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Running down the list of the U.S. State Department's Latin America policy objectives in El País in September 2010, the economist Moisés Naím noted that they focused almost exclusively on domestic concerns: building democratic institutions, promoting local social and economic opportunity, and so forth. These issues were not only given a higher priority in policy toward Latin America than they were for other regions, but they were also issues largely beyond Washington's ability to control.
Naím was correct, but the point can be taken further. The focus on politics within Latin American states rather than on relations between them is characteristic not simply of the State Department but also of the Latin American regional studies community in the United States more generally, from where the U.S. policy and advocacy community absorbs much of its personnel and intellectual orientation. Such attitudes have harmed U.S. policy by focusing excessive attention on small countries with little geostrategic influence and fostering the facile notion that political and economic liberalization are the necessary and sufficient criteria for the advancement of all major U.S. interests. This approach has distorted Washington's calculations of regional politics and hampered its ability to counter outside influences and deal sensibly with rising regional powers.
U.S. scholars and policymakers need a reminder that development does not mean the end of politics and that twenty-first-century Latin America has its own, autonomous power dynamics. A little realism would go a long way.
THAT '80S SHOW
When it comes to Latin America, for decades U.S. universities and regional studies centers have focused almost exclusively on matters of comparative politics and political and economic development. In the 1970s and 1980s, the last time scholars paid much attention to the region's international relations, their chief concern was the workings and implications of U.S. hegemony. The issue facing both scholars and policymakers today, however, is what happens as U.S. power declines and new forces in the region emerge, and unfortunately, when it comes to these questions, there is little intellectual capital on which to draw.
A quick glance at the faculty of major U.S. universities reveals that work on Latin America concentrates on social movements, economic development, voting behavior, civil society, and the like. There have been no major U.S. academic studies published on inter-American relations in decades, and there are few articles on the topic published in scholarly journals.
Think tanks and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to the region, meanwhile -- on both sides of the political spectrum -- tend to focus on domestic concerns, as well. Many working in this community began their careers debating human rights issues during the Cold War, fighting over whether Communists or right-wing forces were the greater danger to local citizens. Those violent, politicized years have thankfully passed, but much of the NGO community has failed to move on. The left pays a great deal of attention to Colombia and Guatemala (and to denouncing free trade). The right obsesses about Cuba and Venezuela. Throw in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which were the objects of ideological combat a generation ago, and you can account for the vast majority of U.S. discussion of Latin American issues. Yet none of these countries is a power broker in the hemisphere today, and combined they account for barely 20 percent of the region's population.
Such myopia can have serious consequences. On June 30, 2009, the Honduran military, acting on orders supposedly from the Honduran Supreme Court and Congress, roused President Manuel Zelaya from bed and placed him on a plane to Costa Rica. Zelaya's own actions had contributed to his unceremonious ouster, but the regional (and international) consensus was clear: what had occurred was that classic Latin American maneuver, a coup. In the hyperpolarized world of Latin America policy in the United States, however, politicians and regionalists quickly took sides. The result was Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proclaiming that what had occurred was not a coup and attacking the Obama administration for saying otherwise. DeMint was joined by some Cuban American colleagues, with several of them traveling to Honduras to declare their support for the new government of President Roberto Micheletti -- and with DeMint holding up the nominations of the former National Security Council official Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and one of the country's most seasoned and well-respected diplomats, Thomas Shannon, to become U.S. ambassador to Brazil.
This absurdity -- blocking for nine months the appointment of a regional assistant secretary of state and an ambassador to the region's most important player (and the world's seventh-largest economy) over a minor ideological spat regarding a tiny country -- shows the lack of seriousness of the workings of the U.S. Congress in general. But it also shows how unseriously Latin America is taken in particular and what sorts of issues are considered important.
For the last two decades, U.S. policy toward Latin America has rested on two pillars: the promotion of democracy and the promotion of free trade. Security and narcotics concerns have influenced a few bilateral relationships, but the core of Washington's regional agenda has been driven by the belief that democratic political development and multilateral economic liberalization would reinforce each other and benefit both locals and the United States. Unfortunately, this approach has largely ignored local economic logic and the persistence of competition between states, not to mention the diversity of market economies.
For example, the basic idea behind the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) -- announced by U.S. President Bill Clinton at the Summit of the Americas in 1994 -- was that as Latin American economies reformed, they would hitch themselves to the U.S. market. But that overlooked the hard realities of the U.S. market and its conflict with the comparative advantages of countries such as Argentina and Brazil, which saw U.S. agricultural subsidies as a threat. Washington's trade strategy involved slowly picking off the hemisphere's weaker partners and then, once a bloc had been established, convincing Brazil and others to join on U.S. terms. But Brazil and the other Mercosur countries (Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) decided to pursue their own agenda and negotiated free-trade deals with India, Mexico, and Peru, as well as partial trade agreements with Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
As a result, the United States has spent almost two decades negotiating some lesser treaties -- with the Dominican Republic, Central America, Colombia, Peru, and Chile -- that fall far short of creating a hemispheric single market. And even that agenda has been undercut by others, as when Canada recently took advantage of lengthy U.S. haggling with Colombia over fine points of labor and human rights safeguards to negotiate its own trade agreement there, allowing its farmers and manufacturers to get a leg up on their U.S. counterparts.
Beijing has also stepped into the void, using its growing economic strength to weaken Washington's economic leverage in the hemisphere. China recently displaced the United States as the main trading partner of Brazil. And China has signed bilateral trade deals with Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Peru and provided concessionary loans to Ecuador and Venezuela.
Democratization, meanwhile -- part of the standard boilerplate in any U.S. official's speech on Latin America from the 1980s onward -- has increasingly become a matter of subjective interpretation and beyond the reach of U.S. influence. During President George W. Bush's first term, Washington began to shift its policy from supporting democratic processes in general to supporting specific outcomes, particularly in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Under Barack Obama, the focus has returned to the sanctity of democratic institutions in general, but calls to respect and strengthen them have become the catchall way of admonishing U.S. enemies (such as President Hugo Chávez's Venezuela) or encouraging friends (such as President Sebastián Piñera's Chile).
For all the rhetoric, however, consensus around democracy and democratic rights has proved elusive. One reason is that the expansion of the franchise and the eclipse of traditional party systems have raised the prominence of anti-American and antimarket voices in the region. In Bolivia and Venezuela, for example, the result of political liberalization was the election of populist governments that have stoked distrust of Washington to consolidate their domestic support. Neither of those countries today even has a U.S. ambassador -- Bolivia drummed out Bush's last appointee for supposedly intervening in local politics, and Venezuela refused to accept the one Obama appointed after he criticized the government in Caracas.
For an example of how local democratization and economic reform, however worthwhile in their own right, can lead to divergence and rivalry with the United States rather than closer partnership, one need only glance at the region's rising great power, Brazil. Brasília has always pursued an independent course, but under the last two governments -- of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, both of the Workers' Party -- it has actively sought to check U.S. power globally and regionally.
A sense of Brazil's economic arrival and U.S. decline has fueled Brazil's long-standing desire to assert greater international influence and try to rebalance the global order in favor of the developing world. This agenda can be seen in Brazil's efforts to gain a seat on an expanded Security Council at the United Nations, its negotiation of a deal with Iran and Turkey to head off un sanctions against Iran, and its support for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. In Latin America, meanwhile, Brazil has supported the creation of the 12-member Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, a regional forum that pointedly excludes the United States. Much of the UNASUR agenda has been U.S.-oriented, including a presidential summit devoted to the expansion of U.S. military basing rights in Colombia and a meeting of finance ministers to discuss the effects of U.S. monetary policy. And Brazil's efforts to engage, rather than isolate, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Chávez, however defensible on policy grounds, are also designed to offer a clear alternative to U.S. attempts at hemispheric leadership.
A BETTER APPROACH
Brazil's actions do not constitute a direct threat to the United States. But they do represent an emerging challenge to a number of important U.S. interests. And since Brazil has 200 million people and South America's largest economy, its status as a regional and global player is here to stay. To deal with it and other current challenges in the region, Washington will have to rethink its attitudes toward the hemisphere.
The first step should be acknowledging that in a diversifying global economy, the role of the United States in the Western Hemisphere has shifted from dominance to preeminence. Whatever ability Washington might once have had to directly influence local domestic politics and policies has diminished. The second step should be recognizing that political and economic liberalization, however important and desirable they may be, will not by themselves assure the advancement of all the United States' national interests in the region. U.S. policy, in short, needs to be guided by a cool calculation of Washington's own priorities and its relative ability to achieve them.
Take economic integration. Today, facing Asian competition and Brazilian resistance, the United States needs to make a major push on regional trade. But it should do so in a hardheaded, rather than naive, way, taking into account the true constellation of regional economic interests. Leveraging Congress' recent approval of the U.S.-Colombian and U.S.-Panamanian free-trade agreements, Washington should move aggressively to consolidate the welter of free-trade agreements it currently has into a larger market. This would do more than just make good on the long-promised idea of the FTAA, especially in light of growing evidence of Chinese exports undermining Latin American manufacturing; it would also serve as a rallying point from which Washington could begin to reassert its regional economic role and interests.
Linking such an initiative to the recently negotiatied Trans-Pacific Partnership, meanwhile, would allow the United States to put itself at the forefront of the promotion of economic ties between Latin America and Asia, creating the sort of significant incentives necessary to bring Brazil into the trade fold. Such a move might also help ease controversy over trade policy within the United States. The strategy of negotiating free-trade agreements one by one and selling each to a skeptical Congress has run its course; if any more trade deals are going to be sold to Congress and the American public in the near future, they will have to be large ones that mobilize broad constituencies.
Beyond trade, U.S. policy needs to shift its focus from internal issues in small countries to strategic issues involving larger ones. (The only exception is Mexico, where internal political issues, including security, remain central to U.S. interests.) In Guatemala, the security situation will inevitably have human rights implications, and the political changes in Cuba during the waning days of the Castro regime will have historical importance, but these sorts of policy questions should not be the prism through which Washington reacts to the region.
Across the hemisphere, Washington should focus its attention on balancing challenges to its leadership and managing the growing economic and political rivalries among the region's most important players. The United States may no longer be the only entry point for Brazil or Mexico onto the global stage, but it must play a fundamental role in working with them to recast the G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Security Council in a way that reflects Brazil's and Mexico's rise but is also favorable to U.S. interests. Similarly, U.S. policymakers should establish tax and investment treaties with Brazil and other states that aim to deepen investment and commerce, which will be especially important as China's economy slows down. Last, energy cooperation across borders to tap a diversity of energy sources, from newly discovered fossil fuels in Argentina and Brazil to renewables, would build a powerful motor for economic and regulatory integration and reduce the United States' dependence on the region's more volatile exporters, such as Venezuela. Part of this effort should involve working with Brazil to extend U.S. military security to Brazilian rigs positioned far off the coast.
As Washington updates its approach to Latin America, it could use the help of the regional studies community. For that to happen, however, regional experts will need to undergo some soul-searching of their own. From dependency to democratization, Latin America has long served as fertile ground for academic scholarship and theory building regarding the developing world. Today, the region is entering a new phase of its history, one marked by higher levels of development, intraregional rivalries, and an increasing degree of geopolitical autonomy. It needs to be addressed with the mindset and tools of international relations, not just those of comparative politics.