By David Swanson, prepared for the Fifth International Conference for World Balance
Drawing on the recently published book, The Monroe Doctrine at 200 and What to Replace it With
The Monroe Doctrine was and is a justification for actions, some good, some indifferent, but the overwhelming bulk reprehensible. The Monroe Doctrine remains in place, both explicitly and dressed up in novel language. Additional doctrines have been built on its foundations. Here are the words of the Monroe Doctrine, as carefully selected from President James Monroe’s State of the Union Address 200 years ago on December 2, 1823:
“The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . . .
“We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power, we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
These were the words later labeled the “Monroe Doctrine.” They were lifted from a speech that said a great deal in favor of peaceful negotiations with European governments, while celebrating as beyond question the violent conquering and occupying of what the speech called the “uninhabited” lands of North America. Neither of those topics was new. What was new was the idea of opposing further colonization of the Americas by Europeans on the basis of a distinction between the bad governance of European nations and the good governance of those in the American continents. This speech, even while repeatedly using the phrase “the civilized world” to refer to Europe and those things created by Europe, also draws a distinction between the type of governments in the Americas and the less-desirable type in at least some European nations. One can find here the ancestor of the recently advertised war of democracies against autocracies.
The Doctrine of Discovery — the idea that a European nation can claim any land not yet claimed by other European nations, regardless of what people already live there — dates back to the fifteenth century and the Catholic church. But it was put into U.S. law in 1823, the same year as Monroe’s fateful speech. It was put there by Monroe’s lifelong friend, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. The United States considered itself, perhaps alone outside of Europe, as possessing the same discovery privileges as European nations. (Perhaps coincidentally, in December 2022 almost every nation on Earth signed an agreement to set aside 30% of the Earth’s land and sea for wildlife by the year 2030. Exceptions: the United States and the Vatican.)
In cabinet meetings leading up to Monroe’s 1823 State of the Union, there was much discussion of adding Cuba and Texas to the United States. It was generally believed that these places would want to join. This was in line with these cabinet members’ common practice of discussing expansion, not as colonialism or imperialism, but as anti-colonial self-determination. By opposing European colonialism, and by believing that anyone free to choose would choose to become part of the United States, these men were able to understand imperialism as anti-imperialism.
We have in Monroe’s speech a formalization of the idea that “defense” of the United States includes defense of things far from the United States that the U.S. government declares an important “interest” in. This practice continues explicitly, normally, and respectably to this day. The “2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States,” to take one example of thousands, refers consistently to defending U.S. “interests” and “values,” which are described as existing abroad and including allied nations, and as being distinct from the United States or the “homeland.” This was not brand new with the Monroe Doctrine. Had it been, President Monroe could not have stated in the same speech that, “the usual force has been maintained in the Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and along the Atlantic coast, and has afforded the necessary protection to our commerce in those seas.” Monroe, who had bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for President Thomas Jefferson, had later expanded U.S. claims westward to the Pacific and in the first sentence of the Monroe Doctrine was opposing Russian colonization in a part of North America far removed from the western border of Missouri or Illinois. The practice of treating anything placed under the vague heading of “interests” as justifying war was strengthened by the Monroe Doctrine and later by the doctrines and practices built on its foundation.
We also have, in the language surrounding the Doctrine, the definition as a threat to U.S. “interests” of the possibility that “the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either [American] continent.” The allied powers, the Holy Alliance, or the Grand Alliance, was an alliance of monarchist governments in Prussia, Austria, and Russia, which stood for the divine right of kings, and against democracy and secularism. Weapons shipments to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia in 2022, in the name of defending democracy from Russian autocracy, are part of a long and mostly unbroken tradition stretching back to the Monroe Doctrine. That Ukraine may not be much of a democracy, and that the U.S. government arms, trains, and funds the militaries of most of the most oppressive governments on Earth are consistent with past hypocrisies of both speech and action. The slaveholding United States of Monroe’s day was even less of a democracy than is today’s United States. The Native American governments that go unmentioned in Monroe’s remarks, but which could look forward to being destroyed by Western expansion (some of which governments had been as much an inspiration for the creation of the U.S. government as had anything in Europe), were often more democratic than the Latin American nations Monroe was claiming to defend but which the U.S. government would often do the opposite of defending.
Those weapons shipments to Ukraine, sanctions against Russia, and U.S. troops based throughout Europe are, at the same time, a violation of the tradition supported in Monroe’s speech of staying out of European wars even if, as Monroe said, Spain “could never subdue” the anti-democratic forces of that day. This isolationist tradition, long influential and successful, and still not eliminated, was largely undone by U.S. entry into the first two world wars, since which time U.S. military bases, as well as the U.S. government’s understanding of its “interests,” have never left Europe. Yet in 2000, Patrick Buchanan ran for U.S. president on a platform of supporting the Monroe Doctrine’s demand for isolationism and avoidance of foreign wars.
The Monroe Doctrine also advanced the idea, still very much alive today, that a U.S. president, rather than the U.S. Congress, can determine where and over what the United States will go to war — and not just a particular immediate war, but any number of future wars. The Monroe Doctrine is, in fact, an early example of the all-purpose “authorization for the use of military force” pre-approving any number of wars, and of the phenomenon much beloved by U.S. media outlets today of “drawing a red line.” As tensions grow between the United States and any other country, it has been common for years for the U.S. media to insist that the U.S. president “draw a red line” committing the United States to war, in violation not only of the treaties that ban warmaking, and not only of the idea expressed so well in the same speech that contains the Monroe Doctrine that the people should decide the course of the government, but also of the Constitutional bestowal of war powers on the Congress. Examples of demands for and insistence on following through on “red lines” in U.S. media include the ideas that:
- President Barack Obama would launch a major war on Syria if Syria used chemical weapons,
- President Donald Trump would attack Iran if Iranian proxies attacked U.S. interests,
- President Biden would directly attack Russia with U.S. troops if Russia attacked a NATO member.
Another poorly maintained tradition begun with the Monroe Doctrine was that of supporting Latin American democracies. This was the popular tradition that sprinkled the U.S. landscape with monuments to Simón Bolívar, a man once treated in the United States as a revolutionary hero on the model of George Washington despite widespread prejudices toward foreigners and Catholics. That this tradition has been poorly maintained puts it mildly. There has been no greater opponent of Latin American democracy than the U.S. government, with aligned U.S. corporations and the conquistadors known as filibusterers. There is also no greater armer or supporter of oppressive governments around the world today than the U.S. government and U.S. weapons dealers. A huge factor in producing this state of affairs has been the Monroe Doctrine. While the tradition of respectfully supporting and celebrating steps toward democracy in Latin America has never died out entirely in North America, it has often involved firmly opposing the actions of the U.S. government. Latin America, once colonized by Europe, was recolonized in a different sort of empire by the United States.
In 2019, President Donald Trump declared the Monroe Doctrine alive and well, asserting “It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere.” While Trump was president, two secretaries of state, one secretary of so-called defense, and one national security advisor spoke publicly in support of the Monroe Doctrine. National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the United States could intervene in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua because they were in the Western Hemisphere: “In this administration, we are not afraid to use the phrase Monroe Doctrine.” Remarkably, CNN had asked Bolton about the hypocrisy of supporting dictators around the world and then seeking to overthrow a government because it was allegedly a dictatorship. On July 14, 2021, Fox News argued for reviving the Monroe Doctrine in order to “bring freedom to the Cuban people” by overthrowing the government of Cuba without Russia or China being able to offer Cuba any aid.
Spanish references in recent news to the “Doctrina Monroe” are universally negative, opposing U.S. imposition of corporate trade agreements, U.S. attempts to exclude certain nations from a Summit of the Americas, and U.S. support for coup attempts, while supporting a possible decline in U.S. hegemony over Latin America, and celebrating, in contrast to the Monroe Doctrine, the “doctrina bolivariana.”
The Portuguese phrase “Doutrina Monroe” is in frequent use as well, to judge by Google news articles. A representative headline is: “‘Doutrina Monroe’, Basta!”
But the case that the Monroe Doctrine is not dead extends far beyond explicit use of its name. In 2020, Bolivian President Evo Morales claimed that the United States had organized a coup attempt in Bolivia so that U.S. oligarch Elon Musk could obtain lithium. Musk promptly tweeted: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” That’s the Monroe Doctrine translated into contemporary language, like the New International Bible of U.S. policy, written by the gods of history but translated by Elon Musk for the modern reader.
The U.S. has troops and bases in several Latin American nations and ringing the globe. The U.S. government still pursues coups in Latin America, but also stands by while leftist governments are elected. However, it has been argued that the U.S. does not any longer need presidents in Latin American nations to achieve its “interests” when it has coopted and armed and trained elites, has corporate trade agreements like CAFTA (The Central American Free Trade Agreement) in place, has given U.S. corporations the legal power to create their own laws in their own territories within nations like Honduras, has massive debts owed to its institutions, provides desperately needed aid with its choice of strings attached, and has had troops in place with justifications like the drug trade for so long that they are sometimes accepted as simply inevitable. All of this is the Monroe Doctrine, whether we stop saying those two words or not.
We’re often taught that the Monroe Doctrine wasn’t acted on until decades after its articulation, or that it wasn’t acted on as a license for imperialism until it was altered or reinterpreted by later generations. This is not false, but it is overstated. One of the reasons that it is overstated is the same reason that we’re sometimes taught that U.S. imperialism didn’t begin until 1898, and the same reason that the war on Vietnam, and later the war on Afghanistan, were referred to as “the longest lasting U.S. war.” The reason is that Native Americans are still not treated as being and having been real people, with real nations, with the wars against them being real wars. The portion of North America that ended up in the United States is treated as having been gained through non-imperial expansion, or even as not having involved expansion at all, even though the actual conquest was extremely deadly, and even though some of those behind this massive imperial expansion intended it to include all of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The conquest of much (but not all) of North America was the most dramatic implementation of the Monroe Doctrine, even if rarely thought of as being related to it at all. The first sentence of the Doctrine itself was opposing Russian colonialism in North America. The U.S. conquest of (much of) North America, while it was being done, was frequently justified as opposition to European colonialism.
Much of the credit or blame for drafting the Monroe Doctrine is given to President James Monroe’s Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. But there is hardly any particular personal artistry to the phrasing. The question of what policy to articulate was debated by Adams, Monroe, and others, with the ultimate decision, as well as the selection of Adams to be secretary of state, falling to Monroe. He and his fellow “founding fathers” had created a single presidency precisely in order to be able to place responsibility on someone.
James Monroe was the fifth U.S. president, and the last founding father president, following in the path of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, his friends and neighbors in what’s now called Central Virginia, and of course following the only other person to run unopposed for a second term, fellow Virginian from the part of Virginia where Monroe grew up, George Washington. Monroe also generally falls in those others’ shadows. Here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live, and where Monroe and Jefferson lived, a statue of Monroe, once found in the middle of the grounds of the University of Virginia, was long ago replaced by a statue of the Greek poet Homer. The biggest tourist attraction here is Jefferson’s house, with Monroe’s house receiving a tiny fraction of the attention. In the popular Broadway musical “Hamilton,” James Monroe is not transformed into an African-American opponent of slavery and lover of freedom and show tunes because he isn’t included at all.
But Monroe is a significant figure in the creation of the United States as we know it today, or at least he should be. Monroe was a great believer in wars and militaries, and probably the greatest advocate in the early decades of the United States for military spending and the establishment of a far-flung standing army — something opposed by Monroe’s mentors Jefferson and Madison. It would not be a stretch to name Monroe the founding father of the military industrial complex (to use the phrase Eisenhower had edited down from “military industrial congressional complex” or, as peace activists have begun denominating it following the variation — one among many — used by my friend Ray McGovern, the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think Tank complex, or MICIMATT).
Two centuries of ever increasing militarism and secrecy is a massive topic. Even limiting the topic to the Western Hemisphere, I provide in my recent book only the highlights, plus some themes, some examples, some lists and numbers, to hint at the full picture as far as I can make it out. It’s a saga of military actions, including coups, and threats thereof, but also economic measures.
In 1829 Simón Bolívar wrote that the United States “seem destined to plague America to misery in the name of liberty.” Any widespread view of the United States as a potential protector in Latin America was very short-lived. According to a biographer of Bolívar, “There was a universal feeling in South America that this first-born republic, which ought to have helped the younger ones, was, on the contrary, only trying to encourage discord and to foment difficulties so as to intervene at the appropriate moment.”
What strikes me in looking at the early decades of the Monroe Doctrine, and even much later, is how many times governments in Latin America asked the United States to uphold the Monroe Doctrine and intervene, and the United States refused. When the U.S. government did decide to act on the Monroe Doctrine outside of North America, it was also outside of the Western Hemisphere. In 1842, Secretary of State Daniel Webster warned Britain and France away from Hawaii. In other words, the Monroe Doctrine was not upheld by defending Latin American nations, but it would be frequently employed to sabotage them.
The Monroe Doctrine was first discussed under that name as justification for the U.S. war on Mexico that moved the western U.S. border south, swallowing up the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. By no means was that as far south as some would have liked to move the border.
The catastrophic war on the Philippines also grew out of a Monroe-Doctrine-justified war against Spain (and Cuba and Puerto Rico) in the Caribbean. And global imperialism was a smooth expansion of the Monroe Doctrine.
But it is in reference to Latin America that the Monroe Doctrine is usually cited today, and the Monroe Doctrine has been central to a U.S. assault on its southern neighbors for 200 years. During these centuries, groups and individuals, including Latin American intellectuals, have both opposed the Monroe Doctrine’s justification of imperialism and sought to argue that the Monroe Doctrine should be interpreted as promoting isolationism and multilateralism. Both approaches have had limited success. U.S. interventions have ebbed and flowed but never halted.
The popularity of the Monroe Doctrine as a reference point in U.S. discourse, which rose to amazing heights during the 19th century, practically achieving the status of the Declaration of Independence or Constitution, may in part be thanks to its lack of clarity and to its avoidance of committing the U.S. government to anything in particular, while sounding quite macho. As various eras added their “corollaries” and interpretations, commentators could defend their preferred version against others. But the dominant theme, both before and even more so after Theodore Roosevelt, has always been exceptionalist imperialism.
Many a filibustering fiasco in Cuba long preceded the Bay of Pigs SNAFU. But when it comes to the escapades of arrogant gringos, no sampling of tales would be complete without the somewhat unique but revealing story of William Walker, a filibusterer who made himself president of Nicaragua, carrying south the expansion that predecessors like Daniel Boone had carried west. Walker is not secret CIA history. The CIA had yet to exist. During the 1850s Walker may have received more attention in U.S. newspapers than any U.S. president. On four different days, the New York Times devoted its entire front page to his antics. That most people in Central America know his name and virtually nobody in the United States does is a choice made by the respective educational systems.
Nobody in the United States having any idea who William Walker was is not the equivalent of nobody in the United States knowing there was a coup in Ukraine in 2014. Nor is it like 20 years from now everybody having failed to learn that Russiagate was a scam. I would equate it more closely to 20 years from now nobody knowing that there was a 2003 war on Iraq that George W. Bush told any lies about. Walker was big news subsequently erased.
Walker got himself the command of a North American force supposedly aiding one of two warring parties in Nicaragua, but actually doing what Walker chose, which included capturing the city of Granada, effectively taking charge of the country, and eventually holding a phony election of himself. Walker got to work transferring land ownership to gringos, instituting slavery, and making English an official language. Newspapers in the southern U.S. wrote about Nicaragua as a future U.S. state. But Walker managed to make an enemy of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and to unite Central America as never before, across political divisions and national borders, against him. Only the U.S. government professed “neutrality.” Defeated, Walker was welcomed back to the United States as a conquering hero. He tried again in Honduras in 1860 and ended up captured by the British, turned over to Honduras, and shot by a firing squad. His soldiers were sent back to the United States where they mostly joined the Confederate Army.
Walker had preached the gospel of war. “They are but drivellers,” he said, “who speak of establishing fixed relations between the pure white American race, as it exists in the United States, and the mixed, Hispano-Indian race, as it exists in Mexico and Central America, without the employment of force.” Walker’s vision was adored and celebrated by U.S. media, not to mention a Broadway show.
U.S. students are rarely taught how much U.S. imperialism to the South up through the 1860s was about expanding slavery, or how much it was impeded by the U.S. racism that did not want non-“white,” non-English-speaking people joining the United States.
José Martí wrote in a Buenos Aires newspaper denouncing the Monroe Doctrine as hypocrisy and accusing the United States of invoking “freedom . . . for purposes of depriving other nations of it.”
While it’s important not to believe that U.S. imperialism began in 1898, how people in the United States thought of U.S. imperialism did change in 1898 and the years following. There were now greater bodies of water between the mainland and its colonies and possessions. There were greater numbers of people not deemed “white” living below U.S. flags. And there was apparently no longer a need to respect the rest of the hemisphere by understanding the name “America” to apply to more than one nation. Up until this time, the United States of America was usually referred to as the United States or the Union. Now it became America. So, if you thought your little country was in America, you’d better watch out!
With the opening of the 20th century, the United States fought fewer battles in North America, but more in South and Central America. The mythical idea that a larger military prevents wars, rather than instigates them, often looks back to Theodore Roosevelt claiming that the United States would speak softly but carry a big stick — something that Vice President Roosevelt cited as an African proverb in a speech in 1901, four days before President William McKinley was killed, making Roosevelt president.
While it may be pleasant to imagine Roosevelt preventing wars by threatening with his stick, the reality is that he used the U.S. military for more than just show in Panama in 1901, Colombia in 1902, Honduras in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1903, Syria in 1903, Abyssinia in 1903, Panama in 1903, the Dominican Republic in 1904, Morocco in 1904, Panama in 1904, Korea in 1904, Cuba in 1906, Honduras in 1907, and the Philippines throughout his presidency.
The 1920s and 1930s are remembered in U.S. history as a time of peace, or as a time too boring to remember at all. But the U.S. government and U.S. corporations were devouring Central America. United Fruit and other U.S. companies had acquired their own land, their own railways, their own mail and telegraph and telephone services, and their own politicians. Noted Eduardo Galeano: “in Honduras, a mule costs more than a deputy, and throughout Central America U.S. ambassadors do more presiding than presidents.” The United Fruit Company created its own ports, its own customs, and its own police. The dollar became the local currency. When a strike broke out in Colombia, police slaughtered banana workers, just as government thugs would do for U.S. companies in Colombia for many decades to come.
By the time Hoover was president, if not before, the U.S. government had generally caught on that people in Latin America understood the words “Monroe Doctrine” to mean Yankee imperialism. Hoover announced that the Monroe Doctrine did not justify military interventions. Hoover and then Franklin Roosevelt withdrew U.S. troops from Central America until they remained only in the Canal Zone. FDR said he would have a “good neighbor” policy.
By the 1950s the United States was not claiming to be a good neighbor, so much as the boss of the protection-against-communism service. After successfully creating a coup in Iran in 1953, the U.S. turned to Latin America. At the tenth Pan-America Conference in Caracas in 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles supported the Monroe Doctrine and claimed falsely that Soviet communism was a threat to Guatemala. A coup followed. And more coups followed.
One doctrine heavily advanced by the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s was that of “free trade” — free only if you’re not considering damage to the environment, workers’ rights, or independence from large multinational corporations. The United States wanted, and perhaps still wants, one big free trade agreement for all nations in the Americas except Cuba and perhaps others identified for exclusion. What it got in 1994 was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, binding the United States, Canada, and Mexico to its terms. This would be followed in 2004 by CAFTA-DR, the Central America – Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which would be followed by numerous other agreements and attempts at agreements, including the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership for nations bordering the Pacific, including in Latin America; thus far the TPP has been defeated by its unpopularity within the United States. George W. Bush proposed a Free Trade Area of the Americas at a Summit of the Americas in 2005, and saw it defeated by Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.
NAFTA and its children have brought big benefits to big corporations, including U.S. corporations moving production to Mexico and Central America in the hunt for lower wages, fewer workplace rights, and weaker environmental standards. They’ve created commercial ties, but not social or cultural ties.
In Honduras today, highly unpopular “zones of employment and economic development” are maintained by U.S. pressure but also by U.S.-based corporations suing the Honduran government under CAFTA. The result is a new form of filibustering or banana republic, in which the ultimate power rests with profiteers, the U.S. government largely but somewhat vaguely supports the pillaging, and the victims are mostly unseen and unimagined — or when they show up at the U.S. border are blamed. As shock doctrine implementers, the corporations governing “zones” of Honduras, outside of Honduran law, are able to impose laws ideal to their own profits — profits so excessive that they are easily able to pay U.S.-based think tanks to publish justifications as democracy for what is more or less democracy’s opposite.
History seems to show some partial benefit to Latin America in moments when the United States was otherwise distracted, as by its Civil War and other wars. This is a moment right now in which the U.S. government is at least somewhat distracted by Ukraine and willing to purchase Venezuelan oil if it believes that contributes to hurting Russia. And it is a moment of tremendous accomplishment and aspiration in Latin America.
Latin American elections have increasingly gone against subservience to U.S. power. Following Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution,” Néstor Carlos Kirchner was elected in Argentina in 2003, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2003. Independence-minded President of Bolivia Evo Morales took power in January 2006. Independence-minded President of Ecuador Rafael Correa came into power in January 2007. Correa announced that if the United States wished to keep a military base any longer in Ecuador, then Ecuador would have to be permitted to maintain its own base in Miami, Florida. In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, ousted in 1990, has been back in power from 2007 to today, though clearly his policies have changed and his abuses of power are not all fabrications of the U.S. media. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was elected in Mexico in 2018. After set-backs, including a coup in Bolivia in 2019 (with U.S. and UK support) and a trumped-up prosecution in Brazil, 2022 saw the list of “pink tide” governments enlarged to include Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Honduras — and, of course, Cuba. For Colombia, 2022 saw its first election of a left-leaning president ever. For Honduras, 2021 saw the election as president of the former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya who had been ousted by the 2009 coup against her husband and now first gentleman Manuel Zelaya.
Of course, these countries are full of differences, as are their governments and presidents. Of course those governments and presidents are deeply flawed, as are all governments on Earth whether or not U.S. media outlets exaggerate or lie about their flaws. Nonetheless, Latin American elections (and resistance to coup attempts) suggest a trend in the direction of Latin America ending the Monroe Doctrine, whether the United States likes it or not.
In 2013 Gallup conducted polls in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and Peru, and in each case found the United States the top answer to “What country is the greatest threat to peace in the world?” In 2017, Pew conducted polls in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, and found between 56% and 85% believing the United States to be a threat to their country. If the Monroe Doctrine is either gone or benevolent, why haven’t any of the people impacted by it heard about that?
In 2022, at the Summit of the Americas hosted by the United States, only 23 of 35 nations sent representatives. The United States had excluded three nations, while several others boycotted, including Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Antigua and Barbuda.
Of course, the U.S. government always claims it is excluding or punishing or seeking to overthrow nations because they are dictatorships, not because they are defying U.S. interests. But, as I documented in my 2020 book 20 Dictators Currently Supported by the United States, of the world’s 50 most oppressive governments at that time, by the U.S. government’s own understanding, the United States militarily supported 48 of them, allowing (or even funding) weapons sales to 41 of them, providing military training to 44 of them, and providing funding to the militaries of 33 of them.
Latin America never needed U.S. military bases, and they should all be shut down right now. Latin America would always have been better off without U.S. militarism (or anyone else’s militarism) and should be liberated from the disease immediately. No more weapons sales. No more weapons gifts. No more military training or funding. No more U.S. militarized training of Latin American police or prison guards. No more exporting south the disastrous project of mass incarceration. (A bill in Congress like the Berta Caceres Act that would cut off U.S. funding for military and police in Honduras as long as the latter are engaged in human rights abuses should be expanded to all of Latin America and the rest of the world, and made permanent without conditions; aid should take the form of financial relief, not armed troops.) No more war on drugs, abroad or at home. No more use of a war on drugs on behalf of militarism. No more ignoring the poor quality of life or the poor quality of healthcare that create and sustain drug abuse. No more environmentally and humanly destructive trade agreements. No more celebration of economic “growth” for its own sake. No more competition with China or anyone else, commercial or martial. No more debt. (Cancel it!) No more aid with strings attached. No more collective punishment through sanctions. No more border walls or senseless impediments to free movement. No more second-class citizenship. No more diversion of resources away from environmental and human crises into updated versions of the archaic practice of conquest. Latin America never needed U.S. colonialism. Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories, should be permitted to choose independence or statehood, and along with either choice, reparations.
A major step in this direction could be taken by the U.S. government through the simple abolition of one little rhetorical practice: hypocrisy. You want to be part of a “rules-based order”? Then join one! There is one out there waiting for you, and Latin America is leading it.
Of the United Nations’ 18 major human rights treaties, the United States is party to 5. The United States leads opposition to democratization of the United Nations and easily holds the record for use of the veto in the Security Council during the past 50 years.
The United States does not need to “reverse course and lead the world” as the common demand would have it on most topics where the United States is behaving destructively. The United States needs, on the contrary, to join the world and try to catch up with Latin America which has taken the lead on creating a better world. Two continents dominate the membership of the International Criminal Court and strive most seriously to uphold international law: Europe and the Americas south of Texas. Latin America leads the way in membership in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Virtually all of Latin America is part of a nuclear weapons free zone, out ahead of any other continent, apart from Australia.
Latin American nations join and uphold treaties as well or better than anywhere else on Earth. They have no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons — despite having U.S. military bases. Only Brazil exports weapons and the amount is relatively tiny. Since 2014 in Havana, the over 30 member states of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States have been bound by a Declaration of a Zone of Peace.
In 2019, AMLO rejected a proposal from then-U.S. President Trump for a joint war against drug dealers, proposing in the process the abolition of war:
“The worst that could be, the worst thing we could see, would be war. Those who have read about war, or those who have suffered from a war, know what war means. War is the opposite of politics. I have always said that politics was invented to avoid war. War is synonymous with irrationality. War is irrational. We are for peace. Peace is a principle of this new government.
Authoritarians have no place in this government that I represent. It should be written out 100 times as punishment: we declared war and it did not work. That is not an option. That strategy failed. We will not be a part of that. . . . Killing is not intelligence, which requires more than brute force.”
It’s one thing to say you oppose war. It’s another entirely to be placed in a situation in which many would tell you that war is the only option and use a superior option instead. Leading the way in demonstrating this wiser course is Latin America. On this slide is a list of examples.
Latin America offers numerous innovative models to learn from and develop, including many indigenous societies living sustainably and peacefully, including the Zapatistas using largely and increasingly nonviolent activism to advance democratic and socialist ends, and including the example of Costa Rica abolishing its military, placing that military in a museum where it belongs, and being the better off for it.
Latin America also offers models for something that is badly needed for the Monroe Doctrine: a truth and reconciliation commission.
Latin American nations, despite Colombia’s partnership with NATO (unaltered apparently by its new government), have not been eager to join in a U.S.- and NATO-backed war between Ukraine and Russia, or to condemn or financially sanction only one side of it.
The task before the United States is to end its Monroe Doctrine, and to end it not only in Latin America but globally, and to not only end it but to replace it with the positive actions of joining the world as a law-abiding member, upholding the rule of international law, and cooperating on nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, disease epidemics, homelessness, and poverty. The Monroe Doctrine was never a law, and laws now in place forbid it. There’s nothing to be repealed or enacted. What’s needed is simply the sort of decent behavior that U.S. politicians increasingly pretend they’re already engaged in.