Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 312-325
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Forming an Informal Empire without Colonies:
U.S.–Latin American Relations
Mark T. Gilderhus
Scholarly opinion overall supports the view that three interlocking objectives have formed the basis of United States policy toward Latin America in modern times. Beginning with Secretary of State James G. Blaine's espousal of a Pan-American vision in the 1880s, U.S. leaders consistently sought to exclude European presences, to expand trade and investment, and to uphold peace and stability. The rank order of importance among these goals changed from time to time, depending on circumstances and personalities, and the same held true for the tactics. In [End Page 312] contrast, the strategy of forming an informal empire without colonies remained more or less constant throughout the twentieth century.
The imperial project picked up momentum as a consequence of the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War in 1898. U.S. leaders first relied on unilateral measures while employing military interventions in the creation of five protectorates. Such practices prevailed during the presidencies of McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson but ultimately entailed high costs and unwanted obligations. As a result, a shift took place after the First World War. The German defeat eliminated for a time European threats and also the principal rationale for intervention. These outcomes, in combination with the onset of the Great Depression, called for multilateral initiatives in efforts to embrace Latin Americans as junior partners during the age of the Good Neighbor. A succession of new policies conjured up cooperative undertakings with hopes of increasing commerce, policing the region against internal strife, and providing safeguards against Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, this change in favor of nonintervention paid off in the form of Latin American support for the United States. For Latin Americans, the gringos no longer appeared as a natural enemy.
Most of the books under consideration in this essay exemplify current historiographical tendencies by bestowing agency on Latin Americans. They also employ various methodologies while exploring diverse aspects of complex international relationships, including geopolitics, Pan-Americanism, economic and cultural interactions, and private initiatives by nongovernmental organizations in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. Several of these works sparkle with originality and innovation. They also set forth significant findings, heighten levels of understanding, and force consideration of new ideas.
The least distinctive among them, Martin Sicker's The Geopolitics of Security in the Americas, may appeal to political science traditionalists but strikes me, a historian, as something of a rehash of theories based on dated secondary accounts. Sicker claims that geopolitics, "the relationship between geography and power politics," retains utility as "a valid approach to understanding the realpolitik of international relations." He explores "the geopolitical and geostrategic factors that have helped shape . . . policies toward Latin America . . . albeit," he says, "largely unacknowledged" (2) by U.S. leaders. In his view, public statements of high purpose and principle seldom reveal true intentions, the formulation of which more typically resides in clandestine...