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As Latin America Changes, Will the U.S. Policy Debate?

January 10, 2011

by Christopher Sabatini

Latin America is changing. Do we have the tools and intellectual framework to deal with it?

From Brazil to Mexico, Latin America has found new diplomatic muscle, asserting itself into international issues and all the while deepening ties with new trade partners from China to Russia. At the same time, despite increased rhetoric of regional solidarity and independence from the U.S., the region is at its most divided, ideologically and in its economic trajectories.

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All this presents a challenge, not just to U.S. policymakers, but to policy analysts and scholars alike. For the first time, Latin America is becoming a complex international relations topic.

In the past, Latin Americanists (a term I apply loosely to people who work in or on the region) have tended to focus on domestic and development issues. Discussions of U.S. policy, by policymakers and analysts alike, have followed a different path for Latin America than for other regions.

In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Latin America was largely seen as the backyard of the United States. During the Cold War, the region was the staging ground for proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in which broader ideological battles were projected onto (and inflamed) internal social, political struggles. With the third wave of democratization and the fall of the Berlin Wall came the heady days of collective action for democracy and the promise of economic integration.

That ended. And with the rise of the anti-globalization governments aspiring to build a multipolar world by cozying up to rogue regimes (read: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez), the rise of China and India with their voracious appetites for natural resources, and Brazil’s aspirations to find a political role commensurate with its size, economic potential and independent world view, we’re no longer dealing with your grandfather or even father’s region.

Latin America has entered the realm of foreign policy in which the U.S. is not the primary axis around which countries define their economic and political interests or defend themselves. That’s not to say that, as one unfortunately titled article in Foreign Affairs said, the U.S. is “losing Latin America.” Yes, U.S. influence has waned in the region, giving political and economic space for these diverse relations in the region. But despite all the talk of other countries eclipsing it in the region, it remains a powerful force in defining the agenda, both positive and negative, for the region.

What is significantly different is that the U.S. now has to grapple with multiple, competing issues, a far more diverse region (in terms of orientation and interests), greater potential for intra-regional friction, and more contrarian countries—even when they may agree on broad points of principle.

Frankly, policymakers and policy mavens are grappling with this. I don’t intend this as a broad-sided criticism of current policy. Quite the contrary: the lack of coherence in our approach and understanding of these changes is grounded in the broader community that works on the region.

Why is this? Here I’ll offer just a few ideas that I will elaborate on in future posts.

1) U.S. policy has always been defined largely by issues internal to the countries in the region (in no particular order): the threat of external (and later communist) influence, human rights, democracy, and development. This has been as true in academia as it has in policymaking. I can’t think of one recent significant academic work by a U.S. scholar that meets the rigor of traditional international relations theory applied to Latin America. (While I’m sure there are others, the late Arthur Whitaker from the University of Pennsylvania and Jerome Slater—who glorified the OAS—are the only scholars I can think of who looked at the region through the lens of inter-state relations.) As a result, as Moisés Naim pointed out in recent El Pais editorial, the list of U.S. priorities in Latin America reads like a wish list of development objectives—not foreign policy. But unlike Moisés, I don’t blame the Obama administration so much as the failure of the entire policy community to catch up.

2) Most of the policy research and advocacy groups that work on Latin America emerged during the highly contentious and polarized 1980s. I believe (truly) that policy is better because of the tensions, battles and syntheses that resulted from their genesis and work. But consider the possibility that the region has moved on. Are the fear mongering, Manichean arguments of infiltration and ideological subversion anachronistic—or worse—poisoning the debate? On the other hand, are the other groups that cut their teeth on courageously defending human rights in Guatemala and El Salvador missing the larger picture of the policy challenges and dynamism in the region? And at the risk of further alienating respected colleagues and groups, do the hoary lessons of democratic transition and consolidation—particularly in the Southern Cone—which we all read and absorbed as undergraduates and graduate students still apply? Yet these views—ideological Manicheanism, individual human rights defense and comparative political development—still dominate the debate. With Brazil on its own global-power trajectory, the rise of non-state criminal networks, increased—positive and negative—extra-hemispheric interaction, and growing tensions within the region, is it time to pull up from domestic concerns—which the U.S., except in the rarest cases, is impotent to influence—and start to think about inter-state relations that don’t always organically ally with U.S. interests?

3) When it comes to Latin America, U.S. policy has always looked for and tried to pin itself to THE BIG IDEA: the Monroe Doctrine, Good Neighbor Policy, Alliance for Progress, the Summit of the Americas, (and with it) the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and Collective Defense of Democracy (Resolution 1080). Each one has fallen victim to suspicion, overreach and reality. Nothing is truer than what we see today. When policymakers list their initiatives for the region (Pathways toward Prosperity, Security and Prosperity Partnership, Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, Merida Initiative, etc.) it sounds like a grab bag and the former two initiatives sound increasingly pretentious and flaccid.

Maybe we don’t need a big idea for the region. Maybe what we really need is a clear-eyed recognition that the interests of individual countries will vary, and that the U.S. has interests in the region that may not consistently align with those of every country.

Are we there yet? No. In a recent blog post, Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela made a passing reference to these changing times, and provided some sense of a growing recognition of inter-state relations. Yet even then, the speech easily lapsed into a recitation of domestically oriented development initiatives. And if Congressman—and newly sworn-in Chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Western Hemisphere—Connie Mack is any indication, the polarizing hubris is going—if anything—to experience a renaissance. This will not be good for U.S. relations with the region. While the risk of democratic transgressions is real in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, name calling and isolating legitimately elected leaders, who represent the majority of their voters, is likely dangerously anachronistic. Even though we may not share their views of democracy, they are elected; our goal should be—when possible—to integrate and educate.

Likewise a new agenda will mean recognizing both the diverging economic and diplomatic interests of our allies to the south. We need to move away from the idea of absolute alignment of interests, THE BIG IDEA.

And what about the policy community, we gadflies who criticize and propose platitudes?  Well, if we are going to propose platitudes we should make sure they match reality. But more important, maybe Latin America should no longer lend itself to the easy platitude. We need to move on from focusing on internal politics or development objectives to understanding the nature of shifting international coalitions that can further mutual relations.

U.S. influence can be put to positive use, if it is applied carefully and with an understanding of the conditions. To get there, though, we need to move beyond our narrow development, human rights and democracy foci and maybe—just maybe—study international relations again.

*Christopher Sabatini is Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas. He is a regular blogger on AmericasQuarterly.org.

Tags: Latin America, Moises Naim, Arturo Valenzuela, foreign policy, Connie Mack

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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