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HomeBlogThe Monroe Doctrine in the Multipolar World: America’s Hemispheric Defense and The Return of Spheres of Influence Politics

The Monroe Doctrine in the Multipolar World: America’s Hemispheric Defense and The Return of Spheres of Influence Politics

By José Niño

As emerging great powers like China and Russia have laid stake to their claims in their respective geopolitical backyards, the ‘sphere of influence’ (SOI) politics of yore has made a roaring comeback. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal internationalists have insisted that spheres of influence are a thing of the past and that universal hegemony of liberalism would be forever permanent and irreversible. The specter of great power competition and the rise of the multipolar world order have already proven the folly of that claim.

In 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry boldly proclaimed that “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” The Monroe Doctrine was a pillar of American foreign policy throughout the 19th century: it declared the United States’ intention to turn the Western Hemisphere into a protected space for itself, effectively closing it off to future colonization and intervention by external powers. Following the conclusion of successful independence movements against the Spanish Empire, President James Monroe issued this proclamation in 1823 to defend American interests within the Western Hemisphere and keep European powers from re-establishing a colonial presence in the area.

By the end of the Cold War and the euphoric end of history moment it unleashed nearly two centuries later, however, the principal grand strategy that had guided American geopolitics for decades and permitted its rise into a great power had appeared all but discarded. And yet, history and contingency being alive and well, the Trump administration found itself having no choice but to make an about-face with regards to the Monroe Doctrine. Its framework was invoked when Venezuela was ensnared in a constitutional crisis — where President of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó found himself at loggerheads with incumbent president Nicolás Maduro over who should be the legitimate ruler of Venezuela.

Following the Venezuelan situation with interest, U.S policy makers immediately took issue with how U.S. competitors like China and Russia backed the embattled Maduro regime. Even middle powers like Iran and Turkey lent out support to Maduro, the latter helping Caracas skirt sanctions through its purchases of Venezuelan gold. As such, despite the Obama administration’s earlier repudiations, the Trump administration openly appealed to the Monroe Doctrine when it perceived that Venezuela could potentially offer the major challengers to the U.S.-led alliance a foothold in the Americas—proving yet again that geopolitics is the realm of necessity and realism, not idealism.

To be sure, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny were products of their time, encapsulating the rising tide of continentalism in America. With the Louisiana Purchase and America’s conflict with Great Britain in the War of 1812 concluded, U.S. statesmen were leery about the fledgling Republic’s security and possible threats great powers of the period, such as Great Britain, France, and Spain, could pose to U.S. security designs by perpetuating themselves throughout the Western hemisphere.

Of course, the Monroe Doctrine also laid the groundwork for the creation of a de facto sphere of influence for the U.S. to exploit in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, as political commentators like former U.S. presidential candidate Pat Buchanan have observed, the Monroe Doctrine also promoted restraint and non-intervention as a general principle. Although the Monroe Doctrine did outline the American ambition to keep European powers from re-colonizing the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. would reciprocate by not intervening in the internal affairs of European countries. Furthermore, the statement also affirmed regionalism, signaling that the U.S. would limit its own international reach and not interfere in the affairs of Asia and other distant regions.

U.S. grand strategy since the turn of the last century with the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, and certainly since WWII, represents a radical departure from its rather defensive and territorialist 19th century origins, with Washington taking a more activist, expansionist, and imperial role in the context of Progressive Era politics. The Cold War only exacerbated and globalized the imperialist interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine. Today, in an age when the U.S. acts as a global hegemon touting the liberal international order and declares it its “duty” to intervene wherever it pleases to uphold Western values, U.S. policymakers’ cries for other great powers to respect the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. sphere of influence ring hollow.

Convinced that it is on a holy crusade to spread democracy abroad, the U.S. has not only shunned realism but has also acted in complete disregard to the national interests of emerging powers. The unipolar moment of the 1990s blinded many U.S. leaders and deluded them into thinking that the entire world could be poked and prodded into embracing liberal democracy. At the height of its hubris, the U.S. would use force to remake countries in its own image as in Iraq or even attempt to nation-build from the ground up as shown by the debacle in Afghanistan.

Despite the troubling course U.S. foreign policy establishment adopted since the end of the Cold War, the reality of multipolarity and the specter of great power politics are re-shaping international relations. Revitalized powers like Russia and China have accumulated enough mobilizable wealth to build military forces and economic levers that can stave off incursions from external actors in their respective neighborhoods. Naturally, when countries reach great power status, they move to protect their own red lines and interests within those geographical areas historically under their cultural, economic, political, or geopolitical domain.

Russia’s rise to challenge liberal hegemony has demonstrated how liberal internationalism is no longer uncontested. The mirage of unipolarity first dissipated when Russia forcibly asserted its interests in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), two countries Washington made an earnest effort to bring into NATO’s security architecture. Washington’s dreams of further expanding NATO on Russia’s borders came to a grinding halt when Russia used military force in South Ossetia and Crimea, thereby putting an end to the Atlantic powers’ post-1990 monopoly on the use of force in international politics.

Russian annexation of Crimea gave then-President Barack Obama a harsh dose of realism. Obama even conceded that Moscow held “escalatory dominance” with regards to Crimea in its disputes  with Ukraine and the West. Despite the succeeding Trump administration’s decision to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine, most astute observers now concede that there was not much the U.S. could do in this conflict, lest it want to run the risk of stumbling into a thermonuclear war. Geopolitical realities have dawned on the Biden administration as well, whose tough talk on the campaign trail notwithstanding, has seemingly pursued a detente with Russia to focus more of Washington’s resources in efforts to contain China.

All in all, Washington’s desire for other world powers to respect the Monroe Doctrine shows that even with decades of liberal internationalism permeating foreign policy decision-making in Washington, America’s history of engaging in classical geopolitics continues to influence its conduct of foreign affairs. It is also not of marginal importance that the decision of America’s strategic rivals to encroach on U.S.’ geopolitical space is at least in part a reaction to what they see as Washington’s overreach across the globe into their respective regions.

At this juncture, the most effective way for the U.S. to prevent foreign intervention and expansion in the Western Hemisphere is by reverting to the realist basis and restrained principles undergirding classical American statecraft—with Washington clearly defining its red lines in the Americas. Furthermore, such demarcation of what it deems protected spaces will require the U.S. to also acknowledge that Great Powers like Russia and China, and even regional powers from Iran to Turkey all have similarly vital interests and historical influence within their own core geographic regions. Such an approach will surely seem provocative in Washington, but sober international statecraft must prioritize necessity and realism over fantasy and utopianism.

A full acknowledgement of the shifting geopolitical paradigm and the disposal of outdated and quixotic foreign policy assumptions are pivotal steps toward safeguarding American power for future generations and to return even a semblance of restraint to American foreign policy.

José Niño holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Universidad de Chile and a B.A. in Government and History from the University of Texas at Austin.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor