It's Time for America to Revisit the Monroe Doctrine
Recent events have shown America’s foes becoming more brazen in their penetration of the Western Hemisphere; the answer to this challenge lies in our past.
The American commentariat and public were abuzz over the transit of a Chinese government surveillance balloon across the United States, with social media tracking its path (and reverse-engineering it), debating whether to shoot it down, both overplaying and underplaying the story, and asking if it matters at all. There has since been verification that there are multiple Chinese balloons in the Western Hemisphere, including one located in South America.
As far as we know, the spy balloon crossed into U.S. airspace in the Aleutian Islands and passed over Alaska and Canada before reaching the continental United States, where it loitered over important military and government installations. Media reports have claimed it “poses no safety threat to civilians,” a statement that the Biden administration trotted out to avoid shooting down the balloon while it was over land. The Department of Defense stated that “this balloon has limited additive value from an intelligence collection perspective,” contributing to the choice not to down the vessel until it reached the Atlantic. Other officials stated that this was not an isolated incident, but was “different” because the balloon remained over American airspace for far longer than usual. Besides the novel admission of previous incidents, this shows an escalation on the part of the Chinese regime. At the same time, Beijing averred that the military balloon is a civilian one and only accidentally entered American airspace—a contention that the U.S. military forcefully rebutted.
Eventually, the balloon was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South Carolina, but only after completing its journey across the continent. The only response, besides a belated shoot-down, that the Biden administration has thus proffered is canceling Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned trip to Beijing. The wording used by Blinken in addressing this provocative infiltration of American sovereign airspace was weak, labeling the deliberate sending of a surveillance balloon as merely “an irresponsible act.” The confusion and lack of response to this clear act of aggression have made the U.S. government look slow, unprepared, and timid. The cancellation of a meeting is doing the absolute minimum when this act—a deliberate test of our resolve—demands a stronger response.
As the Pentagon mentioned, this was not an isolated incident. America’s authoritarian foes have been steadily increasing their malign actions and military presence in the Western Hemisphere over the past few months.
In addition to sending these surveillance balloons across the American heartland, Beijing has courted countries across Latin America. One such target is Nicaragua, led by the brutal authoritarian Ortega regime, which sits at a strategically-critical part of Central America. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used its economic largesse to flip Nicaragua from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing the People’s Republic of China, promising sweetheart deals for Ortega cronies, dual-use infrastructure projects, and military engagement. The deal may end up revitalizing the defunct Nicaragua Canal project, meant to be a Chinese-built waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific, and competing directly with the Panama Canal. China has also wooed nations in South America, notably Argentina. Near the end of 2022, it was revealed that China was planning to establish a naval base at Ushuaia in the far south of the country near the Straits of Magellan and the critical Drake Passage. A military facility in Tierra del Fuego would allow the CCP to intercept communications across the region, monitor maritime transit in the South Atlantic, and enhance its ability to project power in the Western Hemisphere.
These actions are of a piece, both being concerned with establishing a permanent presence in the Western Hemisphere and monitoring important maritime traffic. Control of international waterways has been a paramount geostrategic concern for millennia, and China has already made it known that it subscribes to this idea—the militarization of the South China Sea is a prime example. The Belt and Road infrastructure program also falls into this category, as Beijing is investing in ports, canals, railways, and other potential dual-use projects. The military dimension of these relations is key, as China seeks to establish itself as a global power player. After building a naval base in Djibouti at the heavily-trafficked confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a facility at Ushuaia would expand this presence into another strategically-important region.
Iran has been engaging in aggressive incursions into the Western Hemisphere as well. The theocratic regime in Tehran works closely with nations like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua to evade sanctions and launder money. The regime’s terrorist catspaw, Hezbollah, is also very active in Latin America, using it as a source of funds and support. Hezbollah gains intelligence on Western soft targets, profits from the illicit trade in drugs, and plans attacks, all within what many would consider America’s backyard. More provocatively, Iran has stated that it is sending two warships to the Western Hemisphere to visit its allies in the region and transit the Panama Canal. The Iranian Navy has been steadily growing its international operations, but this intrusion into the Western Hemisphere is novel and disturbing.
Russia, a perennial player in Latin America going back to the Soviet era, has also ramped up its interest in the Western Hemisphere since (re)invading Ukraine last February. Russia has expanded its ties with the anti-American regimes of the region throughout President Vladimir Putin’s tenure, and it has put those relationships to work over the past year. Russia, like its allies Iran and Venezuela, is evading international sanctions via the use of falsely-flagged vessels to ship its oil to another foe of American power, China. Russia has also called on its diplomatic ties with Latin America at the United Nations. In UN Resolution ES-11/4—a condemnation of the illegal Russian annexations of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine—Russia’s Latin American friends either voted against the resolution (Nicaragua), abstained (Bolivia, Cuba, Honduras), or simply didn’t show up (Venezuela, El Salvador). The resolution was resoundingly passed, but the varying degrees of dissent from Latin American states were noticeable and worrying.
All of these bold actions by authoritarian, anti-American adversaries are meant not only to test their reach into our hemisphere so as to destabilize American hegemony and counter our interests, but also to test our response and resolve. How the United States responds to local provocations could be very informative as to how it may respond to more global provocations. As such, Washington’s response is vital for countering this influence and signaling U.S. resolve to do so wherever and whenever it interferes with our interests. There are plenty of concrete actions that can be taken beyond the immediacy of the shootdown and the cancellation of Blinken’s trip. America should interdict any further incursions of its territory, whether balloon-based or otherwise, to send a deterrent signal to U.S. adversaries. We should increase military patrols of the key waterways in our hemisphere, police falsely-flagged vessels, and work to productively engage with our neighbors on security and economic issues. In the case of more permanent issues like the Chinese base at Ushuaia, America should seek to respond in kind, potentially with a basing agreement with Britain at the Falkland Islands.
Still, since none of these actions by American rivals have crossed the threshold into direct aggression (yet), the signaling response should be even more powerful to deter escalation that passes beyond that line. The era of great power conflict has returned, with non-state actors taking a backseat to the danger of grander, more kinetic warfare. We have seen this change manifest over the past few years, but it has struck with a vengeance in the case of Ukraine. American policymakers need to embrace this new reality of broad-based geopolitical competition if they seek to extend American hegemony into the future. The answer to this global—and regional—challenge lies in our past, when great power rivalry was the watchword of international affairs. It is time for a revitalization of the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt Corollary.
200 years ago, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and during the Latin American revolutions, President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams promulgated the idea that would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine. In his seventh annual address to Congress, Monroe declared 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.” This message, which also decried the puppet monarchs of European states, was a sea change in how America conducted its foreign policy, asserting a strong stance against foreign interlopers in the Western Hemisphere. For the most part, the doctrine was successful, despite America being far weaker than the European states it sought to constrain.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt added to the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine and brought it into a new century. In what became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, the president posited that:
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 States 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.