Earlier this month, U.S. and Georgian officials had high-level meetings in Washington where Secretary Clinton expressed U.S. support for Georgia, denounced the “occupation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, pledged continued aid for the Georgian government, and endorsed Georgia’s strategic concept for the “occupied” territories. Perhaps many Americans think this is entirely appropriate. Maybe many Americans think U.S.-Georgian relations should be no one else’s business, and Georgia should be free to make its own foreign policy decisions. Of course, these relations don’t take place in a vacuum, and it does matter to neighboring states if a great power from the other side of the planet begins building up influence in their “near-abroad.” The claim that the U.S. rejects spheres of influence is true only in the sense that our government rejects it when other states claim them. For our part, the entire world is treated more or less as our sphere of influence. As long as Washington treats the rest of the world this way, other major powers are going to try to gain influence anywhere they can. Indeed, other major powers would be doing this anyway, but there is no way that the U.S. and other major powers could ever come to any understanding about respective spheres of influence so long as our government insists that we have them all and they have none.

Last week, Russian President Medvedev signed an agreement with Venezuela’s government on a Venezuelan nuclear power plant built by the Russians. By itself, this isn’t very worrisome. If the Iranian nuclear program isn’t a threat (and it isn’t), a Venezuelan nuclear program wouldn’t even be cause for concern. This deal doesn’t threaten “the global order,” and it’s silly to say that it does. If Americans would apply the same standards to Latin America that our government applies to the former Soviet Union, Venezuela’s government should be able to make deals and alliances with any country. Naturally, many Americans do not apply the same standards to “our backyard” that we expect other states to respect in theirs.

The IBD editorial (via Scoblete) invoking the Monroe Doctrine is amusing in a couple ways. The most obvious is the blatant double standard many Americans have for what Russia can do outside its borders and what the U.S. is allowed to do along Russia’s borders, but that’s old news. What is amusing is the idea that the Monroe Doctrine has anything to do with dictating the foreign policy of Latin American states in a post-colonial world. Rather like President Bush’s much-maligned, rarely-read “Chicken Kiev” speech, President Monroe’s message to Congress in 1823 is not very well understood. President Monroe said this:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare 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. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere [bold mine-DL]. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States [bold mine-DL]. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgement of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.

In the context of the early 1820s, when Spanish liberals had just been crushed by French forces aligned with the royalists, Monroe was saying that the U.S. viewed the re-introduction of a monarchical form of government into any of the newly-independent Latin American republics as a threat to the United States as well. Essentially, it was a message that the U.S. would not tolerate campaigns of restoration in the Western Hemisphere. Arguably, during the Cold War the same argument might have applied to the establishment of communist states, since such a change of government could have had geopolitical consequences. What the Monroe Doctrine was not and could not have been was a claim that European powers could have no dealings with independent Latin American states. It wasn’t a claim that European powers could not wield influence in the Western Hemisphere. Monroe was making clear that there were limits to the extent and nature of that influence. So long as those states were allowed to remain independent and retained their form of government, the U.S. was largely indifferent to their relations with the rest of the world.

One thing that can be said with certainty about Russia today is that its government has no fixed ideology, and it is not attempting to promote an ideological system abroad. Chavez’s authoritarian populism may have some things in common with what has been called Putinism, but it is also entirely indigenous and retains the support of a substantial percentage of the Venezuelan population. Obviously, negotiating technology transfers between two governments has nothing to do with Venezuela’s independence or form of government. The Monroe Doctrine is as irrelevant in this case as can be.

P.S. Incidentally, as Greg Scoblete mentions, Venezuela is thousands over a thousand miles away from the continental United States. No one would take seriously the idea that countries that far away from Russia were in Russia’s “backyard,” but a common American expectation of hemispheric hegemony lets us imagine that we have some claim on nations that are as far removed from us as Iraq is from Russia.