On December 2, 1823, United States President James Monroe gave his seventh annual State of the Union Address to Congress for audiences both local and global. Canonized as the Monroe Doctrine, this is understood as the performative inauguration of US imperial agendas and dreams of empire. Monroe warns European colonial powers against intervention in the new nations of the Americas and signals a desire to establish political and economic hegemony over the hemisphere. The bicentenary gives us occasion to assess, rethink, and investigate the complex and intertwined processes that Monroe’s speech set in motion. Especially for anthropologists, the ethnographic realities of present crises in the United States and their reverberations throughout the Americas make the bicentennial a particularly appropriate time to interrogate the current status and living legacies of the Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine is a perduring foundation of US foreign policy that maintains its vitality through various invocations, extensions, reinterpretations, and reincarnations up to the present. Currently it is caught up in thick ideological obfuscations, performative ambivalences, and pragmatic contradictions. Consider that John Kerry, when serving as secretary of state under President Obama, stated that the age of the Monroe Doctrine was over. Yet the Obama administration was in many ways guided by the “spirit” and “intent” of the Monroe Doctrine (if not its unilateralism) as it continued and consolidated the war efforts of George W. Bush and oversaw the moral, symbolic, and practical reassertion of US hegemony on a global scale. As always, the Americas offers endless examples of US intervention covert, overt, and by proxy; consider the 2009 Honduran coup, along with its relation to current crises and atrocities at the US-Mexico border. Obama-era foreign policy sought to reclaim the moral legitimacy of US imperialism by depending less on appeals to US privilege and superiority and more on the pretty face of diplomacy and multilateral collaboration.
And then came Donald Trump. On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine how Trump could be more (white) nationalist and hawkish in his performance of POTUS. Trump’s string of national security advisors have publicly championed the core elements of the Monroe Doctrine, namely nationalism and unilateralism. On the other hand, this ideological cacophony is conjoined with an endless array of Trump’s covert and visible gambits, policies, events, quid pro quo negotiations, and personal business dealings that dismantle the aura of a coordinated “imperialism,” if not an empire that serves national commercial interests. If one theory of neoliberalism is that it is the project of converting the state to a market rationality, then Trump goes a step further by reconverting the office of POTUS into a neoliberal king-CEO free from legal restraints who rules a new sector of the illicit economy. This seems to be a new kind of corruption distinct from that of dictatorships, and a new use of corruption as a technology of power. The argument has been made that beginning under Obama but continuing under Trump via the Department of Justice the United States shifted from traditional forms of intervention in Latin America to the strategic use of legalities to create an overtly internal and normative regime change via corruption charges. If the United States enacted a new form of intervention in Latin America via legal rationalities targeting corruption, what are the implications when the United States, or POTUS specifically, invites intervention by foreign powers to “weed out” (or create false charges of) corruption within the nation? This inversion of the Monroe Doctrine signals a collapse of US imperialism and empire, not to mention the end of US national integrity conjoined to the ideological pronouncements (“fake news”) of America’s greatness.
The current situation calls for ethnographically grounded and historically framed investigations of the transformations and experience of empire, imperialism, national community, and neocolonialism, among other possible topics. The end of US empire portends radical innovation in the modes of government, state, and nation within this reconfiguration. Thus, the bicentennial of the Monroe Doctrine, along with upcoming Independence celebrations, should provoke and motivate all of us anthropologists regardless of where and how we do research. It is (yet another) clarion call for a rapprochement of anthropology and history, as the occasion demands new kinds of historical ethnographies and ethnographic histories that can innovatively engage current transformations of colonialisms, hegemonies, nationalisms, and imperialisms.
This anniversary is especially significant for those of us working in the Americas, that is, “Latin America and the Caribbean.” The Monroe Doctrine originates in the context of the collapse of Spanish colonialism triggered by the wars of independence and the emergence of new nations throughout the region. Prior to the Monroe Doctrine, only six countries had become independent; in 1821 another nine had proclaimed independence and an additional six did so by the end of the 1820s. Multiple and diverse anthropological questions are raised. To start, we can ask about changes in logics and practices in the United States’ relationships with Latin American and Caribbean nations. How are new and reformulated forms of unilateralism and influence—including the deployment of corruption and legalities as a mode of covert intervention—shaping transnational connections throughout the hemisphere? How will upcoming commemorations of independence be celebrated, refuted, and experienced in ways that reflect legacies of imperialism and intervention, but also gesture toward the reinvention of inherited national belongings? These changes in empire and nation are of course connected with new analyses and experiences of migration, borders, citizenships, and legalities. What are the political, cultural, and economic processes that generate these new national imaginings and how are these unfolding in particular historical and ethnographic situations?
The 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine provokes an endless array of research questions, all of which turn on or intersect with transmutations in hegemonies, imaginaries, and experiences. Anthropologists of the Americas are encouraged to investigate how these new dynamics and processes are manifesting in ethnographic and historical situations. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (JLACA) will actively seek submissions that address these concerns with a formal Call for Papers in 2020.
Quetzil E. Castañeda is editor of the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology (JLACA) and founding director and professor at the Open School of Ethnography and Anthropology (OSEA). He is also a senior lecturer in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at Indiana University
Joseph Feldman is assistant professor of anthropology at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a research affiliate at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research (CIIR).
Please contact Joseph Feldman ([email protected]) with your essay ideas for the SLACA section news column.
Cite as: Castañeda, Quetzil E. 2020. “Two Hundred Years After the Monroe Doctrine.” Anthropology News website, January 17, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1340