The post-Cold War era of unilateral American dominance in South and Central America is fading, as it did in the 1910s with the rise of Wilhelmine Germany, and in the 1960s with Soviet sponsorship of revolutionary agitation. As Latin America continues to build democratic institutions and economic ties beyond the U.S., there is a growing need for a new and articulated policy to replace the fading remnants of Washington’s Monroe doctrine. These shifts in regional alignments give Canada an opportunity to leverage its position as a middle power and to engage with the Americas in pursuit of a continental consensus on values and strategic cooperation, with a view to neutralizing major foreign powers.
Ottawa’s progressive vision, which focuses on human rights, environmental stewardship, and sustainable economic development, is well adapted to guiding this new initiative. For instance, Canada’s foreign policy vision actively promotes corporate ethics and anti-corruption practices for its mining firms overseas, rather than promoting market reforms solely to benefit Canadian exports.
Canada has continued to signal its constructive regional role after the discordant 2018 gathering of the Americas in Lima, Peru—an event which then-U.S. President Donald Trump snubbed. The traditional practice of equipping local elites to politically contain anti-U.S. sentiments in societies with an emerging consciousness, such as in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s, is no longer sustainable. Any new Canadian foreign policy must accept the unprecedented emergence of an articulate and assertive rural and urban underclass, such as in Brazil, Venezuela, and the Andean nations, and neutralize their grievances by granting them a disproportionate benefit from economic growth.
Unilateral Dominance: Mixed Outcomes
In December of 1823, President James Monroe articulated the famous foreign policy that would bear his name for posterity and represent America’s bold declaration that the Western Hemisphere was its sphere of influence and that further European colonization or meddling would not be tolerated. This doctrine (along with its continuation, the Roosevelt Corollary of December of 1904) has cast a long shadow over U.S. relations with Latin America for two centuries. While it initially helped ward off foreign threats, largely with the de facto help of the British Royal Navy, Washington would become progressively more heavy-handed, altering the borders of states like Panama, Colombia, and Mexico, and eroding the sovereignty of most other nations in Latin America.
The Monroe Doctrine became a blanket justification for repeated U.S. invasions, territorial seizures, and political interventions in Latin America for nearly two centuries. After seizing more than half of Mexico’s territory in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, U.S. forces were again sent across the border during the 1859-60 Cortina Troubles. Washington then eyed overseas expansion by provoking war with Spain in 1898. In seizing the former Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, the U.S. gained new geostrategic footholds. Soon after fomenting Panamanian independence from Colombia in 1903, the U.S. promptly obtained rights to construct the Panama Canal and establish the Canal Zone. Further occupations of Mexico followed during the 1914 Veracruz crisis and Pershing’s 1916-17 Punitive Expedition. Citing unrest and threats to U.S. interests, the Dominican Republic was occupied from 1916-1924. After the CIA’s orchestration of the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically-elected leader, which obstructed attempts to address poverty and inequality, Guatemala plunged into four decades of civil war (1960-1996) that killed over 100,000 people. In 1960, the U.S. instituted a punishing embargo on Cuba in response to what Washington perceived as defiance of its regionally exclusive sphere of influence and continental strategic hegemony. By repeatedly violating sovereignty through invasions, occupations, interventions, and sanctions, the Monroe Doctrine became a major source of Latin American resentment.
A New Multi-Polar Order Exists in the Americas
A new multi-polar order is taking shape, with ascendant powers like China, India, Russia, and Iran challenging the traditional hegemony. Canada, meanwhile, presents a third way (besides U.S. domination or major power intervention from abroad), acting as a moderating influence through principled diplomacy and mutually beneficial development aid. By adopting this cooperative model, America could reimagine hemispheric relations based on true partnership and earned – not imposed – influence.
To comprehend this shifting terrain, we must first revisit the doctrine’s 19th century origins. Months before Monroe’s proclamation, markets were rattled when France invaded Spain and appeared poised to help Spain reconquer its newly independent colonies in Latin America. In a bid to support their democratic aspirations, President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams declared not only opposition to European re-colonization, but resistance to new European outposts in North America. With British naval power backing this stance, the doctrine proved largely successful at warding off external threats and cementing U.S. regional sway.
U.S. concerns with European intervention evolved into paternalistic oversight into its neighbors, and eventually into brazen interventionism as Washington’s power peaked. By the early 1900s, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” foreign policy was succeeded by gunboat diplomacy, such as in the outright 1914 seizure of Mexico’s port of Vera Cruz by U.S. Navy and Marines, or the occupation of Haiti in July of 1915. From the early-1990s, influential U.S. agribusiness interests exploited weak regimes to gain access to Latin America’s cheap labor and resources, facilitating the rise of comprador capitalist elites and corrupt political despots who aligned with U.S. political aims. The School of the Americas trained numerous anti-communist dictators in methods of repressive governance, including labor-repression and torture.
In 1954, fresh with the experience of re-installing the Shah of Iran, the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Guatemala’s popularly-elected regime of Jacobo Árbenz. In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s authorization of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by anti-communist exiles, mis-estimated the strong popular support for the new revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, and was summarily defeated on the beaches. U.S. President Richard Nixon authorized the CIA to undermine the Chilean elections of 1973, for fear that the democratically-elected regime of Salvador Allende would deny U.S. access to their copper exports. The Iran-Contra scandal was a complicated scheme, which not only saw Middle Eastern arms delivered to the former soldiers of Nicaragua’s dictator Anastasio Somoza, but even violated U.S. laws. Rather than encouraging democratic development as the main priority, the U.S. coercively pursued narrow economic self-interest by propping-up repressive regimes, for fear that in their absence, populist regimes could evolve into support for communism. This manifestation of U.S. power engendered virulent resentment of “Yanqui imperialism”.
Today, the unipolar grip has slipped as other powers have taken advantage of the commercial opportunities created by the liberal international order approach of the U.S. in the post-Cold war era; indeed, China’s rise over the past 20 years has been meteoric. It has displaced America as the top trade partner for major or critical resource economies like Brazil, Chile, and Peru. One reason for this is through the major infrastructure projects financed across the region such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In 2021, Chinese state banks invested more in Latin America than World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank investments combined. With such economic leverage, Beijing’s advocacy on issues from Taiwan to Huawei’s 5G technology finds increasingly receptive ears. Chinese commercial relations come with little pressure for internal reforms – skirting human rights, environmental regulations, or transparency improvements. While Washington promoted open markets dominated by Western firms, Beijing enables state industries and places few conditions on assistance.
Meanwhile, Russia retains residual goodwill in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela while cultivating relationships with Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina. As the U.S. refuses to supply weapons to Maduro’s pariah regime, President Putin sells him billions of Dollars in arms. Russian oil company Rosneft took control of Venezuelan state oil assets when the Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) defaulted. Moscow offers generous educational scholarships alongside these economic and military partnerships.
Iran has established a strategic foothold in America’s soft underbelly, empowering the Lebanese Hezbollah network and enlisting Venezuela to help circumvent sanctions. Teheran exports surveillance and crowd control tactics to like-minded anti-imperialists. The bombastic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad barnstormed Latin America back in 2012, signing energy and security agreements with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Iranian-trained proxies could prove a disruptive counterweight to U.S. interests.
These alignments don’t yet amount to a coordinated anti-American bloc, but they chip away at the once-dominant frameworks. The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the Organization of American States (OAS) seem decreasingly relevant compared to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South African grouping) and the Non-Aligned Movement. China races ahead in 5G and AI with a digitally integrated Eurasian sphere. With globalism restructuring trade and supply chains, an America that throws up walls and employs unilateral sanctions may find its neighbors increasingly unruly.
A comprehensive re-evaluation and renegotiation of hemispheric relations is necessary and overdue in Ottawa as well. Brazil and Mexico’s participation as Allied combatants in the Pacific and Mediterranean theatres of the Second World War may not recur in a war over Taiwan. Here, Canada can play a decisive intermediary role: both as a state, like Mexico, that must react to the American policy colossus, and as a state that projects liberal democratic values into its foreign policy. On Venezuela, for instance, Canadian foreign policy has traditionally supported growing calls to negotiate some transitional power sharing deal. Mexico, a country which suffers directly from the Venezuelan crisis, under the form of unprecedented illegal migration, similarly urges parties to master the art of democratic compromise. There are no quick fixes that please all sides, despite the uncompromising position taken by Washington and its Central American allies.
The 19th century Monroe Doctrine, for all its initial purpose, cannot adequately depict emerging multipolar dynamics. Knee-jerk efforts to reassert waning U.S. primacy will only engender resentment and insulate Latin leaders from constructive compromise. Washington should not try to turn the clock backward or demand fealty to a skewed concept of shared values. Instead, Ottawa should continue its pursuit of inclusive engagement on liberal values in order to build organic goodwill.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.
Othon A. Leon teaches management, strategy, and political science-related topics at schools such as HEC Montreal (University of Montreal), as well as universities on four continents as an invited lecturer, he manages the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies, and is currently completing PhD studies in Political Science (war studies). He is a former Fortune 500 company executive, who attended a military academy.