The United States of Hypocrisy: Revisiting the Monroe Doctrine

Victor Gillam’s 1896 political cartoon, Uncle Sam stands with rifle between the Europeans and Latin Americans – Public Domain

There is no doctrinal statement in American diplomatic history that is more fundamental than the Monroe Doctrine.  It was designed to draw a strategic line between the New World and the Old, and to alert the European powers that their political influence and presence was no longer welcome in the Western Hemisphere.  No doctrinal statement has been enforced as often as the Monroe Doctrine, which has been used to justify U.S. intervention throughout Central America and the Caribbean.  The Monroe Doctrine was cited in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, a perfect failure, as well as the Cuban missile crisis, a diplomatic triumph.

President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine with the Roosevelt Corollary to justify the “exercise of an international police power” in any nation in the Western Hemisphere whose policies or actions could provoke foreign intervention. In other words, the United States would not need to wait for a foreign intervention, it could enforce a change in governments that adopted “unacceptable” policies. President Woodrow Wilson used the Roosevelt Corollary in 1913 to justify the intervention in Mexico to move its politics in a more favorable direction for U.S. interests.  The United States overtly and covertly attacked Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.  Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sponsored covert action in Chile in 1971 against a democratically elected government in order to reverse its political and economic policies.  There is a reason why the nations of Latin America refer to the United States as a “great hegemon.”

In refusing to acknowledge Russia’s concerns about U.S. and Western intervention on its borders, the Biden administration is engaging in hypocrisy.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt called hypocrisy the “vice of vices.”  Lying to others is part of the political game, but the United States is lying to itself in denying that it committed to limit NATO’s role in East Europe.  Putin is asking for written guarantees regarding NATO membership because we betrayed the verbal guarantees that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker gave to their counterparts, Mikhail Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, respectively.  We need to recognize our role in the Ukraine crisis; Russian President Vladimir is not the sole cause of a crisis that could have horrific consequences.

This is an important part of the current crisis over Ukraine, particularly in view of Putin’s demands regarding Russian national security, which are consistent with Russian and Soviet thinking over the past 300 years.  As recently as the 1980s, when the United States deployed Pershing II medium-range missiles and cruise missiles in Europe, the Kremlin reacted to address its strategic vulnerability.  These missile deployments contributed to a “war scare” in the early 1980s.  Fortunately, the diplomatic path ultimately led to important arms control agreements, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.  Putin’s deployment of forces on Ukraine’s border is designed to counter not only an expanded membership for NATO, but also the threat of the current and future deployment of strategic weaponry near Russian borders.

Again and fortunately, there is a diplomatic path for addressing Russia’s legitimate concerns.  Thus far, however, the Biden administration doesn’t seem willing to deal with actual specifics regarding what could be done.  Friday’s press conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley placed the emphasis on NATO’s military unity and the policy of deterrence, which has already hardened public opinion in this country.   What is needed at this juncture is the appearance of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan to stress the importance of diplomacy, arms control, and confidence-building measures to assuage Russian concerns and to institutionalize a substantive dialogue on a new European security architecture.

Secret diplomacy solved the Cuban missile crisis after all, although it took 30 years for the U.S. public to learn the full details of the tradeoffs in the secret agreements.  The Cuban missile crisis was far more threatening than the crisis over Ukraine, but President John F. Kennedy relied on diplomatic input, and ignored the dangerous recommendations from the military leadership and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara.  I hope that we have seen the last of press conferences involving Austin and Milley, who have little experience to bring to bear on the diplomatic and political aspects of the crisis.

Putin has resorted to the deployment of excessive force on Ukraine’s borders, which will make it hard for him to backdown, but there are off-ramps that could be introduced.   The Biden administration needs to concede that the United States has overplayed its hand, starting with the expansion of NATO; the deployment of missile defenses in Poland and Romania; the basing of aircraft in Romania; and the meddling in Ukraine’s politics since 2014.  We have U.S. forces in many East European countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact.  This is exactly what President Bush and Secretary of State Baker said we would not do if the Soviets removed their forces from East Germany.  Putin, a retired intelligence officer, is well aware of the history of U.S. meddling in the Baltics and East Europe, particularly in Poland in the 1980s as well as in Ukraine and Georgia in more recent times.

Putin will need to know that NATO will end its military expansion, including membership as well as the deployment of military infrastructure.  In return, we should demand Russian troop withdrawal from eastern Ukraine and the Transnistria, formerly part of Moldova.  The regional borders should be demilitarized, and military exercises should be limited and discussed in advance.  The United States should not store nuclear weaponry in Europe, and the Russians need to withdraw nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad.  Russia will not reverse its takeover of Crimea, but should reduce its military presence there.

We need to acknowledge that the expansion of NATO has actually weakened the alliance because there are significant differences in the perception of the threat from the members in the east and the west.  The original membership of NATO shared for the most part the cultural and political values of the United States.  This is no longer true, particularly with the authoritarian policies that are being introduced in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.  The NATO countries are not nearly as unified as Austin and Milley claimed, and Putin is well aware of that fact.  For all of the talk in the mainstream media about Putin overreacting, he has managed to expose the weakness of NATO as well as the fact that there is insufficient support for Ukraine as a member.  A 15-25 year moratorium on NATO expansion should be declared.

A diplomatic emphasis on arms control and disarmament could bring additional dividends, particularly to the important Russian-American relationship. After all, the arms control architecture framed the Soviet-American detente in the 1970s and 1980s, and a similar architecture could bring Moscow and Washington to the negotiating table.  We need a return to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty that George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively, walked away from.  We need to revive the INF Treaty and the CFE Treaty, and consider demilitarized zones in East and Central Europe.  The INF treaty was unprecedented because it led to the destruction of an entire class of nuclear arms, both intermediate and shorter-range missile systems. The CFE treaty moved tanks and artillery pieces away from the borders.  We should not allow the issue of Ukraine to block the revival of such important initiatives.

We would do well to accept Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s efforts to get world leaders to “cool the talk of war.”  “Talk” of a diplomatic variety has never been more urgent.  There needs to be a revival of the NATO-Russian Founding Act from 1997 in order to create a European security framework for the 21st century on the basis of equal security.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for