Obama’s Tango

Restoring U.S. Leadership in Latin America

Since he took office, U.S. President Barack Obama has articulated a policy toward Latin America that is centered on the idea of partnership. As he said last April, there would be “no senior or junior partner to this new engagement.” The United States, in other words, would be but one actor on the regional stage, not its director. But recent crises -- from the coup in Honduras to simmering tensions in the Andes -- have revealed a fundamental weakness in the Obama administration’s nascent Latin America policy.

Without strong U.S. leadership, partnership in the Americas risks inertia or, even worse, an escalation of tensions on many of the hemisphere’s critical issues, such as transnational crime, democracy, and security. Although some countries -- including Brazil and Chile -- have been willing to take on diplomatic responsibilities commensurate with their economic status, they remain averse to conflict with neighbors, even to the point of willfully downplaying existing disagreements.

Such an approach may have served Latin American governments well in the past, when a unified front helped to push issues such as debt relief and alternative thinking on antinarcotics policy. But the failure of any one country to assume a larger regional profile -- especially with regards to protecting norms and security -- has allowed problems to fester. Yet again, the United States has been forced into a position of default leadership.

But simply reasserting U.S. leadership will not be easy. For one, distrust of Washington’s motives still runs deep in the region. The George W. Bush administration was hampered by missteps and its perceived unilateralism and interventionism. Allegations that the United States supported a coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002 have proven hard to shake. Although general suspicions have since softened, skepticism and latent resentment of the United States remain potent forces. 

Second, nearly a decade of strong economic growth -- real GDP growth in Peru, for example, rose from five percent in 2004 to nearly ten percent in 2008 -- has stoked ambitions and ideological assertiveness in the region. This, in turn, has made the interests of individual states increasingly diverse and complex.

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