by Jose Ovalle
This article is the first part of a series in which the author will write about the erratic nature of America’s current foreign policy. The last couple years have seen multiple instances of different departments making opposing pronouncements or the President going against his own officials. This needs to be solved, and be it isolationism or interventionism, the United States needs to create a coherent foreign policy in order to effectively act upon it on all fronts.
Hidden among a run of the mill address to Congress in the year 1823 lay the declaration of a doctrine that would color American foreign policy for hundreds of years. With the following words, President James Monroe revealed the foundations of the Monroe Doctrine:
“It is impossible that the allied powers should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness; nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves, would adopt it of their own accord. It is equally impossible, therefore, that we should behold such interposition in any form with indifference”
From then on, foreign meddling in Latin American affairs would be tantamount to an insult to the United States, which it would not tolerate. Although it was originally crafted in an age when the United States could not possibly have hoped to defend it, the Roosevelt Corollary (granting the U.S. police powers to prevent European collections on debts) and subsequent policy actions declared the southern Hemisphere to be within the sphere of influence of the United States alone. The Doctrine has from then on been used to justify repeated interventions into the affairs of sovereign South American states, from efforts to oust Communist governments to bloody actions like Operation Condor.
Presidents from Kennedy to Bush have used the 1823 address to support their interventionism. However, at the inauguration of Donald Trump, the incoming president outlined a new policy: “From this day forward it is going to be America first. Every decision… will be made to benefit American workers and American families”. As this and subsequent articles will argue, the “America First” doctrine is hard to define but established a worldview marked by a distrust of globalization and the institutions that uphold it. In this world view, The World Trade Organization, NATO, and the United Nations have fleeced the United States despite their contributions to the modern world and America’s role in establishing them. Free trade does not propel prosperity but destroys the American Worker. Enduring allies have drained us of our life blood for far too long.
In a sense, “America First” is an amplification of President Obama’s foreign policy, as he reduced troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan while refusing to fully commit to intervening in conflicts against Assad and ISIL. In this regard, Trump has more in common with Obama than Reagan. However, there is no precedent in the last 50 years to compare how far Trump has taken his policy goals. He has threatened to pull out of NATO, broken from a coalition of 12 nations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and begun a trade war with China. The United States abdication of leadership and cooperation has driven global trust in American leadership to an all time low. While it is still developing policy ideal and the President has another year in his first term, the general consensus seems to be that the United States is no longer willing to shepherd the international community.
Global rivals have taken note, and are moving in on once stalwart American allies. In particular, a lot of ground has been gained in Latin America by China. A look at Chinese investments and diplomatic efforts in the region has revealed some interesting trends. In 2002, for example, Chinese investments in the region amounted to around $17 Billion dollars; today they are at over $270 billion, with Xi Jinping promising over $500 billion in investments by late 2019. The Chinese have not committed to these expenses without anything in return but have used them for political purposes. In the years 2018 and 2019, Ecuador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador all cut ties with Taiwan in order to establish political ties with China. In reference to Panama and these other Latin American nations gravitating to China, Lingnan University professor Zhang Baohui stated: “In the ’90s, [Taiwan] still had a fair fight because China was not so rich. Now there is no longer any contest. China can offer a tremendous amount of economic incentives to woo countries.” Since China is now the largest lender in Latin America with total loans in the region at $140 billion, it can be assumed that even more countries will be crossing over. The White House is aware of these facts, noting in their 2017 National Security Strategy memo: “China seeks to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans.”
China is also capitalizing on the current administration’s retreats. After Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was originally crafted to resist Chinese trade, China has brought its “One Belt, One Road” initiative into Latin America. Regarding Chinese efforts to establish the BRI in the region, the Chilean foreign minister stated in an apparent slight to the United States: “China said something that is very important, that it wants to be our most trustworthy partner in Latin America and the Caribbean and we greatly value that… This meeting represents a categoric repudiation of protectionism and unilateralism.” There are now 15 Latin American countries that have signed MOU’s with China regarding their interest in joining the One Road Initiative. TPP signatories, Mexico and Peru have also signaled interest in deeper trade integration with China.
Last year, only 17 out of 35 heads of state attended the Summit of the Americas in Peru. Donald Trump didn’t make an appearance either, but sent Mike Pence to meet with our neighbors, instead. Mike Pence’s warnings of “predatory economic activity” in Latin America seem to have fallen on deaf ears as nations such as Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Argentina have all reported higher favorability ratings for China over the United States in surveys. As events continue to snowball, the United States is unprepared in dealing with its loss of stature in Latin America, as “America First” may not be as simple as blanket isolationism or aggressive unilateralism.