Just as markets tend to overshoot, so does political analysis, and recent commentary on Latin America is exhibit A.
Conventional wisdom is that the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, and the recent elections in Bolivia late last year indicate that the United States and Latin America have parted company, definitively reversing the positive trends of the 1990s. Some have even accused Washington of “losing” Latin America, as if the region were ours to lose.
Certainly, challenges do exist in the hemisphere, some of great consequence, but before we either overreact or, just as harmful, turn our backs and walk away, a reality check is in order. From both the left and the right, the pendulum has swung too far toward pessimism, clouding the important strategic U.S. interests that exist in the hemisphere and hampering our ability to pursue them effectively.
Energy security. Border protection.Economic growth. The fight against transnational threats including terrorism, counternarcotics, environmental degradation, and nuclear proliferation. Global peacekeeping and disaster relief. All of these are strategic U.S. interests. And all require an active, healthy, collaborative partnership between the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.
It’s impossible to discuss border protection, for example, without the collaboration of those nations that share our extensive borders. One quarter of the U.S. economy depends on international trade; without massive trade flows with the hemisphere, including oil and natural gas, U.S. economic security and well-being would dwindle. The ability to project U.S. power abroad through global peacekeeping operations in places like Afghanistan, Haiti and Africa depends significantly on the ongoing assistance of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and the nation with the highest per capita number of global peacekeepers, Uruguay. The list goes on and on.
This doesn’t mean we must, or will, agree on all issues, with all hemispheric nations, all the time. If anything, the summit in Mar del Plata was a wake-up call, exposing a rift that will not easily be healed. But despite much facile analysis, the rift is not the United States versus the hemisphere. More accurately, it is globalism versus globaphobia, with leaders from Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Jamaica, among others, defying street protesters and activists to urge even greater hemispheric integration. Indeed, after the summit, the U.S. and Brazilian presidents showcased in Brasilia the progress that can be achieved with a focus on practical results. Our national interests remain constant in the Americas, and we must not lose focus from what is truly important. In that regard, the United States can take several important steps.
The first is to recognize that we are once again in a battle of ideas and ideals. As shown spectacularly by the elections in Bolivia, the populist agenda has been resurrected, promising a quick fix and “independence” from U.S. economic “imperialism.” We’ve seen this movie before, and, like most movies, it is fiction. Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon the United States and other like-minded nations, with numerous additional presidential elections scheduled across the hemisphere in 2006, to make the alternative case more actively and more effectively, acknowledging deeply rooted frustrations in the hemisphere while reacting with sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
Second, U.S. policy has wrongly but effectively been positioned by opponents as all about trade. But trade expansion is only one aspect, and to the extent negotiations have stalled, this should not be allowed to derail broader hemispheric interests. In fact, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, first agreed at the Miami Summit of the Americas in 1994, was actually the demand of hemispheric leaders themselves as a grand bargain for their other commitments in good governance and the rule of law, human rights, education, and the like. Had such commitments been met across the region, a good case can be made that the FTAA would now be a reality.
Third, as a matter of credibility, we must seek to ensure that those trade agreements to which the United States is a party actually do serve as an anchor for broader development goals. One of the justifications for the agreement with Central America, for example, was that the provisions would help improve regional labor conditions. Now it’s time to ensure that that is the case. We can’t just love ‘em and leave ‘em, being seduced by the next agreement while forgetting about commitments already made.
Finally, it is incumbent upon those of us who appreciate the Americas to do a better job educating our own people as to the strategic issues at stake. With a better understanding of the importance of the region to vital U.S. interests, sustained, high-level engagement by policy elites in government, business and the media will be even more likely.
Not sexy or headline-worthy, perhaps, but, unlike the demonstrations at the summit or subsequent commentary, these actions would go far toward advancing mutual interests in the Americas.
Susan Segal is president and CEO of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society in New York. Eric Farnsworth is vice president in Washington.