Stopping Russian Aggression and Applying the Monroe Doctrine to Venezuela
The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 by President James Monroe, was designed to protect the Americas from foreign threat and intervention. The Doctrine has a renewed relevance in today’s Venezuela.
In his speech to Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami last month, US National Security Advisor John Bolton explained the Trump administration’s measures against Venezuela, which he said should serve as a warning to Russia and others offering military assistance to the regime of dictator Nicolás Maduro:
This incredible region [Latin America] must remain free from internal despotism and external domination. … The destinies of our nations will not be dictated by foreign powers; they will be shaped by the people who call this hemisphere home. Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.
The Monroe Doctrine was delivered in the 1823 annual message to Congress by Monroe. His message — which was not called the “Monroe Doctrine” until 1850 — began by addressing the geopolitical ambitions in America of tyrants who were then ruling Russia, France, and Spain. His greatest concern, like that of current US president Donald Trump, was Russia.
Tsar Alexander I’s 1821 ukaz (edict) claimed all the coastal territory of the American Pacific Northwest down to the 51st parallel, today’s State of Oregon, and prohibited non-Russian shipping in those regions. America was still too weak to enforce its interests in the Western Hemisphere. Fortunately, it did have support from Britain’s powerful Royal Navy, which helped contain the Russian bear.
The first president to invoke the Monroe Doctrine by name was Abraham Lincoln. A new threat had opened south of the Texas border. Reform-minded Benito Juárez, the president of a new Mexican Republic created in 1858, was fighting not only Mexican conservatives but troops of France’s emperor, Napoleon III, to whom Mexico owed a considerable debt.
Napoleon III, apparently desiring to reestablish a monarchy in the Western Hemisphere, had created a Mexican throne for an Austrian archduke, Ferdinand Maximilian. Confederate emissaries to “Emperor” Maximilian were inquiring about a possible alliance.
Lincoln responded with covert military and economic aid for Juárez, the legitimate president of Mexico. Juárez, meanwhile, dispatched agents across the US to court capitalists, arms dealers, and editors, even establishing “Monroe Doctrine Societies.”
Lincoln ultimately deployed generals Ulysses S. Grant and Philip Sheridan in secret to fight the French at the Mexico-Texas border. In 1867, the French units began to withdraw. Maximilian was captured and shot. Juárez had prevailed.
Four decades later, in 1904, Germany, Italy, and the UK blockaded Venezuela and fired at its coast, apparently as part of an effort to collect an enormous foreign debt. Under President Cipriano Castro, a leader similar to today’s Nicolás Maduro, chaos reigned and Venezuelans starved. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine against the extra-hemispheric powers, President Theodore Roosevelt sent in all 50 ships of the US fleet. He then helped to negotiate and settle Venezuela’s debts.
Roosevelt also added a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: he proclaimed the right of the US to exercise an “international police power” to curb “chronic wrongdoing.” The US Marines were subsequently sent into Santo Domingo in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, and Haiti in 1915. It was a move designed ostensibly to keep the Europeans out, but also to protect US business interests. Other Latin American nations seem to have viewed these interventions with misgivings: for many years, relations between the “great Colossus of the North” and its southern neighbors were strained.
Then came a course correction. Another Roosevelt, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognized that the Monroe Doctrine was framed to protect the Americas from extra-hemispheric threats, not to police Latin neighbors. To enhance stability, he placed an emphasis on trade, cooperation, and good neighboring.
The improved relations that resulted from the return to the Doctrine’s original meaning helped FDR prepare Latin America and the Organization of American States (OAS) for the rising threat of Nazi Germany. In 1940, the Monroe Doctrine came to include the collective right of self-defense at the “Meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the American Republics” in Havana.
The same year, FDR emphasized the Monroe Doctrine in his presidential campaign, and in 1941, he extended it “eastward into the middle of the Atlantic.” He also announced that it encompassed Greenland, then owned by Denmark, but at the time temporarily occupied by the US: “We are applying to Denmark what might be called a carrying out of the Monroe Doctrine.”
Originating with FDR was an extended and more broadly defined Monroe Doctrine — one of taking the war across the Atlantic to the enemy and rescuing an old ally, Britain, and with her Western Europe. The US even made a temporary alliance with the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Joseph Stalin, to block the ability of Adolf Hitler to advance to the east.
Thereafter, amidst the long Cold War that followed World War II, the Russians returned to the Americas with a new geopolitical and ideological challenge — this time to its eastern coast. In the 1960s, as they had done 140 years earlier, the Russians tried to defy the Monroe Doctrine by injecting their communist system into Cuba, followed by Nicaragua and Grenada in the early 1980s.
In 1960, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced:
We consider that the Monroe Doctrine has outlived its time, has outlived itself, has died, so to say, a natural death. Now the remains of this doctrine should best be buried as every dead body is so that it should not poison the air by its decay.
Two years later, President John F. Kennedy discovered that the Soviet Union had quietly built missile-launching sites in Cuba and had secreted almost 42,000 disguised Soviet troops into the island. What followed was the Cuban Missile Crisis, bringing the US to the brink of nuclear war.
In August 1962, Kennedy said:
The Monroe Doctrine means what it has meant since President Monroe and John Quincy Adams enunciated it, and that is that we would oppose a foreign power extending its power to the Western Hemisphere, and that is why we oppose what is happening in Cuba today. That is why we have cut off our trade. That is why we worked in the Organization of American States [OAS] and in other ways to isolate the Communist menace in Cuba.
Supported by the OAS, Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev and encircled the island with a naval and air “quarantine” — a word less bellicose than “blockade.” Mobilizing for a possible invasion, Kennedy was aware that a military strike on Cuba might inspire Russia to retaliate against West Berlin.
After several tense days of the Doomsday Clock loudly ticking, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw the missiles and dismantle its sites. Reciprocally, the US dismantled several obsolete air and missile bases in Turkey.
As laudable as was Kennedy’s courage and resolve, the finale was not a clear-cut US victory. Neither he nor subsequent presidents demanded that all Russian military assets be withdrawn from Cuba, as President Trump is now demanding for Venezuela.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s administration acknowledged that a Soviet brigade of about 10,000 men was garrisoned in Cuba. (Incidentally, it was the Soviet embassy, not former US leaders and intelligence officers, who notified the US State Department of a “Soviet military advisory group” that had been in Cuba since 1962.)
Carter’s people, like subsequent administrations, had apparently forgotten about the threat. The issue of the Russians in the Western Hemisphere reemerged with the growing activities of a brigade that was training Nicaraguan and Grenadan communist guerrillas who had come to power in 1979.
On March 11, 1981, President Ronald Reagan evoked the principles, if not the name, of the Monroe Doctrine:
On this side of the Atlantic we must stand together for the integrity of our hemisphere for the inviolability of its nations … and the right of all our citizens to be free from the provocations triggered from outside our sphere for malevolent purposes.
Reagan thus became determined to reverse a Leninist tide in Grenada and Nicaragua and to oppose the communist guerrillas in El Salvador and in other regions, such as Angola and Afghanistan.
After Reagan liberated Grenada in 1983, his tactic was not to invade Nicaragua, but instead to arm and support anti-communist guerrillas, later known as Contras, to fight the left-wing Sandinistas. Reagan, apparently to persuade the Russians to leave, also approved sabotaging some strategic targets there.
In 1990, the Sandinistas lost free elections in Nicaragua. In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, largely as a result of Reagan’s doctrine and military policies combined with pressure from radical Russian reformers.
Over the years, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin, while rejecting Bolshevism, has reverted to backing tyrannical, anti-American regimes, seemingly for geopolitical and economic reasons. In Nicaragua, in tainted elections, the Sandinistas came back to power and have stayed to this day. So have their 21st century “socialist” allies in Venezuela, led by the late Hugo Chávez and now by Maduro.
As Lincoln supported Juárez, the legitimate president of Mexico, Trump has been supporting the legitimate Venezuelan president, Juan Guaidó. Not only has Maduro become the puppet of extra-hemispheric powers, particularly Russia and China, but he and his allies in Cuba and Nicaragua clearly maintain security ties with Russia and support a tyrannical “socialism” at home. In Bolton’s words, the three constitute a “Troika of Terror” as well as a “Troika of Poverty.”
Russia’s successful invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 appear simply to have whetted Putin’s appetite. Now, partly because of enormous investments that Russia and China have made in Venezuela’s oil and defense industries, both superpowers are trying to save the Maduro regime by flying in military personnel (Russia) and weaponry (both Russia and China). On April 29, media reports surfaced of Russian air-defense specialists deployed to Venezuela, evidently “sent to ensure the nation’s sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles remain a credible deterrent to any US military action.”
Moreover, reports have emerged that Russia recently requested permission from Malta “to use its airspace to fly military aircraft from Syria to Venezuela,” and that “two Russian military planes also flew through the airspace of Greece and Cyprus from Syria en route to Venezuela on March 22 and 23.”
What should President Trump do in Venezuela now? Under no circumstances should the Russians be allowed to bring in more troops, planes, or war materiel by sea or air. Trump should follow Kennedy’s example with a “quarantine” around Venezuela.
And, as Bolton has said, “All options are on the table.”
At the same time, it is probably a good idea to keep an eye on Ukraine, where Putin has been offering fast-tracked Russian passports, as he did prior to his invasions of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. It is probably advisable for the US to help the Ukrainians reinforce their defenses there, especially around the city of Mariupol.
In addition, it might help to explain to the American people what is at stake for the Western Hemisphere in Venezuela, in a manner similar to that of the Monroe Doctrine Societies. Most Americans are probably unaware that while most statues and busts of Lenin were torn down after the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, Maduro erected a bust of Lenin in Caracas at the 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 2017 and sent birthday wishes to Lenin on April 22.
President Trump recently announced, “The movement for freedom in Venezuela reveals that the twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere.”
The American people and their neighbors to the south need to know that the Monroe Doctrine protects everyone in the hemisphere — from their own tyrants as well as foreign ones. As the Marquis de Lafayette noted, the Monroe Doctrine is the “best little bit of paper that God ever permitted any man to give to the world.”
Dr. Jiri Valenta is a Senior Non Resident Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. A Council on Foreign Relations member in New York City, he was formerly a tenured associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs of the US Postgraduate Naval School, and Director of the Institute of International Relations, a post-revolutionary think tank in Vaclav Havel’s government in Prague.