By Will Freeman

The GOP's Posturing Will Push Latin America Into China's Arms

Precision-guided missiles, economic sanctions, a naval blockade, boots on the ground. Judging by their public statements, these are the plans some GOP presidential hopefuls are drawing up. No, not for a geopolitical adversary -- for Mexico, the United States' biggest trading partner.

Not much unites the GOP's crowded presidential field, divided as they are on former President Donald Trump and January 6 -- except one dangerous idea: deploying America's military might against fentanyl-trafficking Mexican drug cartels.

Fentanyl is driving a deadly crisis that requires urgent attention. But the GOP's plans for Latin America -- an invasion of Mexico, included -- court disaster for the region and the United States.

Beyond planning to bomb cartels, candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis, alarmed by China's increasing commercial and diplomatic heft in Latin America, say they will revive the "Monroe Doctrine": a 19th-century policy that originally opposed European colonialism in the Americas, but eventually morphed into the blanket principle the United States had the right to intervene in Latin American countries' internal affairs and keep other major powers out of the region.

During the Cold War, as fear spread that the Soviet Union would gain proxies throughout the Americas, the doctrine was invoked to back military coups and support one murderous anti-communist dictatorship after the next. Now, it has become shorthand for taking efforts to push China and other geopolitical adversaries out of the hemisphere.

There are good reasons to worry about China's -- and Russia's -- influence in Latin America, not least the steady stream of Chinese-made chemical precursors for fentanyl into Mexican ports. But any attempt at a Monroe Doctrine 2.0 is bound to backfire -- and push Latin America further into China's arms -- for two main reasons.

First, nothing irks Latin American governments more -- from the hard-left to the far right -- or rallies them against the United States faster than heavy-handed interventions by Washington. It goes back over a hundred years. When the United States occupied Cuba, following the Spanish-American war of 1898, it set off a wave of anti-American sentiment as far away as Argentina. The Reagan administration's covert meddling in 1980s Nicaragua, once exposed, brought on diplomatic pushback even from staunchly anti-communist Latin American governments.

The tradition continues. Mexico's left-of-center nationalist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in response to all the campaign-trail war talk, warned "we're not going to be anybody's piñata," with his foreign minister adding it would be the end of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. But Nayib Bukele -- the hard-right president of El Salvador and darling of American conservatives -- has also accused the United States for expecting "total submission, or nothing" and has said he'd search for a more "understanding" partner.

The only difference from the Cold War past is that now, Latin American governments offended by heavy-handed moves by Washington have a walk-out option: China, which is now building a new deep-water port in El Salvador and taking advantage of Bukele's eagerness to pivot away from the United States.

Second, talk of a Monroe revival misreads America's real standing, and power, in the Western Hemisphere. GOP candidates talk like the year is 1983, not 2023. After 9/11, two wars, rising polarization at home, and new foreign policy dilemmas in Ukraine and the Pacific, the United States may still be the most powerful country in the Americas -- but not to the degree it once was.

Over the past 20 years, as U.S. policymakers grappled with problems further away, China became the biggest trading partner in all of South America, and the second biggest almost everywhere else. Chinese state-owned banks forked over more than $100 billion in loans to Latin America over the same years. Soon, China is likely to hold most of the region's debt. China sells surveillance equipment and trains police across the region, runs a spy base in Cuba, and regularly cuts trade deals with governments on the left and right, indifferent to whether they are led by democrats or despots.

GOP candidates seem to think they can restore the United States to its previous position of dominance simply by booting soft Democrats out of the White House, taking a tougher line on China, and rewarding cooperative governments in the region -- ideally, conservative ones -- with manufacturing jobs: the dividends of near-shoring supply chains. Putting aside that their own "America First" voters don't particularly love outsourcing factory jobs -- and that Latin America's conservatives have had no qualms about drawing closer to China -- the GOP candidates would need a time machine. The Trump administration already tried Monroe 2.0 once. Latin America moved further away from the United States during his time in office, not closer.

The next president can and should forge deeper ties with Latin America. Only through cooperation will the United States and its neighbors find solutions to the hemispheric challenges of transnational organized crime, fentanyl trafficking, and unprecedented migration and climate change. But it requires bringing something to the table, not just chest-beating. As the Biden administration, to its credit, plainly recognizes, the days of unilateral domination are over. Given the distrust they sowed between the United States and Latin America, good riddance. If unrealistic promises to bring those days back benefit anyone, it's China and Russia, which get to pass themselves off as defenders of Latin American autonomy rather than revealing themselves for what they truly are: self-interested authoritarian regimes.

Policymakers in the next administration should draw on a historical model different from Monroe: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "good neighbor policy," which built up goodwill in the region by pledging respect for Latin American sovereignty. If GOP candidates get their way -- carrying out a strike on Mexico or pushing a new version of the Monroe Doctrine -- they will paradoxically hasten the loss of influence they seek to avoid.


Courtesy Courtesy Council on Foreign Relations.


Receive our political analysis by email by subscribing here

"The GOP's Posturing Will Push Latin America Into China's Arms"