(Analysis) The Origins of American Strategy in Latin America: Monroe to Globalization

Christopher Ynclán Jr
American President Teddy Roosevelt giving a speech Source: Library of Congress.

The United States has long maintained a foreign policy that considers Latin America as its sphere of influence. This policy can be traced back as early as 1823 when then-President James Monroe gave an address to Congress in which he stated, “The American continents, are henceforth not be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” At this time the U.S. was not the regional hegemon that it would eventually become but a nation that was one of many in the Americas which were inspired by Enlightenment-era ideals to engage in the project of republicanism away from the monarchies of the Old World.

The Foreign Policy of the Early Republic 

The first consideration of an unofficial invocation was during the American Civil War as France had installed Archduke Maximillian of Austria in place of Benito Juarez, who had paused payments of foreign debts because of the nation’s inability to do so. The installation of a puppet government by the French within Mexico was perceived as a direct affront to the position of not allowing foreign powers to interfere in the affairs of American states. Due to the domestic conditions which were brought about by the Civil War, Secretary of State William H. Seward gave a response to the French in which he expressed the nation’s position on the matter but failed to convey any measures which provided any assurance of American involvement to deter the French. It would not be until the administration of Andrew Johnson that the French would withdraw from Mexico with U.S. support.

Mexican President Benito Juarez Source: Library of Congress 

Subsequently, the policy which would come to define the contemporary relationship between the U.S. and Latin America would be the Roosevelt Corollary. In this expansion of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. no longer viewed itself as one of many American states engaged in the shared experience of defeating the great powers of the Old World to govern themselves in the spirit of republicanism, but as the sole and rightful guarantor of stability, as well as property, within the Americas. Though an antiquated sentiment by the standards of today, the corollary was predicated upon the U.S. being perceived as a peer state to European powers and acting as a civilizing presence within the Americas. The United States had viewed itself as the natural choice for being a hegemonic power due to its self-perceived view of its political development. The position the U.S. sought to occupy proved attractive to European powers as it freed them to pursue their political and economic interests elsewhere without having to contribute resources. Moreover, these great powers were in the midst of global conflicts, like the Napoleonic Wars and the Seven Years’ War, that occurred in the region they ascribed the highest degree of political prestige to.

While invoking the language of keeping the Americas free from foreign interference, the U.S. did not seek stability for the preservation of republicanism as an imperative to further delineate the region from the monarchies of Europe. Instead, the U.S. saw its relations with neighboring states within an economic orientation that favored American commerce which emulated the same economic policies of the European monarchies from which they had gained independence. This was especially true in the early 20th century, when dollar diplomacy under the supervision of Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, sought domestic and foreign investments in Latin America and framed the policy as a peaceful endeavour. 

The Cold War and Latin America

Meeting between President Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By the time the Cold War began, the threat of nuclear war and the zero-sum nature of the Cold War were based on whether capitalism or communism would be the order of the day. Communism found an audience in Latin America because its DNA consisted of populist elements which cloaked itself with the language of anti-imperialism which was congruent with the historic struggles against their colonial masters and put the poor at the forefront. The impoverishment of Latin America had not equally reaped the benefits of industrialization and were also not beneficiaries of large estates as land inequality was persistent among American states. Additionally, Latin American states would come to see their insurrection as a second revolution that sought to rectify the lack of social reforms which failed to manifest after the Wars of Spanish-American Independence that had afforded them their sovereignty.

Heightened anxiety in the early Cold War which befell American policymakers not only permeated the United States domestically with the surveillance enacted by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover but also in the foreign policy of the U.S. with the ardent cold warrior, John Foster Dulles, who presided over the State Department under the Eisenhower administration. The manifestation of the anti-communist crusade conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy was the result of such anxiety about possible communist subversion in the U.S. Additionally, American firms became entrenched within the politics and economies of Latin America, particularly within Central America. The most infamous American firm, the United Fruit Company had become an entity compared in power to historic multinational companies such as the British East India Company. The company’s power at its greatest height was reflected in its ability to have ousted governments that they found counter-productive to its interests in the states in which it had operations. Among those who they deposed was Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 who attempted land reforms within his country.

The sum of their fears was realized when President John F. Kennedy was notified of the intentions of the Soviets to place nuclear missiles, which were capable of reaching the U.S., on October 16th, 1962. Under the Casto regime, relations between Cuba and the United States were extremely fraught as the America aided anti-communist elements within Cuban society in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro would then seek further alignment with the USSR through the adoption of Soviet positions on international issues to seek nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent from an invasion by a foreign power. Such actions would prompt the United States to proclaim an embargo to isolate the Castro regime. President Kennedy would then go on to address the United States via television seven days later, setting in motion a naval blockade around the island to deter the Soviets from delivering more materials to complete the construction of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The world would hold its breath for thirteen days as the world’s two nuclear superpowers had a standoff that brought them to the prospect of nuclear war. The crisis’ resolution would ultimately be aided by the efforts of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy through his role as an advisor as well as his diplomatic efforts with the Soviets to de-escalate the crisis.

The End of an Era and NAFTA

Former President Clinton signing NAFTA in 1993. Source: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

For those American officials who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as their successors who would continue their work in the twilight of the Cold War, heighten geopolitical crisis in America’s backyard left a lasting impression upon U.S. officials, thereby affecting future U.S. foreign policy. In the aftermath of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the U.S., under the Nixon presidency, and the USSR began talks about the creation of what would become the SALT Treaties due to the unmitigated devastation which could have been brought hadn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis been resolved. The prospect of having a hostile nuclear-capable state once again having operational capabilities to strike at the U.S. and the residual fear from the Cuban Missile Crisis would drive policymakers to keep communism out of the hemisphere. A potential implication of a failure to prevent the deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba would be the erosion of American prestige within the Americas. Such an erosion would provide the Soviets an avenue for influence in the region as Latin American states did not have the same means as the U.S. to prevent a potential forward operating base for the Soviets.

The role of domestic politics would also factor into the decision-making of subsequent presidents as letting the Soviets put the U.S. in a compromising position again would prove politically disastrous. These implications would manifest in the confrontational posture President Reagan would take toward the spread of communism and Soviet interference in Latin America through his doctrine, resulting in his administration invading the small Caribbean island of Grenada to prevent a potential base of operations for the USSR to expand its Latin American presence. This imperative to stop the spread of communism had a domestic focus as well with Reagan waging a campaign against narcotics which he saw as tools of subversion utilized by Marxist regimes. Reagan took these beliefs to their logical conclusion of the application of his doctrine in the allocation of aid to the Nicaraguan contras to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

The administration of George H.W. Bush proved pivotal for contemporary US-Latin American relations through its pursuit of multilateralism. Moreover, this new era of American engagement in the hemisphere occurred during the fall of the Soviet Union and lent expectations from Latin America that the U.S. would break from polarizing actions such as interventions. However, hawkish tendencies which dominated the republican administrations of the Cold War would be shown in the invasion of Panama to protect American interests as relations between both governments deteriorated. George H.W. Bush would also lay the legal groundwork for globalization which would be upended by COVID-19 through multilateral agreements such as NAFTA

Going Forward

The nations that comprise the Americas share a common history of engaging in an experiment of self-determination in opposition to the rigid socioeconomic norms that they inherited from the empires that they gained independence from. While they share this common story, the United States developed an asymmetrical role within the hemisphere and viewed its neighbors in a different light than it had previously done during its infancy. Since the founding of these republics, there have been many impediments to this lofty vision of a hemisphere of states of mutual standing dedicated to the ideals of republicanism.

This vision of Republicanism across the region was one that was idyllic but often confronted with internal and external issues that have stifled the region’s political development. The history of how the U.S. still looms in the minds of Latin American states and the region is once again divided among who Latin American states align with. Although their shared origins of republicanism are a foundational connection, diplomatic relations have drifted into a distant memory. It is up to the United States and Latin America to strive toward the ideals that inspired their creation. However, this process will have to be largely initiated by the U.S. due to its hegemonic position within the hemisphere it has exerted to maintain it.

  • How will future American generations of policymakers view the legacy of the country’s policy toward the region?
  • How can the U.S. move past this legacy to improve relations with Latin America?
  • What will this history mean to the latest wave of leftist leaders within Latin America?

Suggested Readings

Lindsay, James M. “TWE Remembers: The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” Council on Foreign Relations, 6 December 2010.

Bulmer-Thomas, Victor & Dunkerley, James. “The United States and Latin America: A New Agenda.” Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London & David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 1999.

O’Neil, Shannon K. “Why Latin America Lost at Globalization—and How It Can Win Now.” Council on Foreign Relations, 25 August 2022.

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(Analysis) The Origins of…

by Christopher Ynclán Jr time to read: 8 min