The Democrats' New 'Latino' Problem: The Ghost of James Monroe
On social media, some disturbing maps have circulated showing the globe in terms of which nations have sanctioned Russia over her invasion of Ukraine. Bolivian writer Ollie Vargas posted this map, which makes clear that sanctions in Russia are seen as an absolute must in Europe, the English-speaking world, Japan, and South Korea. Everywhere else, President Biden's requests for economic war against Russia have been rejected.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently claimed that we have "basically crushed" Russia's economy through sanctions, but is this true? The sanctions can't work in crushing the Russian economy and forcing the ouster of Putin if only a small percentage of the globe is really sanctioning Moscow. Despite how important the United States and her allies are, Russia still has a huge playing field in which to recover trade.
Domestically, the Democrats have prided themselves on being the party of inclusion. They spent half a decade convincing all of us that Trump was racist; Republicans were despised white supremacists; and people of color everywhere would embrace the liberal diversity gestures of Walt Disney, the Clinton Global Initiative, Twitter, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and Harvard University. It seems black, brown, yellow, and otherwise non-white people have told Biden's progressive party to take a hike.
Perhaps they see in Biden everything that the Democrats condemned Trump for; they just happen to think Trump does a better job at being Trump than Biden does. Trump never tried to bully them into starving their citizens of Russian wheat, petrochemicals, fertilizer, barley, rye, gas, and oil. Apparently this little detail matters a lot more than rumors that Trump once talked about s-hole countries.
It is hard to interpret events as anything other than a massive blow to American credibility abroad. Around the world, people sympathize with innocent civilians harmed in Ukraine. But there's a difference in how people moralize and assign blame. Europeans, Anglophone nations, Japan, and South Korea take America's claims and promises seriously mostly because their experience with American credibility has been rather helpful.
On the other hand, now would be a good time for all those Critical Race theorists in New York and California to update their antiquated assumptions. People outside the tidy U.S. sphere of influence don't see the Ukraine invasion as a simple bad/good dichotomy. Many recognize that the 2014 coup d'état that put the current Ukrainian regime in power as a typical Western intelligence operation, something they can recognize from their own histories. Therefore, they aren't swayed simply by the idea that Zelensky is naturally the good guy by virtue of being the one holding power before the war started. A lot of them look at Zelensky and see a puppet, an agent of Western infiltration and subversion, not very different from the countless phonies that the CIA has installed in the four corners of the globe.
Most depressing is the fact that a lot of the world just doesn't believe us. They don't have a lot of reason to believe us because the Biden administration got caught in quite a few recent lies. Our reason for taking such keen interest in a dispute between Russia and Ukraine looks suspicious, given how many hotspots exist on the globe, which the United States all but ignores.
Americans think the rest of the world sees a nation leading the charge for freedom, democracy, prosperity, and human kindness. The rest of the world sees some of that glowing idealism, mixed with a great deal of cynicism and hypocrisy. It used to be Republicans who didn't want to concede that people abroad had some reason for distrusting the U.S. Now the Democrats are incapable of considering whether their fascination with green energy, LGBT rights, feminism, race, and Big Tech persuades people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America or just creeps a lot of people out.
Who are the countries that said no?
That Africa and the Middle East would shrug off Biden's calls is not that surprising, given that the United States has never treated issues in Africa as a high priority.
After the War on Terror, we did not expect Middle Eastern countries to jump on Biden's bandwagon, especially since Biden voted in favor of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.
The high-profile refusals of China and India are disconcerting, to say the least, given their enormous populations (together nearly eight times the population of the U.S.) and the prospects that their continued commerce with Russia could create an alternate world economy from which the United States will have effectively exiled herself.
But perhaps the most underreported, and indeed most dangerous defections from U.S. dominance have taken place in Latin America. Mexico's president hails from the Party of the Democratic Revolution and has been celebrated for being the first truly indigenous leader of the tenth most populous country in the world (close to 130 million people). You would think a man with such lefty credentials would be positively thrilled to work with a Democrat after four years of Trump...but you would be wrong.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced soon after the imposition of sanctions that Mexico would not partake in them: "We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all the governments in the world."
Let us just say it is less than comforting that we have a 1,900-mile open border with a country that just announced that it wants good relations with a Russian government the U.S. has sworn publicly to crush.
The other powerhouse south of the border is Brazil, where president Bolsonaro is not playing ball with Joe Biden, either. Besides mocking Zelensky's status as a comedian, Bolsonaro said Brazil needs Russian partnership to support its agribusiness and feed its population of over 200 million people. As Reuters reported, "[h]e added that he was against any sanctions that could bring negative repercussions for Brazil, citing Russian fertilizers which are crucial for the country's giant agribusiness sector."
Countries with smaller populations are not holding back, either. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador loves to needle the United States government on Twitter now that Biden is in office. In response to calls for a united front against Russia, Bukele wrote: "The real war is not in Ukraine, it's in Canada, Australia, France, Brussels, England, Germany, Italy. They just want you to look the other way." Nowadays he seems emboldened to use Bitcoin as an alternate currency despite the United States Congress issuing statements strongly opposed to such a move. In response to criticisms over currency, Bukele asked on Twitter whether El Salvador deserves "sovereignty" the same way Ukraine does.
In nearby Nicaragua, still led by the now older superstar of Reagan-era geopolitics, Daniel Ortega, that rejection of sanctions is the least of Biden's worries. Ortega has openly sided with Russia and supports her latest moves, saying: "If Ukraine gets into NATO they will be saying to Russia let's go to war, and that explains why Russia is acting like this. Russia is simply defending itself." Recently, Russia's deputy prime minister, Yuri Borisov, visited Venezuela and Cuba, both nations that have ironically survived U.S. sanctions against them, though not without pain.
We could go from Guatemala to Argentina, with each nation having its own flavor and specific angle on the issue. But the continent is not going to sanction Russia.
That is not good for the United States for a lot of reasons, but for one reason, especially: Joe Biden publicly and aggressively asked all the countries of the world to sanction Russia and make her a pariah state. By saying no to such an important request, our neighbors have made Biden's America a pariah state instead.
The Monroe Doctrine Comes Back as a Zombie
If it were just Brazil and Mexico, we could blame the right-wing president in the former and/or the left-wing president in the latter. But everyone seems to hate Biden's America and what it represents in Latin America. The left will have to grapple with this for years to come.
Democrats and Republicans alike would love to shrug off Latin America's response and say, "Well, who needs them anyway?" I am not so sure that's a viable position to take. Our border with Mexico is gaping. If Biden's recent slip-up ("Putin cannot remain in power") spoke unintentional truth and our secret goal is regime change in Russia, we are looking at a war that will last a long time, in which Russia will defend her home turf against a foreign aggressor.
In the defender role, Russia will probably count on support from China and India. Our military and intelligence operations are going to be stretched thin. If the war goes on, we will probably need a draft to staff our military efforts. We will simply not be able to defend our homeland from Russian and Chinese assets that find their way into the many nations of Latin America. Put simply, we cannot place ourselves at war with Russia, China, and India, while conducting a sprawling intelligence and covert operation in all of Latin America to keep all those countries out of alliance with Russia and China. And unlike the Middle East, the Latin American countries live right next to us.
Despite the posturing of the two parties, both Republicans and Democrats have inherited the Monroe Doctrine as their default framework. On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe gave an address regarding the Latin American republics that had recently gained independence from Spain. The 1820s was a time of excitement and rapid change in the Americas, especially with the colorful figure of Simón Bolívar in the middle of it all.
Speaking to the spirit of the age, James Monroe balanced conflicting sentiments. On the one hand, many Americans were delighted that Latin American revolutionaries like Bolívar emulated Washington, Jefferson, and Adams — and indeed patterned their movement after the spirit of '76. On the other hand, the United States was already almost fifty years old and needed to contend with certain political realities. The Americans had recently struck a deal with Spain and acquired Florida. It was in the interests of the United States not to make an enemy of Madrid by allowing the independent republics to sign treaties with Spain's rival, England; the Spaniards, ruled by the same dynasty as the French in the eighteenth century, had sided with the Americans against the British in the Revolutionary War.
Ideology was not so dear that we would pay any price to assist other democracies if it meant endangering our own. It was one thing to have a far-flung Spanish empire led by weak Bourbon kings to the south of us. Quite another thing was to have a quarrelsome clan of republics afire with idealism and of questionable stability. American leaders feared that the volatility of independent Latin America, combined with the meddlesome influence of England, France, Spain, and possibly Russia (then advancing her interests in the Pacific Rim), would make the continent a breeding ground for groups subversive of U.S. interests.
Monroe delivered an address on December 2, 1823, balancing these competing sentiments and baking a policy scheme known as the Monroe Doctrine, which determined American policy in Latin America from Monroe's presidency until the 1990s. Monroe laid out three principles, which would prove pliable and subject to wildly different interpretations by later presidents who invoked it:
1. The Latin American republics, once freed, were not to be subject to recolonization by any foreign power. [This essentially grew into the principle that the United States had the right to intervene if Latin American countries entered into treaties with other countries that did not serve our interests.]
2. Any foreign power attempting to exert influence over the Latin American republics would and should be viewed as a hostile action toward the United States and must be addressed as such. [This grew into the Roosevelt Corollary, allowing the United States to interpret Latin American republics' own pursuit of alliances as de facto acts of war, and grounds for U.S. intervention.]
3. In exchange for the European powers' abstaining from Latin American affairs, the United States would abstain from European disputes. [This was actually an idea that some Latin Americans liked, because it meant they would be recused from dangerous obligations to hostile combatants outside the hemisphere, but the clause was all but abandoned in the twentieth century as the United States pressured Latin Americans to pick sides in struggles such as the Cold War.]
Through the 1990s, with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policies during one limited period of time, U.S. presidents respected the Monroe Doctrine and cited it affirmatively. In 1947, during the negotiations that led to the formation of the United Nations, the Truman administration cited the Monroe Doctrine as the justification for forming a separate multinational league, the Organization of American States, even naming it in one of the founding articles of the OAS.
Three articles I can recommend if you want an overview of this policy that goes deeper than Wikipedia are listed at the end of this article. When I do a deep dive into the long history of the Monroe Doctrine, I find an enormous trove of scholarship about it from around the world because it went through several phases, all of which impacted other countries.
Russian scholars, like scholars everywhere, have studied the Monroe Doctrine because it stands out as such an important principle in the development of global politics. Unfortunately, all the doctrine's clauses look and sound exactly like Russia's rationale for invading Ukraine. If we try to talk around the parallels or dismiss such comparison as "whataboutism," we aren't going to win friends and influence people. We just undermine our own credibility and look like hypocritical clowns. Without the Monroe Doctrine, Los Angeles and Dallas would be part of Mexico. That's not a small, irrelevant detail.
The list of American interventions into Latin American affairs is long and bloody. Virtually every nation in Latin America has been subject to invasion or other kinds of domination by the United States. Not everyone in Latin America harbors a grudge against the United States, but most people in Latin America will not be receptive to the moral argument that they should back the United States against Russia based on principles of international law. It would be extremely offensive for President Biden even to try to make such an argument.
Aside from the moral argument, the United States has no other argument beyond threats and bullying that a crisis with Russia would leave America too weak to enforce. No country in the region has any reason to believe that Biden could sanction them for not sanctioning Russia; Biden's hurried overtures to the despised government in Caracas prove that.
Latin America has no military interest in propping up Ukraine's corrupt government and has an enormous economic interest in keeping trade lanes open with Russia and China.
Like Frankenstein's monster coming back to kill the scientist who created him, the pestilent and tattered Monroe Doctrine walks among us again. Monroe stands vindicated, in one sense: he was right that Latin America's allegiances with foreign powers undermine the United States' political position at home. The difference between 1823 and 2022 is stark, however. In 1823, the republics wanted to stay on good terms with the United States and build their countries up as best as they could. In 2022, they look at America and see her led by someone they don't respect.
The problem for President Biden is that he inherits all the debts and guilt that come with two hundred years of Monroe's doctrine while he possesses none of the strength or political know-how to put it in motion. That's a problem he may never solve. The Biden Corollary might simply be to lose everything, everywhere, all the time.
Gilderhus, M. T. (2006). The Monroe Doctrine: Meanings and Implications. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 36(1), 5–16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552742
Kasturi, N. (1941). THE MONROE DOCTRINE. The Indian Journal of Political Science, 3(2), 176–181. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42743711
Sessions, Gene A. "THE MULTILATERALIZATION OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE: THE RIO TREATY, 1947." World Affairs 136, no. 3 (1973): 259–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20671521