By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, November 11, 2023
Remarks at Veterans For Peace event in Iowa City, Iowa, November 11, 2023
On December 2nd the Monroe Doctrine will turn 200. That is, it will be 200 years from the day President James Monroe made a speech from which years later politicians and pundits excerpted some paragraphs and labeled them the Monroe Doctrine. If the purpose was to allow a privileged clique the power to lawlessly create policy and elevate it above all actual laws, it worked. Over the years, more presidents were given doctrines, and now we can’t get through a single presidency without a doctrine being announced. Some presidents are given, by newspaper columnists, doctrines that they themselves never said at all.
The Monroe Doctrine, or the part that endured and was built and expanded upon, basically says that the United States will wage war against any outside power that tries anything anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. From Day 1 the ambition extended beyond that hemisphere, even though it would be many years before the United States focused on much outside of North America. By Theodore Roosevelt’s day the doctrine was made explicitly global. Now, of course, the U.S. military has bases ringing the globe. U.S. weapons are sold or given to dictatorships and so-called democracies in every corner of the Earth. Wars thousands of miles away are proclaimed defensive.
The Monroe Doctrine was not simply an announcement that the United States would attack people. It was much subtler and more dangerous than that. It was a means of allowing people to engage in imperialism while thinking of it as humanitarianism. This began with the Doctrine of Discovery, also put into U.S. law in 1823. Native Americans were not real people with real nations — just as we’re told today that the Palestinian people do not really exist — and this is why people will tell you with a straight face that Afghanistan or Vietnam was the longest U.S. war. If people don’t exist, you can hardly be killing them or stealing their land.
Next, people did exist but they were not fully formed people, they were not smart enough to know that they wanted to be part of the United States, so you simply had to show them for their own good. This, too, is still with us. At the height of the destruction of Iraq, polls found the U.S. public resentful that Iraqis were not appreciative or grateful.
Third, people were simply imagined as actually wanting to be part of the United States. And, fourth, apart from the trivial matter of the people living on the land, the point is that the U.S. was taking North America to save it from the Russians and French and Spanish. If you’re fighting to save people from imperialism then what you’re doing cannot be imperialism. For many of the past 200 years, including this year, you could also substitute the word “Russia” for imperialism. If you’re fighting to save people from Russia then what you’re doing cannot possibly be imperialism.
Ironically, Russia’s notion that it, too, can have a Monroe Doctrine in Eastern Europe has run up against the U.S. insistence that this planet is only big enough for one Monroe Doctrine, and that has thrust us all to the edge of nuclear apocalypse.
Part of what’s needed to undo the Monroe Doctrine, the other war doctrines built on it, and the wars that never end can be found in what the people of Latin America are doing.
To some significant extent, the U.S. government doesn’t need what FDR called “our sonofabitch” (as in, “he may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch”) running each Latin American country anymore. The United States has bases, weapons customers, U.S.-trained troops, U.S.-educated elites, corporate trade agreements that overrule constitutions, and the financial powers of debt, aid, and sanctions. In 2022, the Wall Street Journal insisted that the Earth’s climate (how’s that for a new excuse?) would require that corporations, and not the nations of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, control lithium. How did our lithium get under their ground?
Meanwhile the people of Latin America keep resisting coups and election interference and sanctions, to empower independent-minded government. The year 2022 saw the list of “pink tide” governments enlarged to include Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Honduras. For Honduras, 2021 saw the election as president of the former first lady Xiomara Castro de Zelaya who had been ousted by the 2009 coup against her husband and now first gentleman Manuel Zelaya. For Colombia, 2022 saw its first election of a left-leaning president ever. Colombian President Gustavo Petro now speaks up for independence from U.S. control and for an end to militarism, but for cooperation and collaboration as equals, including on generating power for the U.S. from the sunshine in Colombia.
In 2021, on the 238th anniversary of Simón Bolívar’s birth, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed to recreate Bolívar’s “project of unity among the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.” He said: “We must put aside the dilemma of joining the United States or opposing it defensively. It is time to express and explore another option: to dialogue with the U.S. rulers and convince and persuade them that a new relationship between the countries of the Americas is possible.” He also said: “Why not study the demand for labor and, in an orderly manner, open the migratory flow? And within the framework of this new joint development plan, investment policy, labor, environmental protection and other issues of mutual interest to our nations must be considered. It is obvious that this must imply cooperation for the development and well-being of all the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. The politics of the last two centuries, characterized by invasions to install or remove rulers at the whim of the superpower, is already unacceptable; Let’s say goodbye to impositions, interference, sanctions, exclusions, and blockades. Instead, let us apply the principles of non-intervention, self-determination of peoples and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Let’s start a relationship in our continent under the premise of George Washington, according to which, ‘nations should not take advantage of the misfortune of other peoples.’” AMLO also rejected a proposal from then-U.S. President Trump for a joint war against drug dealers, proposing in the process the abolition of war.
In 2022, at the Summit of the Americas hosted by the United States, only 23 of 35 nations sent representatives. The United States had excluded three nations, while several others boycotted, including Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Antigua and Barbuda. Also in 2022, Nicaragua completed the process of withdrawing from the OAS.
The changing of the times can also be seen in the trajectory from Lima to Puebla. In 2017, Canada, as Monroe-Doctrine-Junior-Partner (never mind if Monroe supported taking over Canada) took the lead in organizing the Lima Group, an organization of American nations intent on overthrowing the government of Venezuela. Members included Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela (the pretend Venezuela governed in his own mind by Juan Guaidó). But nations have been dropping out to the point that it’s not clear anything is left. Meanwhile, in 2019, the Puebla Group of Members of Parliament from Latin American nations was formed. In 2022, it issued a statement:
“Latin America and the Caribbean need to relaunch a financial architecture, adapted to their needs and without impositions, which threaten the sovereignty of our peoples and focus their gaze on the creation of a single Latin American currency. The Puebla Group confirms that drug trafficking has become a transnational and global problem. The main consuming countries must assume their responsibility in seeking a different solution to the problem. For this reason, we propose a Latin American alliance to find a solution based on the deregulation of drug prohibition, and to provide social and health treatment, and not exclusively criminal, to addiction and consumption. . . . etc.”
But for those of us in the United States, what should we be demanding of the U.S. government? An announcement that the Monroe Doctrine is dead? We’ve had those for about 100 years! We’ve been living in the supposed twilight of the Monroe Doctrine for as long as anyone now alive has been alive. What we need is the actual elimination of the structures of Monroe Doctrinism, and not because their time has passed, but because there never was a time when it was justifiable to impose one people’s will on another. The Monroe Doctrine never had to be. History could have been worse, but it also could have been better.
Latin America never needed U.S. military bases, and they should all be shut down right now. Latin America would always have been better off without U.S. militarism (or anyone else’s militarism) and should be liberated from the disease immediately. No more weapons sales. No more weapons gifts. No more military training or funding. No more U.S. militarized training of Latin American police or prison guards. No more exporting south the disastrous project of mass incarceration. (A bill in Congress like the Berta Caceres Act that would cut off U.S. funding for military and police in Honduras as long as the latter are engaged in human rights abuses should be expanded to all of Latin America and the rest of the world, and made permanent without conditions; aid should take the form of financial relief, not armed troops.) No more war on drugs, abroad or at home. No more use of a war on drugs on behalf of militarism. No more ignoring the poor quality of life or the poor quality of healthcare that create and sustain drug abuse. No more environmentally and humanly destructive trade agreements. No more celebration of economic “growth” for its own sake. No more competition with China or anyone else, commercial or martial. No more debt. (Cancel it!) No more aid with strings attached. No more collective punishment through sanctions. No more border walls or senseless impediments to free movement. No more second-class citizenship. No more diversion of resources away from environmental and human crises into updated versions of the archaic practice of conquest. Latin America never needed U.S. colonialism. Puerto Rico, and all U.S. territories, should be permitted to choose independence or statehood, and along with either choice, reparations.
A major step in this direction could be taken by the U.S. government through the simple abolition of one little rhetorical practice: hypocrisy. You want to be part of a “rules-based order”? Then join one! There is one out there waiting for you, and Latin America is leading it.
Of the United Nations’ 18 major human rights treaties, the United States is party to 5, fewer than any other nation on earth, except Bhutan (4), and tied with Malaysia, Myanmar, and South Sudan, a country torn by warfare since its creation in 2011. The United States is the only nation on Earth that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is by many measures a top destroyer of the natural environment, yet has been a leader in sabotaging climate protection negotiations for decades and has never ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Control (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. government has never ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001. It has never signed the Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The United States leads opposition to democratization of the United Nations and easily holds the record for use of the veto in the Security Council during the past 50 years, having vetoed U.N. condemnation of South African apartheid, Israel’s wars and occupations, chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons proliferation and first use and use against non-nuclear nations, U.S. wars in Nicaragua and Grenada and Panama, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Rwandan genocide, the deployment of weapons in outer space, etc.
Contrary to popular opinion, the United States is not a leading provider of aid to the suffering of the world, not as a percentage of gross national income or per capita or even as an absolute number of dollars. Unlike other countries, the United States counts as 40 percent of its so-called aid, weapons for foreign militaries. Its aid as a whole is directed around its military goals, and its immigration policies have long been shaped around skin color, and lately around religion, not around human need — except perhaps inversely, focusing on locking up and building walls to punish the most desperate.
The laws we need mostly don’t require imagining, or even enacting, just complying with. Since 1945, all parties to the UN Charter have been compelled to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered,” and to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” albeit with loopholes added for UN-authorized wars and wars of “self-defense,” (but never for the threatening of war) — loopholes that do not apply to any recent wars, but loopholes the existence of which create in many minds the vague idea that wars are legal. The requirement of peace and ban on war has been elaborated over the years in various UN resolutions, such as Resolutions 2625 and 3314. The parties to the Charter would end war were they to comply with it.
Since 1949, all parties to NATO, have agreed to a restatement of the ban on threatening or using force found in the UN Charter, even while agreeing to prepare for wars and to join in the defensive wars waged by other members of NATO. The vast majority of the Earth’s weapons dealing and military spending, and a huge portion of its war making, is done by NATO members.
Since 1949, parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention have been forbidden to engage in any violence toward individuals not actively engaged in war, and banned from all use of “[c]ollective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism,” while meanwhile the vast majority of those killed in wars have been non-combatants, and deadly sanctions are not given a second thought. All the big war makers are party to the Geneva Conventions.
Since 1951, parties to the OAS Charter have agreed that “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” If the U.S. government thought for an instant that a treaty was the supreme law of the land, as the U.S. Constitution makes it, rather than a means of tricking Native Americans and others, this would have been understood as the criminalizing of the Monroe Doctrine.
The United States does not need to “reverse course and lead the world” as the common demand would have it on most topics where the United States is behaving destructively. The United States needs, on the contrary, to join the world and try to catch up with Latin America which has taken the lead on creating a better world. Two continents dominate the membership of the International Criminal Court and strive most seriously to uphold international law: Europe and the Americas south of Texas. Latin America leads the way in membership in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Virtually all of Latin America is part of a nuclear weapons free zone, out ahead of any other continent, apart from Australia.
Latin American nations support the international rule of law even when they’re domestic disasters. They join and uphold treaties as well or better than anywhere else on Earth. They have no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons — despite having U.S. military bases. Only Brazil exports weapons and the amount is relatively tiny. Since 2014, the over 30 member states of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) have been bound by a Declaration of a Zone of Peace.
It’s one thing to say you oppose war. It’s another entirely to be placed in a situation in which many would tell you that war is the only option and use a superior option instead. Leading the way in demonstrating this wiser course is Latin America. In 1931, Chileans overthrew a dictator nonviolently. In 1933 and again in 1935, Cubans overthrew presidents using general strikes. In 1944, three dictators, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez (El Salvador), Jorge Ubico (Guatemala), and Carlos Arroyo del Río (Ecuador) were ousted as a result of nonviolent civilian insurrections. In 1946, Haitians nonviolently overthrew a dictator. (Perhaps World War II and “good neighborism” gave Latin America a bit of a respite from the “aid” of its northern neighbor.) In 1957, Colombians nonviolently overthrew a dictator. In 1982 in Bolivia, people nonviolently prevented a military coup. In 1983, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo won democratic reform and the return of (some of) their “disappeared” family members through nonviolent action. In 1984, Uruguayans ended a military government with a general strike. In 1987, the people of Argentina nonviolently prevented a military coup. In 1988, Chileans nonviolently overthrew the Pinochet regime. In 1992, Brazilians nonviolently drove out a corrupt president. In 2000, Peruvians nonviolently overthrew the dictator Alberto Fujimori. In 2005, Ecuadorians nonviolently ousted a corrupt president. In Ecuador, a community has for years used strategic nonviolent action and communication to turn back an armed takeover of land by a mining company. In 2015, Guatemalans compelled a corrupt president to resign. In Colombia, a community has claimed its land and largely removed itself from war. Another community in Mexico has been doing the same. In Canada, in recent years, indigenous people have used nonviolent action to prevent the armed installation of pipelines on their lands. The pink tide election results in recent years in Latin America are also the result of a great deal of nonviolent activism.
Latin America offers numerous innovative models to learn from and develop, including many indigenous societies living sustainably and peacefully, including the Zapatistas using largely and increasingly nonviolent activism to advance democratic and socialist ends, and including the example of Costa Rica abolishing its military, placing that military in a museum where it belongs, and being the better off for it.
Latin America also offers models for something that is badly needed for the Monroe Doctrine: a truth and reconciliation commission. A truth commission was held in Argentina, with a report released in 1984 on the “disappearing” of people between 1976 and 1983. Truth commissions released reports in Chile in 1991 and El Salvador in 1993. These all preceded the well-known truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa, and others have followed. There is a great deal yet to be done in Latin America, and many are hard at work. A truth commission and criminal prosecutions of torture have uncovered a lot of truth in Guatemala, with much left to be revealed.
Tomorrow online an unofficial Merchants of Death War Crimes Tribunal will model some of what is needed globally. You can watch at merchantsofdeath.org.
The task before the United States is to end its Monroe Doctrine, and to end it not only in Latin America but globally — beginning with a global armistice in all of the wars — and to not only end the Monroe Doctrine but to replace it with the positive actions of joining the world as a law-abiding member, upholding the rule of international law, and cooperating on nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, disease epidemics, homelessness, and poverty. The Monroe Doctrine was never a law, and laws now in place forbid it. There’s nothing to be repealed or enacted. What’s needed is simply the sort of decent behavior that U.S. politicians increasingly pretend they’re already engaged in.
Events are being planned around the world to bury the Monroe Doctrine on or about its 200th birthday on December 2, 2023, including in Mexico, Colombia, Wisconsin, Virginia, etc. We’ll be posting the events (and you can add your own) and we have all kinds of resources to make it easy to do an event posted on the website at worldbeyondwar.org. The event in Virginia will be a burying of the Monroe Doctrine at Monroe’s house at the University of Virginia, and Monroe himself may make an appearance. I hope something will happen in Iowa as well.
It’s easy to get discouraged as old crusty warmongers you thought had died when you were a kid are wheeled out for so-called Veterans Day to comment on and profit from each war, and as identity politics is further entrenched through war support and opposition alike.
And yet, people, lots and lots of people, those qualified by having just stumbled out of the rubble in Israel, and otherwise — masses of people — people risking arrest, people turning out in the streets just as people do in normal countries, people surrounding the White House and the Capitol, crowds of diverse and heartwarming people are getting and saying and doing everything exactly right.
Horribly insufficient as the response is to a publicly celebrated genocide in Gaza, it is not, in the United States, as bad as the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, in the words of the late — I mean, oh god he’s still with us — George W. Bush, is our children learning?
Maybe. Maybe. The question I want to answer is whether anyone is following the logic of opposing both sides to where it leads. If you’ve understood that denouncing the mass slaughter of civilians by two sides of a war is not only the right thing to say but honestly the right thing to believe, and if you’ve exclaimed that “It’s not a war, it’s something worse” but also noticed that we’ve been exclaiming that during just about every war since World War I, then do you follow the logic where it leads? If both sides are engaged in immoral outrages, if the problem is not whichever side you’ve been trained to hate, but war itself. And if war itself is the biggest drain on resources desperately needed thereby killing more people indirectly than directly, and if war itself is the reason we are at risk of nuclear Armageddon, and if war itself is a leading cause of bigotry, and the sole justification for government secrecy, and a major cause of environmental destruction, and the big impediment to global cooperation, and if you’ve understood that governments do not train their populations in unarmed civilian defense not because it doesn’t work as well as militarism but because they are afraid of their own populations, then you are now a war abolitionist, and it’s time we set to work, not saving our weapons for a more proper war, not arming the world to protect us from one club of oligarchs getting richer than another club of oligarchs, but ridding the world of wars, war plans, war tools, and war thinking.
Goodbye, war. Good riddance.
Let’s try peace.
Percy Shelly said
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few