The Trump Doctrine

With the increasing pressure on the Venezuelan regime, it seems that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is more than words. But does he have an actual ethos?

Photo: U.S. News, retrieved.

It’s not easy to link the name of Donald Trump to a “doctrine,” and keeping track of his endless and zig-zagging tweets (as well as his political twists and turns) is so hard that the last thing you might expect from the current President of the United States is for him to think up a doctrine.

But here we are, and Donald Trump has come up with one. The Trump doctrine aims at policing the American continenthe has proclaimed this as his future legacyand its goal is simple: by the end of Trump’s term, there will be no non-democratic governments in the Americas. The mental automatisms bring back the Monroe doctrine, “America for Americans,” which had so many interpretations, not all of them pleasant for those not sharing Monroe’s nationality. If we were to pick a line for it, Trump’s doctrine would state “America for democracy.”

Let’s first be clear about the elements of democracy, as stated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed by every country in the continent, to avoid a new set of distortions and start understanding it only as what Trump thinks it is; on its third Article, the charter defines that “essential elements of representative democracy include, inter alia, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.” 

Its goal is simple: by the end of Trump’s term, there will be no non-democratic governments in the Americas.

Almost five decades ago, a doctrine was formulated in Venezuela whose purpose was to defend democracy: the Betancourt doctrine. It stated that no country in the continent would recognize any government that took over through a coup d’etat. From Venezuela’s perspective, it applied to the then governments of Argentina, Guatemala, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Ecuador, and Peru. The Betancourt doctrine was never actually adopted by other countries in the region, but several followed it on a few occasions.

Unlike then, we don’t have governments nowadays that originated through coups, but there have been three governments where democracy has been violated in severe and continuous ways: two regimes that during the XXIst century have degenerated into satrapies and one into terrible, sui generis dictatorship, meaning Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. In these countries, the defining features that make a democracy haven’t existed in a long time, or they have been savagely buried beneath oppression and ruin. There are other countries in Central America where the political regimes are questionable if you want to qualify them as democracies, but the Trump doctrine isn’t precisely looking at them. In any case, those countries have more or less believable elections and alternation. 

There are issues to clarify. For example, the top rulers of the three aforementioned countries claim to be leftist and anti-imperialist. So the question arises on whether the Trump doctrine is aimed at left and anti-imperialist regimes or if it truly goes against anti-democratic regimes. This could be tested by observing Trump’s position when a right-wing regime incurs in the same practices of these three countries to perpetuate themselves in power. There are right-wing governments in America, some led by very authoritarian people, like Brazil. But so far, mister Bolsonaro hasn’t shown signs of wanting to end Brazilian democracy and stay in power for decades. Another case that could be a test is the permanence of a government that calls itself left-wing and anti-imperialist, yet its practices differ from the threesome. This could have been the case of Bolivia if Evo Morales would’ve been re-elected without violating the Constitution and Bolivian laws.

The formulation of this doctrine, precisely this year, could be just an electoral move to ensure a victory in the always crucial state of Florida.

How firm is this doctrine? How seriously does the North American ruler takes it? With Trump, you never know. The formulation of this doctrine, precisely this year, could be just an electoral move to ensure a victory in the always crucial state of Florida, or it might be just the opposite. If Trump really subscribes to it: in case of his re-election and a second term in the pocket, maybe he’d feel more freedom to pursue his philosophy, and thus leave his mark in history.

The way things stand right now should be enough for the potential targets to take note, with the President of the United States taking so seriously a slogan that could have so many implications.

To protect the Trump doctrine from contradictions, its application must follow one condition, though: the replacement of a dictatorship cannot be made in a way that’s anti-democratic itself. So far, Trump hasn’t incurred in what’s called “forced democracy,” meaning the attempt to impose it by foreign military force. It remains to be seen if the last movements against the Maduro regime (from the indictment of the dictator and many of his cronies in the DEA wanted list, to the anti-drugs Navy deployment in the Caribbean) will follow that criteria. 

So the Trump doctrine will be relevant… if he succeeds in avoiding that path.

Diego Bautista Urbaneja

Lawyer and political scientist. Founder of the School of Political Studies of the UCV, Individual of number of Venezuela's National Academy of History. Visiting Professor at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. Since 2000, he has been conducting the radio program La Linterna at RCR.