We need to mind our neighbors

By James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

For the United States, the second most important foreign policy developments are occurring in South America. Maybe soon, the most important.

The news from Bolivia -- a country that is nationalizing, or, if you prefer, stealing, foreign-owned assets -- is just the latest in a string of anti-capitalist, anti-American developments in South America. In recent years, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile have all elected left-leaning governments, determined to reverse globalization and thwart American influence. And similar governments are likely to win soon in Peru and Mexico.

In particular, the oil-empowered Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, an avowed fan of Cubas Fidel Castro, is emerging as a genuine U.S. enemy. Americans, of course, have been mostly preoccupied with the Middle East, but the problems to our south -- trade, energy, immigration, narcotics trafficking -- are likely to worsen as North-South cooperation worsens.

And one of these days a Latin country will emerge as a serious military power, thus ending Americas fortuitous two-century-long monopoly of force in this hemisphere.

Yet, Uncle Sams dominion over the Americas was not entirely an accident of geography. Since Thomas Jefferson bought out Napoleon in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, and since the United States fought the British to a draw in the War of 1812, we aimed to keep other great powers out of North America. And to further tidy up our control, in 1867 we bought Alaska from Russia.

In the meantime, no great rival emerged in South America. Local patriots expelled the Spanish colonizers in the early 19th century, but Simon Bolivars dream of an Estados Unidos for his continent was thwarted as Spanish America broke up into more than a dozen countries. From a power-politics perspective, this was great news for the United States on the divide-and-conquer principle.

To help keep this factionalization permanent, the United States enunciated the Monroe Doctrine, which declared that Latin America would never be recolonized by foreign powers.

But, of course, the United States retained its determination to reshape politics in our backyard. At the turn of the past century, President Theodore Roosevelt decided, for sound geopolitical reasons, to build a ship-going canal across Central America, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The best place for such a waterway was through Colombia. But there was a catch: In TRs view, Colombians were bad partners.

So the 26th president hatched a plan: He helped foment a revolution, in which that strategic part of Colombia declared itself to be the independent nation of Panama. The United States immediately recognized the new country, purchased the land for the canal and started digging.

Today, the Organization of American States consists of 35 nations, with the United States being vastly more powerful than all the other members put together. Whereas some countries are tormented by the presence of a mortal rival on their border -- Israel and the Arabs, South and North Korea, India and Pakistan -- the United States is unchallenged by neighbors. Moreover, of the nine nuclear powers in the world, three are in Europe and five are in Asia; we have a nuke-opoly in our home hemisphere.

But we could be losing our home-field advantage as anti-yanqui feeling rises and as techno trends shrink the world. Nationalist fervor forced the United States to give back the Panama Canal -- whereupon key infrastructure was snapped up by a company controlled by the Peoples Republic of China. In addition, the Chinese have peacekeepers in Haiti and reportedly are helping Cuba drill for offshore oil. Monroe Doctrine, RIP.

And one of these days we are going to discover that a big country, such as Brazil, or a rich country, such as Venezuela, has gained possession of a nuclear weapon. At that point, presumably, we will start paying closer attention to national security, closer to our own homeland.

Special to Newsday

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