Rex Tillerson’s tour of Latin America got off to a poor start:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have stumbled out of the gate as he kicked off a trip to Latin America by praising a controversial 200-year-old foreign-policy doctrine, warning of “imperial” Chinese trade ambitions, and touting the United States as the region’s preferred trade partner.

During a question-and-answer session after a speech in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, Tillerson praised the 1823 Monroe Doctrine as “clearly … a success.” The doctrine, and subsequent corollary to the doctrine issued in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, asserted U.S. authority in the Western Hemisphere over meddling European powers, and is still seen by many in the region as a form of U.S. imperialism.

Tillerson is a bad diplomat, and this episode helps illustrate that very well. First, Tillerson completely failed to anticipate how his remarks would be interpreted by people in the region he was about to visit, and once he brought it up then he further failed to distinguish between the original Monroe Doctrine with its emphasis on respecting the independence of our neighbors and the later distortion of that doctrine used to justify frequent meddling, invasions, and coups. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine ahead of a tour of Latin America without any further explanation would be tone-deaf at the best of times, but to set up that history of U.S. meddling in opposition to Chinese influence in the region and then warn against Chinese imperialism is just inexcusable diplomatic malpractice.