Mr. Selee said the incoming Mexican president is poised to “allow for private investment in deep-water oil exploration and shale gas exploration and in secondary petrochemicals and refining.”
Long-term investment in such U.S. companies — coupled with an expanded focus on the vibrant U.S.-Canadian energy relationship — has the potential to open an unprecedented era of North American energy security, Mr. Selee said.
Such security could lay a bedrock for the kind of regional economic stability and growth likely to be required if the United States truly seeks to counter China’s rise in the global economy for decades to come.
“We think about China as being the 100-pound gorilla in the room, but the truth is, we have a 100-pound gorilla in the room to our south,” said Christopher Sabatini, who directs policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York. “Latin America’s middle class is the fastest-growing middle class in the world, and that means markets for the U.S., it means disposable income.”
Nor is Mexico alone in Latin America; farther to the south is a rapidly growing behemoth of almost 200 million people.
“In Brazil, they’ve added 40 million people to the ranks of the middle class,” Mr. Sabatini said. “They’ll want washing machines and dryers and cars and all the accouterments of the middle classness. We should be finding ways to lower tariff barriers for that because the truth of the matter is that China is going to sell them the lower-quality version of all that stuff.”
The time is ripe, he said, for “tightening our alliance with some of the more serious countries — Peru, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Canada — in the hemisphere as a way not just to create a positive diplomatic and economic pole in the region, but as a larger, broader geostrategic plan.”
Such logic, however, essentially was absent from the U.S. presidential campaign this year.
The words “Latin America” were barely uttered in the foreign-policy debate between Mr. Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. When they were, it was from Mr. Romney, who observed that while “we’re all focused on China, Latin America is a huge opportunity for us.”
“As a matter of fact, Latin America’s economy is almost as big as the economy of China,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Obama has overseen the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, though those deals were negotiated by President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama was widely seen as delaying ratification.
But his White House has shown less interest in the Western Hemisphere, particularly how the U.S. economy might benefit in immediate, long-term and geostrategic ways by working more fluently with the likes of Brazil or Mexico.
“Will the administration do that? I have no idea,” Mr. Gelb said. “They haven’t to date, because I don’t think, at this point, that they share my sense of economics being the top priority, and I’m not sure they would define that priority the way I define it.”