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Why Trump Might Just Succeed at the Summit of the Americas

The U.S. president is deeply unpopular in Latin America. But the stars may align just enough for a productive summit in Lima.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-four years ago, as a senior official in then-President Bill Clinton’s White House, I helped organize the first Summit of the Americas – a periodic gathering of regional presidents and prime ministers that, at its best, allows leaders to use their high offices to give impetus to major policy initiatives. Altogether, the seven summits to date have advanced important understandings on such key hemispheric concerns as democracy promotion, women’s rights, counter-narcotics, anti-corruption, and free trade.

At a minimum, summits offer efficient venues for leaders to develop the inter-personal chemistry that can lubricate future deals and dissipate unanticipated crises. At the most recent summit in Panama City, presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro diffused, if temporarily, 50-plus years of mutual hostility between the U.S. and Cuba.

Over the weekend, the White House announced that President Donald Trump will attend the eighth edition of the summit, in April in Lima. This decision surprised some observers: Is Trump walking right into a potential diplomatic ambush?

Indeed, the 45th U.S. president is deeply unpopular throughout Latin America, according to public opinion surveys. The list of grievances began with the very images that Trump used to launch his presidential bid – Mexican immigrants pictured as rapists and murderers – and the setbacks mount daily. This last week the U.S. administration threatened tariffs on steel and aluminum exported by Brazil, Mexico and Canada.

Previously, Trump had crossed Latin American interests by pulling the United States out of a big regional trade accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership; withdrawing from the Paris Accord on climate change; terminating the temporary protective status (TPS) that has allowed many Central Americans and Haitian immigrants to remain in the U.S.; and by advocating a long, high border wall.

In the diplomatic realm, Trump has ruffled feathers by suggesting he might be open to a military solution to the Venezuelan political crisis. In recent public remarks, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, reinstated the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine, which Latin Americans view as a thinly veiled excuse for U.S. meddling in their internal affairs. The Trump administration has dialed the clock back on two Obama-era initiatives generally popular in Latin America: the improvement in U.S. relations with Cuba, and a re-evaluation of the decades-old “war on drugs.”

Further, the Trump administration has signaled that it is less interested in advocating for democracy and human rights than in promoting “America First,” words which in Latin America carry a distinctly big-stick, imperialist ring.

With this as the backdrop, there is a risk that the Latin Americans might seek revenge and gang up on Trump in Lima. It has happened before: At the 2012 Summit in Cartagena, Colombia, I watched then-President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sit uncomfortably while leader after leader recited a litany of grievances against U.S. policies, notably on Cuba and counter-narcotics. (Subsequently, the Obama administration acted to address these concerns, only for Trump to revert to the very policies that the Latin Americans had decried.)

Former President George W. Bush suffered even greater indignities at the 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Several Latin American leaders, including the host, Néstor Kirchner, led a protest march against the very meeting he was chairing. A particular target of the street demonstration was the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

However, a closer look at the current, more accommodating constellation of Latin American leaders suggests that Trump, while not escaping criticism, may avoid a humiliating rejection in Lima.

In recent years, Latin American voters have placed in office more conservative presidents – in Peru, Chile and Argentina – who share Trump’s pro-business agenda (lower corporate taxes, deregulation). The most prominent leftist leader in the region and potential troublemaker, Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, has been disinvited by host Peru for breaking the democratic norms of his own national constitution.

The two major regional powers, Brazil and Mexico, are in the midst of tumultuous national elections. In normal times, Brazil would be primed to take advantage of the leadership vacuum opened by the Trump administration’s retreat from many multilateral forums; however, the South American giant is mired in massive corruption scandals and prolonged economic stagnation. Although much aggrieved by Trump’s behavior and policies, Mexico’s current leadership seems intent on a calculated strategy of appeasement, not confrontation.

Many sitting Latin American presidents, especially those from the smaller Central American and Caribbean states – aware of the vast asymmetry of power between the colossus of the north and their own modest economies – will understandably hesitate to directly confront the volatile occupant of the Oval Office for fear of reprisals, via Twitter, trade sanctions or otherwise.

Trump can also benefit from the complex sociology he will encounter in Lima. The U.S. president may choose to deliver his major address before the corporate CEO Forum. The elite business audience, like the one Trump encountered at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, is likely to respond with polite applause.

All bets are off, however, if Trump seeks to impress his domestic political base by demonstrating that he is willing to take his anti-immigrant, anti-trade rhetoric directly into the enemy camp. In that case, the accosted Latin American leaders would be obliged to respond. But so far in his international travels Trump has generally eschewed hot rhetoric that would inflame his local audiences.

So it is a reasonable bet that Trump, if he behaves sensibly, will do OK in Lima. The assembled Latin American leaders will avoid warm embraces that would be unpopular with their voters back home, but they will not seek to ignite inter-American warfare.

Possibly, the Lima summit might even make some substantive progress on salient regional issues. The Latin American leaders might persuade Trump to return, at least partially, to the more open trade policies of his predecessors. There should be pre-negotiated documents that advance national battles against corruption in public life.  And the search will continue for a mediated, diplomatic solution to the deepening crisis in Venezuela. 

If such favorable outcomes can be achieved, the trip to Lima will serve the U.S. president and slow if not fully reverse the recent deterioration in U.S.-Latin American relations. As the Summits of the Americas are designed to do, Lima might even advance, however incrementally, inter-American understanding.

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Feinberg is professor at UC San Diego and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He was a principal architect of the 1994 Miami Summit of the Americas, and has attended six of the seven hemispheric summits.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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