Last week, on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s 7-day tour of Latin America, I all but wrote that I felt sorry for the man.
Here was Tillerson embarking on a mission to drum up more regional support for U.S. foreign policy goals like the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. Yet he had the ball-and-chain of President Trump’s anti-Latin American jabs – calling Mexicans “rapists,” Haiti a “shithole” – hanging from his foot.
Then, to my astonishment, Tillerson stuck that same foot in his mouth. He waxed longingly about the Monroe Doctrine – the 19th-century U.S. foreign policy principle that essentially declares Washington the boss of the Western Hemisphere.
“Clearly a success,” Tillerson said of it. “As relevant today as it was the day it was written.”
Just one problem. That’s hardly how Latin America sees it. And for good reason.
Yes, the Monroe Doctrine was originally conceived two centuries ago as a promise of U.S. protection for fledgling Latin American republics against European colonial powers. But over time it’s morphed into a darker assertion of yanqui hegemony – and, all too often, raw gringo interventionism in the hemisphere.
So Tillerson might as well have walked into a Philadelphia sports bar last week singing the New England Patriots fight song.
But most interesting – and in the end, most hypocritical – about the Secretary of State’s remarks was his suggestion that a Monroe Doctrine 2.0 could protect Latin America from “new imperial powers.”
He was referring especially to China but also Russia, which the Trump Administration fears is meddling in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election in much the same way it messed with America’s 2016 vote.
On the one hand, Tillerson’s poke at Beijing and Moscow was apt: since the turn of the century, both governments have been assembling economic and diplomatic clout machines in Latin America – quite often to the region’s detriment. That’s why the New York-based Americas Society/Council of the Americas hosted a panel on Wednesday in Coral Gables about the mushrooming influence of China and Russia in the Americas.
The panelists warned against the two countries’ use of “sharp power” – an insidious tack between hard power (military and economic coercion) and soft power (winning hearts and minds).
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Sharp power’s main weapon is message manipulation. In China’s case that means getting Latin American governments, media and citizens to believe it’s a beneficent buddy even though it pillages their commodity-based economies. It also means marketing the Beijing brand – convincing fledgling Latin American democracies, via tools like the Confucius Institutes it’s installing on the region’s college campuses, that iron-fisted Chinese communism is a kosher menu option.
In Russia’s case, panelist and former Pentagon official Frank Mora of Florida International University said it means “undoing the health and credibility of democratic regimes” in Latin America. Especially through the kind of social-media arson it’s famous for right now in the U.S. And that’s troubling since new polls show only half the region’s citizens are satisfied with democracy – the rest potentially amenable to more despotic, Russia-friendly leadership.
China and Russia certainly have the right to promote their interests in Latin America, said panelist Christopher Walker of the National Endowment for Democracy. “But,” he noted, “interests are always accompanied by values – and that’s where the rubber hits the road in this discussion.” Especially in a year when no fewer than six Latin American countries – including the largest, Brazil – are holding presidential elections.
Walker is right – and that’s where the hypocritical slips into Tillerson’s Monroe Doctrine devotion. He claims to want to shield Latin America from the same authoritarian values that his own boss projects every day, with every tweet – and now, possibly, with an ego-inflating military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.
A U.S. president doesn’t dissuade Latin Americans from cozying up to repressive China by announcing he wants tougher libel laws to punish opponents who hurt his feelings – the same impulse that’s gotten a lot of Venezuelan opposition leaders tossed in jail, by the way. Nor does he move the region away from an oppressive Russia by declaring anyone who doesn’t clap for him guilty of treason.
China and Russia don’t need “sharp power” to spread their dubious values in the Americas. They’ve got Donald Trump.