Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have We Seen the End of the Monroe Doctrine?

Foreign Policy In Focus has a fascinating brief editorial up by Philip Brenner and Saul Landau. In the article, the two men recommend Obama declare the official end of the Monroe Doctrine: "Obama could swiftly improve U.S. relations with Latin America by announcing the death of the Monroe Doctrine and then presiding over its funeral. Such a statement would cost him little domestically, and win him praise and appreciation throughout Latin America and much of the world."

This is a really interesting suggestion. Just off the top of my head, it strikes me that the "Monroe Doctrine," and, perhaps more importantly, the "Roosevelt Corollary," has not been less relevant to American Policy has not been this irrelevant and absent in American policy and rhetoric since at least the Great Depression - well before the atomic bombs, the Cold War, Castro, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc. If Obama were to declare the end of the Monroe Doctrine, it very well may cost him little domestically. I suspect some Republican politicians and advisors would claim that Obama was "sacrificing security" in the "war on terror," but I just don't see how the American electorate could or even would care about this, even if Republicans shouted about how horrible it was until they are blue in the face. Joblessness is up, incomes are down, the economy is in the tank with no sign of improvement in the near future, health insurance is prohibitively expensive - I just can't see people putting this all aside to say, "No! Not the Monroe Doctrine!" And certainly, it would probably garner some goodwill within Latin America, though how much, I'm not sure - there's already a lot of goodwill right now directed towards the new administration, simply for being not-Bush.

I think towards the end, the brief article implies that, in many ways, the Monroe Doctrine is already in many ways dead. As I said above, since 9/11 and the "War on Terror," America's focus has shifted, and the Monroe Doctrine probably hasn't been as insignificant since the 1930s. And, as I've commented before, the Bush administration's focus on the Middle East and the Islamic World has been of great importance in helping Latin America establish its own political and economic autonomy without the U.S.'s interference.

I would go even further than Brenner's and Landau's explanation, though. It's not just that Lula, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Nestor and Christina Kirchner, Fernando Lugo, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa, and others have overseen an unprecedented level of non-involvement from the U.S. politically. The development of Latin American economies independently of U.S. involvement has also effectively killed off the Monroe Doctrine. Many times in the past, we have used the Doctrine/Corollary not to defend simple political interests, but economic interests as well (such as the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz to protect in no small part the controlling interests high-ranking members of the Eisenhower administration had in banana production there, or the defense of American industries in Cuba prior to the Cuban Revolution). As Bush sent the U.S. into trillions of dollars of debt with ridiculous tax cuts and obscene spending in futile military involvements, Latin American economies began booming with trade, not just within their own region, but with partners in Africa, Europe, and, probably most importantly, China. All of this helped Latin America as a region to move from its traditional role as an exporter of primary goods to more diversified exporters and importers, giving countries like Brazil and others a stronger and more equitable role in the global economy. In effect, the current economic role Latin America has assumed has played an even greater role in rendering the Monroe Doctrine a dead letter than the elections of this decade.

Just to clarify, I don't think the declaration or actual "death" of the Monroe Doctrine means the U.S. will never ever try to influence the political landscape of a Latin American country again. It takes a pretty naive view of international relations and an enormous ignorance of American history to presume that any powerful nation (which still includes the U.S.) will not try to work for the outcome that's most satisfactory to its interests, including direct or indirect pressure when possible. By that same token, though, it genuinely feels like the era of the U.S. support of any leader (including dictators) who kowtows to our geopolitical and economic visions is over, and I think the Bush administration, the rise of the so-called (and falsely-treated as unified) "left" in Latin America, and economic development in the region have played an enormous role in this shift. Declaring the end of the Monroe Doctrine publicly may be little more than a symbol at this point, but it would be an important symbol that could play an interesting, and perhaps even important, role in re-shaping our relations with Latin American countries. I don't see any evidence that Obama will do it, but it would be a great way to mark the changes that have already happened in U.S.-Latin American relations.