Beware a Trump Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine
Last month, members of a drug cartel murdered nine US-Mexican dual citizens in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora. It was a brutal and unprovoked attack against innocent civilians. In response, President Trump suggested that the US military ought to play a role in curbing the ruinous violence that currently plagues so much of Mexico, and that Mexico’s drug cartels should be treated as terrorist organizations. Both proposals drew heavy criticism from the Mexican government, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisting that interference from the United States is neither wanted nor necessary.
But far from deterring the United States from taking unilateral action, official protests from Mexico could have the opposite effect on President Trump. To believe otherwise would be to assume that Trump is interested in improving US-Mexican relations, respecting the sovereignty of neighboring states, and cultivating the image of a restrained world leader. The available evidence suggests that he is driven by none of these things. On the contrary, it is highly likely that Trump would relish the opportunity to style himself as an antagonist of Mexico and a fearless guarantor of US national security.
As Brian J. Phillips has explained, the term “foreign terrorist organization” (or “FTO”) has a precise legal meaning in US law. It exists so that the US government can exercise certain powers against violent groups—travel restrictions and financial sanctions, for example—and to signal that the United States expects other governments to join in these efforts. According to Phillips, invoking the FTO designation can be a powerful tool in some instances, but would probably not do much to stop Mexico’s drug cartels. It might even backfire.
In Mexico, however, there are some concerns that Trump might be using the language and logic of counterterrorism not as a strictly legal device, but as a prelude to authorizing US military interventions, especially drone strikes. These are not irrational fears. After all, the United States has been waging almost continuous drone warfare against terrorist networks for the best part of two decades (albeit not yet in the Western Hemisphere) and President Trump has relaxed restrictions on their use as a counterterrorism tool. Moreover, Trump has repeatedly used the language of national security when discussing US-Mexico relations, especially with regards to the movement of people across the border, and vehemently supports a more militarized response to border security.
If the US government formally recognizes Mexico as the site of untrammeled terrorist activity, it will become all too imaginable that unilateral military interventions could follow. This is especially true given the Trump administration’s apparent interest in resurrecting the Monroe Doctrine, which had been pronounced “over” during the Obama years but has since found favor with Trump appointees from Rex Tillerson to John Bolton to Mike Pompeo. In September 2018, the President himself used a speech to the United Nations General Assembly to proclaim that the Monroe Doctrine was still the “formal policy” of the United States.
In the context of remarks such as these, Trump’s suggestion of applying the FTO label to drug cartels cannot be dismissed as a throwaway remark. And with senators like Ben Sasse (R-NE) calling Mexico a “failed state” and Tom Cotton (R-AK) musing that a military intervention might be unavoidable, Mexican leaders would be remiss not to take the threat seriously.
Still, the question remains: What political advantage would Trump derive from issuing a “Trump Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine—that is, designating drug cartels as FTOs and perhaps assuming the unilateral authority to violate Mexican sovereignty with drone strikes or special operations?
The simple answer is that Trump might want to exercise power and control over the Mexican government. Certainly, he would not be the first world leader to derive personal satisfaction from inflicting humiliation upon a weaker counterpart. And, of course, this president has a long history of blaming Mexico for a range of afflictions facing the United States: immigration, crime, trade, drug smuggling, human trafficking, to name just some. As he began his campaign for the presidency by saying: “They are not our friend, believe me.”
There is no question that Trump could benefit politically from branding Mexico as a terrorist-ridden country. Doing so would lend an enormous amount of rhetorical justification for his wider political agenda of militarization along the US-Mexico border. Nor can there be much doubt that a sizable slice of Trump’s base would revel in forcing Mexicans to suffer the humiliation of uninvited US airstrikes taking place on their soil.
By adopting an aggressive and unilateralist response to cartel violence, Trump would also achieve the geopolitical goal of demonstrating that US primacy in the Western Hemisphere is still a meaningful political reality and that Latin American states ignore the wishes of a sitting US president at their own peril. In other words, a militarized response would make good on his administration’s various insistences that the Monroe Doctrine is still a going concern.
Of course, it is not inevitable that Trump will either label drug cartels as FTOs or authorize military interventions in Mexico. Top advisers are almost certainly warning him against both options, and the President himself has shown at least some aversion to starting new military conflicts (even as he has been perfectly willing to expand existing ones).
Yet the opportunity to carry out a practical exhibition of US dominance over Mexico might be difficult for Trump to resist, especially given that there is now the possibility of cloaking any displays of hard power in the mantle of idealism—that is, the need to protect the lives of innocent US citizens living across the border. The logic would be seductive: If US citizens are being threatened inside Mexico, is it not the solemn responsibility of the US government to defend them?
These arguments, already trial ballooned by GOP figures like Sasse and Cotton, echo those of Britain’s Lord Palmerston, who in 1850 urged as Foreign Secretary that every “British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.” Palmerston’s soaring rhetoric was used to justify one of the most obvious instances of gun boat diplomacy that the world has ever seen—in this case, against Greece during the so-called Don Pacifico Affair.
If Trump orders a militarized response to the drug cartels, he will no doubt cast himself in the same light as Palmerston sought for himself. He will portray his actions as honorable, statesmanlike, and unshrinking in the face of lawlessness. There will be some criticism from domestic actors, but nothing Trump has not weathered before. His supporters will cheer him on.
But a Trump Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine would be an unequivocal disaster for America’s foreign policy, worsening relations not just with Mexico but with every other state in the Western Hemisphere. It would confirm foreign governments’ worst fears about US imperialism, unilateralism, and unpredictability. America’s reputation as a responsible and restrained world power would suffer yet another blow. What is more, it is almost certain that violence on both sides of the border would skyrocket, with no option for the United States to withdraw.