaged in military intervention and outright occupation of several countries in Latin America. The Marines were in Nicaragua (1912-33), Haiti (1915-34), and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

Latin American resistance prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which supplanted the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism with respect for national sovereignty, but during World War II, FDR threatened Latin American governments with economic embargoes and other measures if they didn’t round up and intern thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese.

Even Obama had difficulty reversing the United States’ longstanding desire to guide political and economic developments in Latin America – continuing, for example, Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba and elsewhere – but steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and other initiatives made important strides toward assuaging Latin American irritation with US imperiousness. Obama went further than any president since FDR in restoring good relations, and ended the Cold War in Latin America. 

Donald Trump’s competing impulses – the interventionism of Monroe and the isolationism of “America First” – may keep US-Latin America relations on edge. His unilateralist style has already claimed its first victim, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. If Trump revives the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism more broadly in response to a perceived threat from China throughout the region, he may succeed only in making Latin America irate again.

Max Paul Friedman is a professor in American University's department of history, specializing in 20th-century US foreign relations. He is the author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.

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