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Get the Story Right: Time for Stories of Fading U.S. Interest to Fade

November 26, 2012

It gets tiresome hearing the constant assertions by reporters and analysts that U.S. influence in the Americas is ebbing. Not only are they wrong—let alone trite,  by now—they miss the actual complexity (and yes, maturity) of  U.S. diplomacy in the region today.   Ironically, much of evidence cited for “declining U.S. power” is rooted in the success of our diplomacy and policies.

A recent example was a Reuters piece, Obama faces Latin America revolt over drugs, trade (November 9, 2012) that led with the claim “Washington’s ability to influence events in Latin America has arguably never been lower.”

The trope is the same, only the reason differs.  The DEA gets booted from a country? The sidelining of a military training program with the United States for a program with the Chinese?  The breathless conclusion is that U.S. influence is dangerously on the wane.  Throw in a visit here or there by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or a summit of an acronym that doesn’t include the U.S., and it’s time to pull the fire alarm.

Yet, despite the Reuters article’s opening shot, the piece goes on to sketch a number of positive developments in the region, such as advances in democratic governance, public demands for accountability, and more respect and equality in relations with the United States.  Then, incongruously but accurately, it wraps up touting the opportunities for the U.S. in the region today.

Time to Find a Better Argument

Today, U.S. diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean is focused on being relevant to practical needs widely felt by other peoples—the way it should be. (The reverse is also true: governments should expect their influence in Washington to be in some proportion to their relevance to priorities we share.)  Decades of   domestic reforms, development, and diplomacy—and a particularly favorable external environment—have sparked socioeconomic and political changes that have transformed Latin America for the better.

Those changes, which the U.S. helped champion, are fostering a convergence of basic values and interests that can and should define relationships that are bright, cooperative, and productive for decades to come.   They are also overcoming crippling traditions of fatalism.  Societies in Latin America are demanding and getting greater accountability from their governments, higher-quality services, and greater public goods.

A number of Latin American countries, including Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay have stepped onto the stage of confident global actors.  They are leaders and contributors of global public goods, variously, in areas such as development, trade, security, energy research, and human rights.  Others, too, in Central America and along the Americas’ Pacific rim, are strengthening collaboration to advance key economic and security objectives. This responsible exercise of regional and global influence bodes well for the future.

The development of capable and successful regional partners, even when they don’t reliably side with us on every issue, serves our interests far better than the string of weak client states we once cultivated.

Many of the trends in Latin America offer strategic benefits to us.  This is particularly so at a time when broadening participation is essential for everyone to maintain the expensive global commons and build support for an international order to sustain growth and rights.

These challenges are among the weightiest we face today.

The convergence of values and interests in the Americas shapes and eases our government and private sector’s huge and deepening engagement in most of the region.  But it occurs without the fanfare or media glare that can accompany our policies in more conflictive parts of the world.  Instead, it is carried out in the intensifying, day-to-day process of building ties and cooperation between businesses, universities, government agencies, science and research communities, and civil society.  These are precisely the spaces in which our strongest mutual interests and relevance lie.

The Points of Interest...and Relevance

Trade remains a huge part of our foundation in the Americas.  It is  paying off for the U.S. and our trade partners in North, Central, and South America, in the form of massive growth in trade in goods and services—and with that, rising opportunity and income levels—as successive free trade agreements have entered effect since 1995.

U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Cidade de Deus favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: courtesy of the White House. Homepage photo: courtesy of Gobierno de Chile.
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The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a potent example of new leadership by countries in the Americas to help define a Twenty-First-Century vision that can spur job creation and growth throughout a prosperous Pacific basin.   TPP seeks to achieve an ambitious, inclusive, future-oriented trade agreement—the first to span the Pacific Ocean—that will link together some of the most dynamic economies in the world.  The decision at Los Cabos in September this year to invite Canada and Mexico to join TPP talks was a major advance.  The discussions will now include three of the four largest economies in the Americas, plus Chile and Peru.  Mexico’s participation is particularly significant because it generates almost half of Latin America’s manufacturing exports, and much of that in high-technology goods.

Obviously Latin America isn’t uniform.  As the historic era of global growth wanes and power becomes more dispersed in the world, economic performance across emerging markets will likely become more sharply differentiated, and politics will increasingly drive economic policies.  This will create new challenges to growth and governance in some Latin American countries, but in others provide a critical impetus for important reforms that reinforce development, good governance, and competitiveness.

The fight against transnational crime is a potent force shaping our relations with many countries.  Calls to re-evaluate the U.S.’s war on drugs are not surprising given the costs.  Those appeals  have for some time included the voices of former and current leaders in Latin America, and a number of top thinkers region-wide (e.g. the recommendations of the 2008 “Drugs and Democracy” report,  endorsed by former Presidents Gaviria, Zedillo, and Cardoso, among others).

But it is a stretch to see this as a revolt directed at the United States.  The question is a complicated one; it involves enormous interests and countless stakeholders, and, pace Colorado, the debate will be ongoing for a long time.

Reuters quotes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil speculating on a new “divide down the hemisphere,” with Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela opting out of possible new trade deals.

Certainly, and sadly, the second two countries are on problematic trajectories (for their people).  Venezuela has to top any list of hemispheric losers.  Its rulers squandered historically high oil prices, undermining sustainable economic growth instead of building a sustainable, diverse economy.  Argentina would have to come in second—for many of the same reasons, despite the fact that it has endowments in natural and human resources that should make it one of the region’s biggest winners.

But these are complicated failures of national leadership, and national politics, not of U.S. policy or influence.

Brazil, with its hybrid market/state capitalist model, size, sophisticated government and business leadership, and global footprint, is a different case. Our relationship is dense and growing—if sometimes complicated by a Brazilian foreign policy “grand strategy” that seems too premised on a misperception of U.S. decline and supposed benefits this offers Brazil.  That outlook sometimes leads Brazil to entertain asymmetrical diplomatic options, with odd partners; those tacks, if uncorrected, will undercut Brazil’s diplomatic relevance not facilitate its rise.

Nevertheless, Brazil’s abiding interests remain overwhelmingly those of the liberal west, of which Brazilians’ values, culture, and history make the country an integral part.   Brazil’s electorate, seems overwhelmingly focused on practical concerns of economic opportunity, governance, accountability, security, and services. Those interests will continue to assert themselves politically and, amid shifting global conditions, generate greater incentives for more pragmatic and results-oriented foreign and trade policies along the lines of the country’s last three presidents’ many successful social and economic policies.

Implications for U.S. Policy

Today’s international environment requires policy review, adjustment and innovation by all of us.  The purpose of U.S. policy is not to point fingers.  Nor is it to assert control it doesn’t have over other countries’ policies. Rather, it is to position the U.S. as a relevant, reliable, and capable partner, in a way that advances common goals that reflect our national interests.  Such an approach is not values-neutral.  Common goals often hinge on respect for basic rights and freedoms.  These resonate in every society in the Americas.  Their promotion is a legitimate and practical imperative, and an indelible part of our modern engagement.

This is the big narrative of what we are trying to do today throughout the region; not only with governments, but the private sector and civil society as well.  Those who seem not to notice, whether because of ignorance or their own biases, are missing the biggest story in U.S. relations with Latin America.

Some will always prefer to wax nostalgic for an era of nominal influence on elites and dysfunctional relationships with undeveloped societies.  But that time is gone for good, to our resounding advantage.

Tags: U.S.-Latin America relations, U.S. influence in Latin America

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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