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The Monroe Doctrine in 21st Century Great Power Competition
John Harrison, Matthew Kawas and Chase Sargeant
“I think it [Monroe Doctrine] is as relevant today, as it was the day it was written,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated on February 1, 2018 in response to a reporter’s question. This was a significant statement on the heels of his first trip to Latin America, and an attempt to provide a connection of long-term values between the United States and Latin America. His comment, however, roused new questions and old concerns over the Monroe Doctrine as the potential guide for the Trump administration’s policy in Latin America.
After a 20-year hiatus since the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) identify a new great power competition as the priority security threat to the United States. Although focused on Europe with Russia, and Asia with China, this great power competition is just as applicable in Latin America where China is aggressively using the economic instrument of power. According to the World Economic Forum, since 2010, “China [has] loaned $65 billion to Venezuela in exchange for oil, $21 billion to Brazil and approximately $15 billion to both Argentina and Ecuador.” Moreover, China increased its investment in 2017 to more than one billion dollars. Gone are the days of European great power colonization of Latin America; however, this heavy debt laden investment could become a more subtle form of colonization if nations cannot pay back the loans. As both Russia and China continue to invest in Latin America, it plausibly is only a matter of time before either will deem a country’s internal decisions contrary to their own national interests and use undue control to ensure their interests are protected.
Almost two hundred years ago, the United States addressed European great power interference in the Western Hemisphere through a declaration of principles that became the Monroe Doctrine. Used, abused, and transformed over nearly 200 years as the world context changed, the doctrine was generally successful at limiting outside interference within the Western Hemisphere, but at the cost of generating disdain from the Americas.
With the re-emergence of great power competition, how is an almost 200-year-old doctrine relevant in shaping U.S. policies in Latin America for the future? How should the United States apply lessons from the Monroe Doctrine to succeed in today’s foreign policy? To prevent exploitation by great powers and ensure global access and sustained U.S. influence, leaders, planners, and policy makers should develop strategy informed by the lessons encountered through almost 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine. Such lessons include:
- The diplomatic, information and economic instruments of national power are most effective when backed up by credible military power.
- Uninvited military intervention, except in clear self-defense, appears imperialistic.
- Multilateral responses are essential to avoid perceptions of imperialism.
Lastly, the authors will make U.S. strategy recommendations for three Latin American countries, Venezuela, Panama, and Argentina, using these three key lessons from the application of the Monroe Doctrine.
Monroe Doctrine – Hands Off
In the early 19th century, the fledgling United States was far from a great power but had great power, indeed imperial, aspirations. In 1819, Secretary of State John Q. Adams stated "[the world] must be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America.” Following the revolt of several Latin American countries, President Monroe recommended to Congress to recognize these new free nations and dispatch U.S. ministers without consulting the European powers. In his 1823 annual address to Congress, President Monroe described a non-colonization clause - that the American continents are “not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." Furthermore, he declared that “we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” The Monroe Doctrine asserted that sovereigns did not hold their power by divine right, but that their people have the right to “determine their own destiny, and to govern themselves.” Subsequent presidential administrations expanded the scope of the doctrine. In 1845, President Polk implied the United States would take a stand to defend the principle in certain areas of the continent and also opposed cessation of territory to a European power. From 1865-1895, presidential administrations expanded the doctrine to include a no-transfer clause that opposed transfer of territory to European powers, a declaration that a proposed canal across Central America would be controlled by the United States to avoid European control, and that the United States could intervene in a situation to prevent the European powers from intervening. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt asserted that the United States might have to intervene in Latin American countries as a police action, but not for territory. His corollary also extended the doctrine to all powers vice just European but was eventually revoked. During the 20th century, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and the Truman Doctrine retained Monroe Doctrine principles.
21st Century Monroe Doctrine
Today’s great power competition is not the end of a Monroe Doctrine policy in Latin America, but the next stage in an even more global and complicated context. The NSS and NDS highlight this great power competition, and support maintaining a doctrine focused on the same priorities originally established in 1823: defend U.S. national interests and protect regional sovereignty from coercion. Taking into account the lessons of nearly 200 years of the doctrine, the United States has the opportunity to establish a positive, more effective doctrine to deal with the current challenge by great powers in the region. This history provides that a revised doctrine should include credible military power supporting the diplomatic, information and economic instruments of national power; avoid uninvited military intervention, except in clear self-defense; and be focused on multi-lateral vice unilateral responses to avoid perceptions of imperialism.
First, an effective revised doctrine in Latin America to deal with great power competition must be highlighted by strong use of diplomatic, information, and economic instruments, supported by credible military power to underpin and amplify those lines of effort. Although non-military lines of effort typically have the leading role in any Latin American engagement, history of the Monroe Doctrine proves these efforts are less effective without credible military power to assure regional partners and deter outside powers intent on coercion.
For most of the first 70 years after President Monroe’s statement, U.S. doctrine offered little in terms of deterrence to European great powers intent on continuing to exploit Latin America. Implementation of the doctrine through diplomatic and information instruments met limited success when the United States did not possess military strength. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, most European countries either disregarded the Monroe Doctrine or saw it as an “arrogant gesture”. The United States lacked the naval and military power to enforce its new doctrine and thus the doctrine was ineffective in deterrence.
The great powers of Europe also advanced their own interests at the expense of the region when U.S. military power was capable to deter their efforts but otherwise distracted.  During the Civil War, the United States had some capability to deter countries from interreference but was embroiled in an internal conflict, so France took advantage of the distraction to occupy Mexico. However, once the war was over, France chose to leave Mexico rather than challenge U.S. commitment to the Monroe Doctrine. 
By the end of the 19th century, the United States had sufficient military power to bolster use of diplomatic, information and economic instruments of power. In 1895, Great Britain relented in a border dispute with Venezuela to avoid possible war with the United States In 1962, it can be deduced that the credible strength of the U.S. military in support of diplomatic and information efforts led to the positive outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the history of the Monroe Doctrine shows, non-military instruments of power are the most effective in times of great power competition when backed by capable and available military power.
Secondly, a revised doctrine should not include uninvited military intervention, except in clear self-defense of U.S. interests, to avoid the perception of U.S. imperialistic desires. For over 125 years, U.S. military power in support of the Monroe Doctrine has been both credible but also counter-productive at times due to repeated military intervention in other nations’ affairs. Presidential administrations continuously expanded the doctrine resulting in more opportunity for intervention. After intervening in a Cuban civil war as part of the Spanish American War, the Cuban government was essentially compelled to give the United States the right of military intervention for defense of Cuba. The Roosevelt Corollary led to multiple military interventions in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. This eventually resulted in condemnation of Monroe Doctrine principles by Latin American countries at a 1928 regional conference. As a result, the corollary was repudiated and the United States signed a protocol for non-intervention. Also in the 20th century, the Monroe Doctrine was extended to European financial control of a country, acquisition of harbors and other sites affecting U.S. safety or communications, and to Canada, and Greenland to thwart Germany during World War II.
Despite the 1936 non-intervention protocol, the U.S. used the Truman doctrine, an extension of Monroe Doctrine principles, to justify intervention, including at times U.S. military intervention, to prevent the spread of Communism to countries such as the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Nicaragua. “Since 1950, the United States has engaged in more militarized international disputes than any other country.” Military interventions are typically not well received by host-nation populations. Even if initially favored, extended occupation by intervening forces usually leads to “resentment, rejection, and resistance.” Additionally, as demonstrated by the Monroe Doctrine history, military intervention results in perceptions of U.S. imperialism. “No wonder that so many Latin American radicals and nationalists historically have looked upon the United States as their natural enemy.”
Lastly, a revised doctrine must focus on multilateral vice unilateral efforts to show regional unity and avoid imperialistic comparisons to past efforts. Competing views of the Monroe Doctrine by the United States and Latin America caused a tug of war of ideas that pitted multilateral aspirations of Pan Americanism against the unilateral propensity of the United States. Some Latin America countries were initially receptive of the Doctrine believing it was meant to protect their newfound independence from interference. But they soon became wary of the United States and its overbearing influence and intervention in Latin American affairs. They believed the doctrine should apply to any intervention whether from the United States or European powers. Latin America’s vision of Pan Americanism and collective defense was a multilateral approach. However, through most of the 19th century and early 20th century, the United States rejected this multilateral vision. It felt constrained by such an approach. This view and future interventionist actions led to distrust by the Latin American nations toward the United States.
Unilateral actions risk creating animosity and distrust, like they did after multiple interventions in the 19th and early 20th century. For example, when the Monroe Doctrine and its Roosevelt corollary were used to justify military intervention into Central American and Caribbean nations, it brought “vitriolic criticism throughout Latin America and brought the Doctrine itself…into disrepute. This underlying distrust, built up over decades of unilateral actions, pushed neighbors away from the United States. Mexico reacted as such in 1912 to the Magdalena Bay resolution by the United States. This unilateral resolution essentially stated the United States objected to the occupation of any ports on the American continent by any corporation or association with ties to an outside government.” Mexico criticized this unilateral action “as infringing that nation’s sovereign right to conclude contracts of colonization with whomever it pleased...whether Englishmen, Frenchmen, Japanese, or Chinese” In the present-day strategic environment, taking unilateral action in the name of the Monroe Doctrine may once again push Latin American countries closer to external great power competitors, as already evidenced by large scale economic development thru Chinese contracts and investments in countries like Panama and Argentina.
In 1936, the United States formally embraced a multilateral approach to foreign policy with Latin America. On Pan American Day in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the Good Neighbor Policy and began repairing relations focusing on multilateralism, respect of sovereignty, and equality of all states. He stated “We cannot expect to preserve the sincere friendship of our neighbors on this Continent if we close our markets to them. We cannot enjoy the markets of the American Continent, which have as vast a potentiality for development as any in the world, unless we permit the citizens of our sister nations to trade with us.” In 1936, the United States signed a Consultative Pact which required U.S. consultation with Latin American countries on issues in lieu of unilateral actions. After World War II, initiatives such as the Rio Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance and the creation of the Organization of American States promoted further multilateralism and collective defense within the Western Hemisphere. Unlike unilateral actions, multilateral pacts and agreements strengthen ties between countries, make countries more secure through collective self-defense and open the doors to economic trade.
Unfortunately, the pressures of the Cold War and fear of communism taking root in the Western Hemisphere led the United States to once again intervene unilaterally in several instances. This pattern of non-intervention then back to intervention damaged credibility and reopened the wounds of distrust. Former Secretary of State John Kerry tried to heal these wounds when he declared an end to the Monroe Doctrine, but Secretary Tillerson’s remarks could leave neighbors on edge about U.S. intentions, causing them to look toward external competitors like China or Russia for economic and military assistance.
The above analysis shows that the advantages of multilateralism outweigh those of unilateral actions. Unilateral action should only be taken when self-defense of the United States is required for survival. The United States should develop a long-term consistent strategic approach to foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere that embraces multilateral agreements and steers clear of the unilateral actions associated with the Monroe Doctrine.
Venezuela, a Country in Crisis
One does not have to look further than Venezuela to see great power competition within the Western Hemisphere unfolding on top of a national political and humanitarian crisis. On January 24, 2019, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela and was quickly recognized by the United States, with rival great powers China and Russia supporting the incumbent President Nicolás Maduro.
All three great powers have significant interests in Venezuela. With the largest oil and gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on petroleum sales and the United States is Venezuela’s largest trading partner. China imports about 10% of its oil from Venezuela and has provided approximately $65 billion in loans resulting in Venezuelan economic dependency. Additionally, China has capitalized on anti-U.S. sentiment, using arms exports to gain favorable conditions for oil import. Russian President Vladimir Putin “sees Venezuela as the stage for his confrontation with America” and his country has provided over $17 billion for oil projects and arms. In December 2018, Russia provided $6 billion in aid to President Maduro’s government and sent a military mission including nuclear-capable Tu-160 “White Swan” bombers to Venezuela, “further evidence of the United States’ loss of strategic depth in the Americas.
Today these powers are watching a country in crisis. Decades of Chavez-Maduro policies and rule have resulted in gross domestic product contraction by half, staggering debt, and inflation over 1 million percent. Oil production has plunged due to mismanagement despite large reserves. Food and basic medicines are lacking, and Mr. Maduro has rejected international aid offers. Over 3 million citizens have fled the country. As the United Nations General Secretary stated in 2005, “If national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, then the responsibility shifts to the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian and other methods to help protect the human rights and well-being of civilian populations.”
Monroe Doctrine history lessons provide reflection on this situation. The Trump administration has aggressively used the diplomatic, economic and information instruments of power backed by the option of military intervention, although such action would support accusations that Washington is repeating imperial military Latin American interventions of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Leaders have frequently communicated U.S. resolve. “Now is the time for every nation to pick a side,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.” The administration cut off the Venezuelan national oil company from selling to the United States, diverting Citgo revenue to accounts inaccessible by Mr. Maduro and providing financial access to Venezuelan accounts in U.S. based institutions to Mr. Guaidó. The United States has also partnered with other countries to freeze the Maduro regime’s financial access abroad. Most of the countries of the world have heeded the administration’s call to abandon the Maduro regime. Lima Group governments across the Americas issued a resolution declaring support for Mr. Guaidó, calling for the international community to prevent the Maduro regime from access to financial instruments abroad, and for all parties to seek a peaceful solution without the use of force. The Organization of the American States passed a resolution that did not recognize the re-election of Maduro and urged member states to use instruments to restore democratic order and provide humanitarian aid.
To avoid re-learning past lessons, the Trump administration should stay the course with the multi-national, non-military response to the crisis. Avoiding declarations of “Monroe Doctrine” and other imperialistic actions may result in a peaceful transition that better positions the United States in the great power competition in South America.
Panama – Chinese Influence on the Rise
Panama is yet another strategic Latin America country that warrants examination through the lens of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States has been a strong partner of Panama since it gained independence over 100 years ago. Throughout this period, the relationship has been affected by U.S. foreign policy shaped by the Monroe Doctrine. At times it has been positive, but in general, protectionism and globalization have opened the door for Panama to look elsewhere, namely China. The United States has seen a growing trend in China’s investment in Panama and must decide how to handle this increasing influence in the Western Hemisphere.
China’s influence and interest in Panama have risen steadily over the last decade. Chinese companies operate port facilities on both sides of the Panama Canal, and Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, designated Panama as a regional hub. In a recent visit to Panama by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Panama and China “signed 19 cooperation agreements on trade, infrastructure, banking, tourism, and other areas.” It is conceivable that at some point in the future, China could use its growing investment in Panama to create an unfair competitive advantage, or restrict access to a critical trade route.
How might the United States respond to China’s expansion into Panama? Policy makers and planners should look to compete openly and fairly with other countries to maintain influence on the isthmus and require the same openness and fairness from other competitors. In a recent visit to Panama, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented that it isn’t about China out-competing the United States, rather “It's when state-owned enterprises show up in a way that is clearly not transparent, clearly not market-driven and designed not to benefit the people of Panama, but rather to benefit the Chinese government.”
Panama’s new partnership with China has not shut out the United States. The United States remains Panama’s strongest import and export partner and maintains bilateral agreements. The United States should continue to offer competitive trade deals and highlight transparency and fairness with all competitors. Nevertheless, the United States should avoid any perception of protectionism and imperialism by referring to the Monroe Doctrine as it competes with China for influence in Panama and the rest of Latin America.
Argentina – Chinese Influence and Control
Argentina is a third example of both the challenges and opportunity for the United States in re-imagining the Monroe Doctrine for today’s great power competition. A country with historically weak ties to the United States, Argentina is at a crossroads as they assess economic and security alignments while the country attempts to rise from nearly two decades of economic turmoil. With vast energy, agriculture, and mineral resources, Argentina has great potential and value to feed the growing global appetite for energy, food, and technology. In addition to a strong independent streak in Argentine politics, U.S. and Argentina relations remain weak due to Argentina’s trade focus on soy beans, also an economic strength of the U.S.
With an economic crisis in 2001, Argentina became a target of opportunity for China’s new type of debt “colonialization” as it defaulted on nearly $22 billion of loans to the IMF, at the time the largest in history, during an economic crisis of the likes of the Great Depression. A stagnant economy led to super inflation and a lack of capital for essential infrastructure and social investment. With few viable options following the loan default, Argentina turned to China to assist in revitalizing the economy and funding much needed projects.
Since 2007, Chinese loans and financial commitments to Argentina have totaled over $36 billion. This includes funding for over $18 billion in infrastructure projects, most prominently $2.4 billion to upgrade rail lines and $12.5 billion to build two hydro-electric power plants, and an $18.7 billion currency swap agreement. China is now Argentina’s second largest trade partner behind Brazil, passing the United States on the strength of exports to China. With massive lithium fields and a vast gold deposits, China is expanding its economic reach into developing Argentina’s mining industry for its resource hungry needs.
Most concerning for U.S. national security is the growing influence that Argentina’s economic reliance is buying in the security domain. Through these stronger economic ties, China is attempting to forge a military foothold in Argentina through arms sales, increased military cooperation, and promises to increase their strategic relationship in the future. Significantly, in 2012, China signed a 50 year, no rent, lease to build a space station in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Allegedly designed to support China’s aggressive space exploration efforts, this new station is shrouded in secrecy and well positioned for dual use for military operations in space.
Although often not transparent, China’s heavy investment does not come without strings attached and Argentina has shown some desire to lessen their reliance on China. In 2015, President Mauricio Macri was elected on a platform that called for reduced Argentine reliance on China and a review of the large agreements with China made by his predecessor that he believed challenged Argentine sovereignty. Once elected, Macri quickly postponed contracts for the two hydro-electric plants and began a review of the agreement for the space station. This effort was reversed almost as quickly as it took shape as President Macri felt the economic and diplomatic pressure from China whose state-owned enterprises had linked the contracts for the less desired hydro-electric plants to the more desired rail line contracts as an all or nothing deal. In the following years, President Macri not only accepted China’s growing investment, but he has increased investments and loans as Argentina continues to struggle with high inflation and struggling economy with few other prospects for capital.
Argentina also provides the United States opportunities to strengthen a relationship with a major power in the Western hemisphere, protect U.S. national security interests, and send a strong message to China, and by default Russia, against economic exploitation and militarization of Latin America. Consistent with the Monroe Doctrine’s intent to dissuade foreign power exploitation of Latin America, the United States should seize the opportunity to provide Argentina an alternative to China’s coercive debt traps and agreements. Although not all of China’s influence can be reversed, the United States should use its influence and economic power to help Argentina seek credit from other international sources and assist Argentina’s industry to ensure processes are set up to ensure Argentine sovereignty and ownership of key mineral and energy resources. Some efforts in this regard have already been made with the IMF agreeing in June 2018 to provide $56.3 billion in finance to Argentina through 2021. Although a small budget compared to other Latin American nations, Argentina is also looking to strengthen its armed forces. This provides yet another opportunity to maintain U.S. influence in the region with the added bonus of future arms sales. Lastly, the United States must determine now what it is willing to accept in terms of military expansionism into the region. Through closer security ties with Argentina, the United States could assist in monitoring Chinese space station activities to ensure transparent operations by the Chinese and ultimately to protect Argentine sovereignty. In turn, U.S. security cooperation with Argentina could raise the cost and difficulty for the Chinese to further develop the space station for other than scientific means.
The original principle of President Monroe’s statement is still relevant today. The United States should be concerned about external powers taking actions in the Western Hemisphere that could affect U.S. peace and security. However, the strategic environment has changed considerably since 1823. The external powers of concern are different, and “colonial” actions take a 21st century form in the current global economic and security environment. Efforts to “colonize” may look less like invading a country’s sovereign territory, but instead, owning a country’s major economic sectors or wielding undue influence through predatory lending. It is critical that U.S. response to these actions be shaped by the lessons of nearly 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine in order to avoid losing influence in the region and driving partner nations toward competitors with the intent to undermine U.S. interests. Policy-makers and planners should look first to use diplomatic, economic, and information instruments to engage with other countries, supported by a strong military. Except in self-defense, the United States should avoid uninvited armed intervention and seek to work through multi-lateral forums like the Organization of American States to avoid perceptions of imperialism. By employing a consistent foreign policy informed by the lessons presented in this article, the United States can promote peace and prosperity not only for itself, but partner nations in the Western Hemisphere. While the Monroe Doctrine has historically been focused on the Western Hemisphere, globalization in the economic and cyber realms have expanded the “backyard” to other geographic areas that affect U.S. interests. Further review of these lessons is recommended to determine applicability on a global scale.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or U.S. Air Force.
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