The Venezuela Crisis Revisited

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The political turmoil in Venezuela has captured the attention of the United States for several months, and the recent introduction of Russian troops into the country has solidified a place for the ailing petrostate on front pages nationwide. As American eyes are drawn to the ongoing unrest in the streets of Caracas, it is worth noting this is not the first time the United States has been concerned by European intervention in Venezuela. In a little-known diplomatic crisis at the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt confronted an ad hoc coalition of European powers led by Germany and the United Kingdom attempting to exert influence there. As policymakers point to the importance of reassuring allies and partners during a time of resurgent great power competition, a case study on successful extended deterrence is particularly relevant. Roosevelt’s effort to deter several major competitors from becoming entrenched in Venezuela was successful due to his unflagging efforts to communicate his preferences to the potential aggressors. As the 1902-1903 crisis demonstrates, a critical component to successful extended deterrence is that the sponsoring state’s preferences cannot be left vague, and deterrence must extend beyond just threats—sponsors must communicate both what the aggressor should not do and what they should do to satisfy the sponsor and avoid conflict.

Strategic Context

The Venezuela Crisis of 1902-1903 was a diplomatic spat that brought the United States and Imperial Germany to the brink of war. The confrontation between the United States and Germany originated with the failing Venezuelan economy at the dawn of the 20th century. After a series of leaders accepted loans from European powers on terms advantageous to the lenders, the corrupt and weak central Venezuelan government found itself deeply in debt.[1] Following several years of missed interest payments, Germany, Britain, and Italy sought economic compensation. Venezuelan leader Cipriano Castro, a “caricature of the stereotypical Latin American dictator,” directed the European demands to Venezuelan courts, which—staffed by Castro supporters, rendered judgments favorable to Venezuela.[2] Additionally, Venezuelan naval forces seized foreign ships and cargoes, and Castro tacitly approved of looting foreign-owned homes in his territory.[3] The aggressive Venezuelan strongman believed the United States and the Monroe Doctrine protected his indebtedness and behavior from European reprisal.

A 1902 Cartoon On German And British Claims Against Venezuela And President Theodore Roosevelt’s Intentions To Resist (W.A. Rogers)

The Monroe Doctrine and its prohibition on colonization or European interference in the Western Hemisphere was, as Graham Allison writes, originally more “aspirational rather than operational.”[4] The United States lacked the military means to enforce the proclamation for much of the 19th century, and European powers pushed the United States to the limits of its credibility by probing around the edges of both the Monroe Doctrine and Latin America. The British took the Falklands in 1833 and temporarily occupied a Nicaraguan port in 1895.[5] In 1872, a newly unified Germany flexed its muscles and exercised gunboat diplomacy in Haiti, briefly seizing two Haitian warships.[6] European nations were thus accustomed to a relatively passive United States, and, on the issue of Venezuela, Secretary of State John Hay made it clear to Britain and the continental powers the Monroe Doctrine was not intended to protect a “wrongdoing state from justice.”[7] However, once Theodore Roosevelt became president following William McKinley’s 1901 assassination, the Monroe Doctrine found a new champion—one who would implement the doctrine regardless of the character or economic irresponsibility of any Latin American protégés.[8]

The critical variable in the extended deterrence success of the 1902-1903 Venezuela Crisis was Roosevelt’s communication of a security guarantee for Venezuela he considered inviolable. While Venezuela was not a treaty ally, and the European lenders were justifiably angered by its failure to repay their debts, Roosevelt would not tolerate European adventurism in the Western Hemisphere and felt compelled to intervene. The new president was particularly concerned with the potential for a German-controlled port near the site of the “future Isthmian Canal” he was working hard to make a reality.[9] Germany and Great Britain intervened in Venezuela late in 1902, instituting what they called a “peaceful blockade” on the 7th of December, then seizing Venezuelan naval ships two days later.[10]

Speak Clearly and Carry a Big Stick

Theodore Roosevelt standing beside large globe in the White House, 1903 (Wikimedia)

President Roosevelt used both formal and informal channels to communicate his determination to uphold the Monroe Doctrine during the zenith of the crisis. His first act was an unusual signal, appointing the U.S. Navy’s only four-star admiral as the commander of the Atlantic Fleet for its’ 1902-1903 winter exercise. The U.S. Navy’s highest-ranking officer rarely went to sea, but Roosevelt wanted to send a message by appointing Admiral George Dewey, the Hero of Manila Bay, as the combined fleet’s commander. By posting Dewey to the Atlantic Fleet, Roosevelt hoped to “arrest the attention of…the Kaiser.”[11]

The president exercised informal channels in attempts to communicate his deterrent threat while maintaining public discretion. President Roosevelt wrote to friend and British parliamentarian Arthur Lee that Admiral Dewey was training the fleet for war, knowing the well-connected Lee would socialize this comment in the capitals of Europe.[12] Roosevelt used what Henry J. Hendrix calls the “intimacy of personal diplomacy” as another means of indirect communication, inviting friend and German diplomat Baron Speck von Sternburg to a private White House dinner, along with Admiral Dewey on November 24, 1902.[13] With these indirect methods having failed, however, Dewey and the fleet prepared to set sail, and Roosevelt saw them off just over a week later at the Washington Navy Yard.[14]

President Roosevelt communicated directly and succinctly with the German Ambassador, Theodor von Holleben, throughout the crisis. On December 8, 1902, the president issued a stern ultimatum for the ambassador to relay to the Kaiser: Germany must accept international arbitration within ten days, or be prepared to go to war with the United States.[15] On December 14, 1902, when Roosevelt saw von Holleben again, he inquired as to what the Kaiser’s response to his ultimatum was. To Roosevelt’s dismay, the Ambassador confessed that he, not thinking the ultimatum was a serious threat, had not transmitted it to Berlin! A flustered Roosevelt then told Ambassador von Holleben rather than wait for the remaining three days of the ultimatum; he would authorize Admiral Dewey to steam towards Venezuela in forty-eight hours.[16] Additionally, the American Ambassador to Britain, Henry White, presented a message on December 17th from President Roosevelt to the Balfour government, advising them to convince their German co-belligerents to accept arbitration.[17] Later on the 17th, after an exchange of telegrams with Berlin, Ambassador von Holleben reported Germany would accept the American proposal, and requested Roosevelt serve as the arbitrator.[18]

Roosevelt and Coercive Diplomacy

Roosevelt succeeded where many have failed by clearly and credibly communicating to a skeptical foreign leader his intent to defend a third party. Earlier in 1902 and prior to the crisis, Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Ambassador von Holleben’s warnings that Roosevelt would respond strongly to any perceived planning or action towards a permanent German base in the region, telling him, “We will do whatever is necessary…even if it displeases the Yankees.”[19] How did Roosevelt convince the Kaiser to back down from the brink of war when the emperor held such a contemptuous view at the outset of the crisis? Roosevelt was unflagging in his attempts to communicate his intentions to the Kaiser, and used multiple means to convey the consequences of German failure to acquiesce to his demands.

For the first time, the Monroe Doctrine was credible thanks to a modernized and growing United States Navy. The capabilities of the Navy underwrote the claims of the Monroe Doctrine, and gave the decades-old pronouncement teeth. Most important, however, was Roosevelt’s discretion in his messaging, communicated both through formal and informal channels, of what the Germans and their European consortium must not do if they were to avoid war, and what the United States would do if the challengers did not abide by his demands.[20]

A 21st Century Venezuela Crisis

There are important differences between the 1902-1903 crisis and the current turmoil in Venezuela. Embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro seems to be cast in the same mold as the strongman Cipriano Castro, but the attitude in Caracas towards the United States has changed. While Castro sought Roosevelt’s protection, Maduro spurns the current administration, claiming the United States is “fabricating a crisis” to justify military intervention.[21] Rather than acting on behalf of the Venezuelan government, as in 1902, the U.S. now finds itself supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido, while the sitting Venezuelan president welcomes Russian military advisors.[22] The current situation is even more complicated than the challenge Roosevelt faced: how does the United States deter outside intervention in Venezuela and maintain influence in the region if the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government is in question?

Nicolas Maduro and Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

While many of the variables are different, there is still much to model in Roosevelt’s deterrence of outside interference in Venezuela. Modern deterrent threats must been seen as credible, capable, and calculated, and the United States benefits from maintaining a standing military that is an even more formidable deterrent than Admiral Dewey’s fleet.[23] The key lesson from the 1902-1903 Venezuela Crisis for modern policymakers, however, is the unflagging effort made by Theodore Roosevelt to communicate his intentions and the steps the Europeans had to take to avoid conflict. Roosevelt’s actions addressed a common flaw in deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling would later bemoan, that “too little emphasis” is paid “to communicating what behavior will satisfy” the sponsoring state.[24]

The current crisis, as with the 1902-1903 crisis, is bigger than Venezuela. For decades, the United States benefited from a Western Hemisphere nearly devoid of serious competition. The renewed focus on great power competition in the international system brings with it a struggle for influence—physical as well as cognitive. As American policymakers look for ways to counter outside interference in the Western Hemisphere, Theodore Roosevelt’s clear signaling during the 1902-1903 Venezuela Crisis offers a historical lesson in the importance of communications in deterrence they would be remiss to neglect.


Rick Chersicla is a U.S. Army officer and strategist. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Henry J. Hendrix, Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval Diplomacy: The U.S. Navy and the Birth of the American Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 28.

[2] Hendrix, Theodore Roosevelt, 28.

[3] Ibid, 28-29.

[4] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 97.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marilyn Séphocle, “Germany’s Challenge to the Monroe Doctrine,” Pouvoirs dans la Caraïbe, vol.13, (2002), https://journals.openedition.org/plc/298#tocto1n10.

[7] Hendrix, Theodore Roosevelt, 30.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 25.

[10] Ibid, 40. The Germans, “in their excitement,” sunk one of the captured ships and damaged another.

[11] Ibid, 35-36. 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid, 39.

[15] Ibid, 41.

[16] Ibid, 44.

[17] Ibid, 48.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 34.

[20] Hendrix, Theodore Roosevelt, 52. Roosevelt’s discretion was avoiding a public confrontation that would have forced the Kaiser’s hand, a diplomatic clash between the two personalities could have forced the Kaiser to act, and favor war over losing face domestically.

[21] Yaron Steinbuch, “Maduro accuses US of fabricating Venezuela ‘crisis’ to spark war,” New York Post, February 26, 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/02/26/maduro-accuses-us-of-fabricating-venezuela-crisis-to-spark-war/.

[22] Ana Vanessa Herrero, “After U.S. Backs Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s Leader, Maduro Cuts Ties,” The New York Times, January 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/23/world/americas/venezuela-protests-guaido-maduro.html.

[23] Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence, (New York: Yale University Press, 1966), 234-235.

[24] Ibid, 75.



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