21 Jan So, You Brought up the Monroe Doctrine Again…
Recently, US President Joe Biden gave a press conference where he was asked about the US’ approach to Latin America. In an I-can’t-believe-he-actually-said-this moment, Biden responded as follows:
“We used to talk about, when I was a kid, in college, about ‘America’s Backyard’. It’s not America’s backyard. Everything south of the Mexican border is ‘America’s Front Yard’. And we’re equal people. We don’t dictate what happens in any other part of this continent or the South American continent. We have to work very hard on it. But the trouble is we’re having great difficulty making up for the mistakes that we made in the last four years, and its going to take some time”.
The statement is troubling in itself. Whether back or front, I doubt there would be any other region of the world that US Presidents would feel comfortable describing as a “yard” – i.e. US property. But the statement “America’s backyard” is not one that exists in a vacuum. It is inextricably linked to the infamous Monroe Doctrine and US imperialism in Latin America. And there used to be a time, not so long ago, when US leaders – particularly democrats – recognised that such policies were untenable and that, as John Kerry admitted in 2013, “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” – or at least it had to be.
In recent years, however, the so-called doctrine has seen a resurgence. Former President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, for instance, made its case repeatedly, claiming that “In this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine’” and that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well”. To now hear the same discourse from the mouth of the supposed post-Trumpian administration is exceedingly troubling. In this post, therefore, I will take the time to explain why the Monroe Doctrine is not only terrible policy, but actually incompatible with modern-day international law.
Many tend to erroneously summarise the Monroe Doctrine to the phrase “America for the Americans”. Because of this motto, the doctrine is frequently reduced in scope to its most limited possible understanding: that, as Monroe himself put it in 1823, the United States would consider European attempts to re-colonise Latin American republics as “an unfriendly disposition toward the United States”. In other words, on this reading, the Monroe Doctrine is the act through which the United States announced to the world that Latin America was its sphere of influence and no other power had the right to intervene in it. “America for the [US] Americans”.
The reality of the Monroe Doctrine is, however, even darker than this already dark outlook. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the doctrine was pretty much useless for its first seven decades. The United States simply did not have the capacity to police such a vast region as Latin America – which is why an Austrian archduke ruled Mexico from 1864 to 1867. This would change in 1898, when the United States became part of the colonialist club.
Seen from the perspective of American historiography, 1898 is the year of the Spanish American War – a short-lived, 10-week conflict that, in essence, is only relevant because it won for the US the new colonial territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. From the perspective of Latin America, however, more than a war between the US and Spain, this was a case of unlawful intervention, by the US, in the Cuban War of Independence.
After the US’s declaration of war on Spain, in the eyes of many influential Latin American anti-imperialist thinkers, the Monroe Doctrine went from a useless declaration of policy to an existential threat. On May 2nd, barely a week after the start of the war, Roque Sáenz Peña, an eminent Argentinean diplomat and publicist, and one of the strongest opponents of the Monroe Doctrine, took the podium at the Victoria theatre of Buenos Aires, and gave one of the most important speeches of the early Latin American international legal tradition – Por España, For Spain.
For Saenz Peña and his many followers, by intervening in the Cuban war of independence, the US was simultaneously offending both the Cuban rebels, who deserved to attain independence in their own terms, and Spain, who had a right to be considered the US’s equal and deal with its own conflicts unmolested. The only legal mechanism available to the US, Saenz Peña said, was the recognition of Cuban belligerency and declaration of neutrality. In fact, anticipating the UN Charter by nearly half a century, Saenz Peña articulated an approach to jus ad bellum premised on self-defence, instead of gunboat diplomacy: “Intervention”, he said, “does not proceed except in the case of aggression or positive threat to the security of the State; but then it stops being intervention, to become the unalienable right of self-defence. One may think instead that the terms are inverted and that it is the aggressor or the disturbing revolution that brings about the involvement of arms in the conflict”.
Saenz Peña notwithstanding, the US won the war, and by January of 1899 it was firmly in control of Cuba. The US, however, could not annex Cuba as it had done Puerto Rico. At the beginning of the war, the Senator for Colorado, Henry Moore Teller, had made sure of it. He knew right from the start that war with Spain meant Cuba (and its huge sugar industry) could be annexed, which would hurt Colorado’s nascent sugar beets industry. As such, Teller made sure the US’s Declaration of War “disclaim[ed] any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people”.
If not annexed, then, what to do with a nation so close to continental US and with deep ties to US markets and industry? In order to find a more attractive solution than outright Cuban independence, US Senator Orville Platt suggested an amendment that would set the conditions for US withdrawal from Cuba. According to this Platt Amendment, the US would “leave the government and control of the island of Cuba to its people so soon as a government shall have been established in said island under a constitution which (…) shall define the future relations of the United States with Cuba”. The amendment then set out a series of conditions this Constitution had to incorporate, including the lease of what now constitutes the Guantanamo Base and:
“That the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty (…)”.
This was the beginning of a redefinition of the Monroe Doctrine that, instead of condemning European interventionism in the Americas, rather sought to justify US interventionism in the name of a supposed (and insincere) policy of anti-colonialism and self-determination (See e.g. Scarfi, p. 10). To its defenders, the Platt Amendment was therefore not a sign the US was constraining Cuban independence for its own neocolonial benefit. Instead, the new Monroe “asserted interventionism as a civilizing and beneficial process in support of the independence of Cuba” (Scarfi, p. 11). In other words, it was good to be under the control and police power of the US – the more “civilised” of the American republics.
The connection between the Monroe Doctrine and the standard of civilisation was an expressly stated one. In 1904, in his State of the Union Address, US President Roosevelt said so as much. In his own words:
“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United Sates to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power”.
In fact, this connection was apparent to even its Latin American supporters, such as Chilean jurist Alejandro Álvarez. Writing in 1909, in English, for the American Journal of International Law, Álvarez defended the new Monroe Doctrine, arguing that it was just a good way for the US to lead young Latin American nations to civilised status. The Platt Amendment, he said, was the product of Cuba’s “inexperience in self-government” and thus needed to be placed “directly under a kind of political tutelage of the great republic” – a republic that, says Álvarez, had experienced “prodigious and rapid development (…) outdistancing the other American republics” and thus deserved its role as “hegemon”. In any case, Álvarez countered, the Monroe Doctrine was a “welcome innovation as compared with the protectorates exercised by the nations of Europe”, since it “does not offend the dignity and national spirit” and will “gradually disappear in proportion as the progress of the new states renders it unnecessary”.
Of course, as an offshoot of the standard of civilisation, the moment when tutelage was no longer needed never came. As Tzouvala aptly notes, the standard of civilisation, particularly in the 19th century and early 20th, oscillated between a “logic of improvement”, which “premised equal participation in international law subject to comprehensive internal reform in accordance with the imperatives of capitalist modernity”, and a “logic of biology”, which “constantly negated such a possibility, perpetually confining non-Western political communities into a lesser position within the architecture of international law”. In other words, Western nations demanded non-Western nations to modernise, but made sure that they were never able to, thus subjecting them to a double standard that, in many ways, continues to this day. This meant that there was always a “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence” by an uncivilised Latin American state that required the US to “however reluctantly” intervene – in Panama (1903), the Dominican Republic (1904 and 1916), Cuba (1906), Nicaragua (1912), Mexico (1914 and 1916), Haiti (1915), and a very, very long etc. A policy of interventionism in cases of “chronic wrongdoing or impotence” (a.k.a. “unwillingness or inabbility”) cannot be the basis of the US-Latin America relationship because (as I have argued elsewhere) such a policy violates the UN Charter and a standard of friendly relations between states.
And thus, here we are, 118 years after Roosevelt’s Corollary, and US Presidents, both democratic and republican, are still referencing the Monroe Doctrine’s legacy and terminology. The standard of civilisation, alive and well. It thus makes no sense for President Biden to argue that the US seeks not to “dictate” what other nations do. The Monroe Doctrine’s ties to the standard of civilisation speaks for itself. Either the US still holds firm to an ideology meant to justify US tutelage over the Americas or the US does not dictate policy in the region. Because as long as the Monroe Doctrine is still alive, Tzouvala’s logic of improvement and biology will apply. Just like the Monroe Doctrine required Cuba to maintain a government “adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty” as a recipe to avoid US interventionism in the 20th century, it will likewise require the rest of the American republics to subscribe to the war on drugs, tolerate inhumane immigration policies and avoid aggravating US economic or policy interests as a means to avoid US retaliation in the 21st.