Capstones: Time to Dust off the Monroe Doctrine

By Alan W. Dowd 
November 25, 2014

Much has been reported about Washington’s “Pacific pivot” aimed at deterring Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea and the “reassurance initiative” aimed at deterring further Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe. What’s not as widely reported is Beijing’s pivot to the Americas and Moscow’s revival of Cold War-style intrusions—and deployments—in the Western Hemisphere. To borrow a phrase from an old but timeless pillar of American foreign policy—the Monroe Doctrine—the actions of Beijing and Moscow constitute “an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” And they must be answered.

Before exploring how to answer the provocative behavior of China and Russia, let’s take a look at what these two powers are doing in America’s backyard.


First things first: There are pluses and minuses to Beijing’s increased interest in the Americas. Investment from China, Europe, Britain and the United States is fueling a much-needed development boom in South America. That’s a plus. But China’s riches come with strings, and that’s what raises concerns.

Driven by a thirst for oil and other resources, China is aggressively building its economic portfolio in the Western Hemisphere. A Joint Forces Quarterly (JFQ) study offers the highlights:

  • $1.24 billion to upgrade Costa Rica’s main oil refinery;
  • $28 billion to underwrite oil exploration and development in Venezuela;
  • $2.7 billion, including a new hydroelectric plant, for access to Ecuadoran oil;
  • $10 billion to modernize Argentina’s rail system and $3.1 billion to purchase Argentina’s petroleum company outright;
  • $1.9 billion for development of Chile’s iron mines;
  • a planned “dry canal” to link Colombia’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts by rail, with dedicated ports at the Pacific terminus for shipping Colombian coal to China;
  • $3.1 billion for a slice of Brazil’s vast offshore oil fields.

“They are buying loyalty,” warns a former British diplomat. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables reveal concerns that Beijing’s largesse is making the Bahamas, to cite just one example, “indebted to Chinese interests,” while establishing “a relationship of patronage…less than 190 miles from the United States.”

That brings us to the security dimensions of the China challenge. We know from our own history that trade and economic ties often lead to security and defense ties. And that’s exactly what’s happening as China lays down roots in the Americas:

  • Chinese-made transport aircraft and armored vehicles have been used by Venezuelan troops to smash anti-authoritarian protests.
  • Jane’s Defense reports China is peddling short-range missiles to Peru, surveillance equipment to Peru and Brazil, and warship-repair expertise to Venezuela and Argentina.
  • The Argentine defense minister traveled to Beijing in 2012 to hail a “bilateral strategic association in defense cooperation.” 
  • A report in a journal of the U.S. Army concludes that China is “winning a foothold” in the Americas, with Chinese small-arms, medium artillery, air defenses and ground-attack aircraft flowing into Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
  • The JFQ study adds that China has “an important and growing presence in the region’s military institutions.” Most Latin American nations “send officers to professional military education courses in the PRC.”


Moscow’s actions in the Americas are more blatantly focused on the military and geopolitical spheres—and hence more provocative.

Consider the Russian defense minister’s announcement this month that Moscow will deploy long-range bombers “to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.” The announcement follows a major surge in intrusions by Russian warplanes into North American airspace—16 incursions in one 10-day period this past summer.

But that’s just the latest example of Russian encroachment in the Americas:

  • Russian lawmakers this year approved a plan to stand up a satellite-monitoring facility in Nicaragua. Russian warships dock in Nicaraguan ports.
  • Vladimir Putin traveled to Havana in July to forgive $32 billion in Cuban debt, ink a deal to build a new seaport, and cement Russia’s pole position in oil and gas exploration in Cuban waters, as Newsweek reported.
  • Russia is reopening a long-dormant intelligence base in Cuba, and is planning to establish military bases in Cuba, Venezuela and/or Nicaragua, according to the American Foreign Policy Council’s Ilan Berman, who adds, “Negotiations are underway to allow port visits to each, and to open refueling sites…for Russian long-range aircraft.”
  • Russia has deployed naval and air assets to the Caribbean to conduct exercises with the Venezuelan military. Moscow has shipped Su-30 attack aircraft, attack helicopters and 100,000 machine guns to Caracas, as CSIS reports. 
  • Russia has sold Argentina military helicopters, and the two are cooperating on nuclear energy.
  • No less than eight countries in South and Central America—Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia—have purchased arms from Russia in recent years, with Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico buying $1.75 billion in Russian weaponry in 2013 alone.
  • Russian long-range bombers shuttling between Venezuela and Nicaragua have been caught violating Colombian airspace. Russian warplanes are known to refuel in Venezuela, and Russian officials have floated the possibility of basing bombers in Cuba or Venezuela.

Monroe 2.0

That brings us back to the Monroe Doctrine, which in 1823 put Europe on notice that the United States would view intervention in this hemisphere as a hostile act. President Monroe arrived at that conclusion not because America opposed all things European, but because America opposed the “political system” of European powers—a system which was then “essentially different…from that of America.” Thus, he concluded, “It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness.”

It is the authoritarian political systems of today’s Russia and China that should concern the U.S. government. And that’s why Washington should not countenance Chinese or Russian encroachment on the Americas—and why the Monroe Doctrine remains relevant.

Yet Secretary of State John Kerry announced in 2013 that “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  Criticizing how President Monroe “declared that the United States would…step in and oppose the influence of European powers in Latin America,” Kerry explained, “We have made a different choice.” 

And it shows.

Without question, the Monroe Doctrine was misused at times. But for 190 years, it helped American presidents defend U.S. interests and buffer the Americas from external encroachment.

TR, for example, urged that the final settlement of World War I include “formal recognition of the Monroe Doctrine.” This was partly a function of the doctrine’s importance to securing U.S. interests, but it also was a function of the doctrine’s capacity to promote independence and stability in South America. International recognition of the Monroe Doctrine “would mark a long stride forward in international peace,” TR declared, adding, “South of the equator, there are growing civilized states capable of enforcing this doctrine themselves…We should join in enforcing it only at their request.”

On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, FDR cited “the obligation that we have under the Monroe Doctrine for the protection” of territories throughout the hemisphere.

As the crisis over Soviet involvement in Cuba heated up, President Kennedy observed,“The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere. And that’s why we oppose…what’s happening in Cuba today.”

President Reagan lamented how Moscow “had violated the Monroe Doctrine and gotten away with it twice, first in Cuba, then in Nicaragua.” His secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, cited the Monroe Doctrine to argue, “There should be no interference, no sponsorship of any kind of military activity in this hemisphere by countries in other hemispheres.”

The origin of the threats may change—Czarist Russia, post-Napoleonic France, the Spanish Empire in the 1800s, Imperial Germany in the early 1900s, Nazi Germany during World War II, the Soviet Union during the Cold War—but the principles of the Monroe Doctrine remain an important guide for, and statement of, U.S. foreign policy.

So instead of scrapping the Monroe Doctrine, President Obama or his successor should unveil “Monroe Doctrine 2.0.”

Above all, a revamped Monroe Doctrine should make it clear to Beijing and Moscow that while the United States welcomes efforts to conduct trade in the Americas, the American people look unfavorably upon the sale of Chinese and Russian arms in this hemisphere, the basing of Chinese or Russian military personnel in this hemisphere, and any attempt to export their brand of business-suit autocracy into this hemisphere. Russian or Chinese outposts in the Americas can only be seen as “unfriendly” actions “endangering our peace and happiness,” to borrow the genteel language of the original Monroe Doctrine.

Likewise, Washington needs to send the right message—and in the right way—to the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Specifically, Washington should emphasize that just as they are not U.S. or European colonies, they should not allow themselves to become Chinese or Russian colonies. In fact, there’s a backlash in Brazil and Argentina against China’s land acquisitions, and in the Bahamas against the influx of Chinese workers. Colombia has condemned Russian violation of its airspace. And far from espousing the “Yankee go home” mantra of yesterday, a number of South American governments crave American leadership and partnership. Some have proposed a continent-wide security organization modeled after NATO.

The United States should make the case to its neighbors that they should reject—for their independence, for their security, for their sovereignty—the sort of basing and leasing arrangements that would erode what they have fought for. As TR observed, they are capable of defending their independence, and the United States will help “at their request.”

U.S. actions should amplify U.S. pronouncements:

  • Washington should make hemispheric trade a priority, instead of allowing trade deals to languish. Colombia and Panama waited five years for Washington to approve trade agreements.
  • Washington should revive aid and investment in the Americas, instead of allowing China to outflank it. That presupposes a stronger U.S. economy. It pays to recall that Washington once conducted the sort of checkbook diplomacy that characterizes China’s approach to the Americas.
  • Washington should be proactive on hemispheric security, building on successful partnership-oriented models in Colombia and Mexico. That presupposes U.S. military capacity, which means sequestration’s disastrous defense cuts must be reversed. The Joint Forces Command noted in 2008 that China has “a deep respect for U.S. military power.” We cannot overstate how important this has been to keeping the peace. But with the United States in the midst of massive military retrenchment, one wonders how long that reservoir of respect will last.
  • Washington should remember that the leaders of China and Russia see the world as a chessboard, which means they must be reminded that the United States has many moves it can make in their neighborhoods. Temporary deployments of U.S. and NATO forces in Eastern Europe could be turned into permanent bases (as Poland and the Baltics desire); U.S. assets could be positioned to checkmate China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy in the South China Sea; permanent, land-based, U.S.-manned missile defenses could be deployed along Russia’s and China’s borderlands; heavy defensive weaponry could start flowing to Taiwan and Ukraine; the U.S. could start acting like the energy superpower it is. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey calls on U.S. policymakers to view “energy as an instrument of national power.” Wielding this instrument could have a profound effect on a China (which is starving for oil) and Russia (which depends on high energy prices to support its economy).

The goal of Monroe 2.0 would be to help Beijing and Moscow understand how serious the United States is about the Americas. What was true in the 19th and 20th centuries must remain true in the 21st: There is room for only one great power in the Western Hemisphere.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose