Reports that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was constructing a base in Cuba devoted to spying on the United States immediately generated concern among members of America’s foreign policy establishment. Now that U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Beijing is expanding a small facility that has operated since 2019, concern has risen toward outright alarm.
Walter Russell Mead, an always reliable barometer of the conventional wisdom in the foreign policy community, warns that the spy base is just the tip of the iceberg of unhealthy intrusions by US adversaries into the Western Hemisphere. "Ties with Russia and China are booming. Moscow has resumed its Cold War efforts to subsidize a Cuban economy. . . . But Moscow’s efforts are dwarfed by Beijing’s. Chinese trade with Latin America and the Caribbean rocketed from $18 billion in 2002 to $450 billion 20 years later and is projected to reach $700 billion by 2035." Mead adds that "Eleven or more space facilities across five countries in the region give Beijing sophisticated tracking and surveillance capabilities, and China hopes to expand this network."
His reaction highlights the hypocrisy that pervades Washington’s view of world affairs. Since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, US leaders have regarded any military intrusion by a foreign power into the Western Hemisphere as intolerable. Indeed, officials over the decades have been suspicious even of economic ties between another great power and countries in the Hemisphere. Mead’s attitude merely continues and updates that perspective.
Such an attitude is not especially surprising. Powerful nations typically try to establish spheres of influence (or even domination) in areas adjacent to their homelands. Especially in recent decades, however, Washington has shown a rigid, counterproductive intolerance for such behavior on the part of other countries anywhere else in the world. Indeed, officials in both George W. Bush’s administration and Barack Obama’s administration explicitly condemned the entire concept of spheres of influence. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated bluntly that a new world order was emerging "in which great power is defined not by spheres of influence" or "the strong imposing their will on the weak."
US and NATO leaders ostentatiously ignored repeated warnings from Russia’s government that trying to make Ukraine an Alliance member or military asset would cross uncompromising red lines. Western officials admonished Moscow that Ukraine had every right under international law to join any international organization it wanted—even the world’s most powerful alliance that was building up its military presence on Russia’s border.
From the standpoint of international law, that stance was accurate. However, it was oblivious to how great powers actually respond to attempts by rivals to penetrate their spheres of influence. Ukraine did have every right to join NATO or become a willing Western military pawn. According to that same theory, though, Cuba also has every right to host a PRC spy base. Indeed, the Cuban government in 1962 had every "legal right" to host Soviet missiles.
US leaders have shown no willingness to respect such abstract legal niceties when it comes to protecting US interests. John F. Kennedy’s administration took the world to the brink of thermonuclear war to prevent a Soviet military presence in the Caribbean that Washington considered threatening to America’s security. It is a safe bet that there will be extensive political pressure on the Biden administration to prevent the continued presence of a Chinese spy base in America’s back yard. One can readily imagine what Washington’s reaction would be if a Chinese or Russian-led military alliance sought to incorporate Mexico or Canada as a member.
Yet US leaders and their allies in the news media expect other major powers to placidly accept Washington’s military intrusions into their neighborhoods. A series of US administrations remained arrogantly indifferent to Moscow’s complaints about NATO’s inexorable expansion to Russia’s border. US behavior in the Western Pacific already is producing a similar response from China. The growing political and military ties between Washington and Taipei, the return of US troops to the Philippines, the prominent presence of US naval patrols in the South China Sea, and the stubborn support for Japan’s claims to the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands, are among many actions that any Chinese government would consider provocative and threatening.
Washington’s clumsy hypocrisy has not played well, and it is unlikely to play well going forward. If US leaders want to avoid dangerously confrontational relations with other major powers, the United States must extend the same consideration and respect for competing spheres of influence as they demand for America’s Monroe Doctrine.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).