Sign Up

Relocating Mr. Monroe

After decreasing U.S. anxieties about the Americas, has the Monroe Doctrine been resurrected elsewhere?

March 2, 2002

After decreasing U.S. anxieties about the Americas, has the Monroe Doctrine been resurrected elsewhere?

Back in 1823, U.S. President James Monroe issued what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. It was directed against imagined (or real) designs by Russia, Great Britain and Spain to conquer — or re-conquer — territories in the Americas. The underlying message can be summarized as “hands off the Americas — or we will go to war.”

Even after Europe’s expansionist aims in the hemisphere had largely disappeared, U.S. leaders still kept the Monroe Docrine club in their hands. Latin America was viewed as the nation’s “backyard” — and no U.S. administration shied away from interfering accordingly.

For instance, Panama’s bid for independence in 1903 also ushered in U.S. sovereignty for the area where the Panama Canal was built. The United States wanted to make sure that Colombian troops would not try to “recover” Panama.

U.S. Marines were deployed in Honduras in the 1920s. And they meant business — the fruit business. The troops landed at the instigation of United Fruit when the Honduran government in Honduras would not “cooperate” with the company.

The U.S. interests in its backyard also extended to replacing socialist leaders who would not “cooperate.” The CIA organized the 1954 military coup against President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman of Guatemala and propped up successive regimes. Many Guatemalans fled the country — among them the young Che Guevara.

Chilean President Salvador Allende met a similar fate in 1973. Military forces under Augusto Pinochet — and backed by the United States — seized power in a violent coup.

Back in the 1980s, Nicaragua and El Salvador also became the focus of U.S. attention. Before long, it was assumed that the United States would always monitor and “aid” Latin America — whenever U.S. leaders felt it necessary.

In recent times, this assumption has undergone a change of sorts. Now, for every Colombia (where the U.S. plays and active role), there is also an Argentina.

In 2001, for example, the Bush Administration refused to get involved in Argentina’s economic crisis. U.S. leaders argued that any intervention would only strengthen corrupt elites. “Bailing out” Argentina — and thus acting like true Monroevians — was not an option.

Perhaps Argentina was overlooked because the U.S. backyard has gotten bigger. The man who enlarged it is General Joseph Ralston — the top U.S. officer in Europe, and Supreme Allied Commander in NATO.

In essence, General Ralston resurrected the Monroe Doctrine in his recent comments about the global war on terror. The top commonder of U.S. forces in Europe, the Mediterranean and West Africa stated: “There is a lot of work to be done in our own backyard — the European theatre.”

For the United States, extending that Monroe “backyard” to Europe has a certain logic. Intelligence reports that terrorist cells increasingly operate out of Europe. The “work” to which General Ralston was referring is weeding out those cells and destroying them.

Europe, however, may take more notice of the geography than the task. It is reasonable to wonder how British Prime Minister Tony Blair — the most outspoken and active supporter of the United States — feels about having been reduced to head gardener.