As President Obama and his administration begin to implement what his campaign called “A New Partnership for the Americas,” they can draw on several new think tank studies offering innovative policy proposals and frameworks. This essay identifies key points of consensus and variance among these studies and the campaign’s own blueprint, beginning with a shared thesis of converging national interests and a common emphasis on engagement and expanded cooperation. – Ed.
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) nations have changed in notable ways during the past decade. LAC governments hail the diversification of their nations’ economic and political relations around the world as they deepen democracy at home. In contrast, today the United States seeks to reverse the irrelevancy of its regional positions on trade, development, and collective security. Observers across the political spectrum agree that U.S. policy toward LAC has fallen behind the pace of change and that relations are strained at worst, distant at best. A most telling example of this new scenario took place last September, when member countries of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) – including Colombia, arguably the United States’ closest ally in the region – tacitly rebuked Washington’s critical stance towards the Evo Morales administration in Bolivia.1
This scenario is now juxtaposed to the recent election of the “change” candidate Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency along with Democratic Party majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. The 2008 U.S. elections prompted foreign policymakers and analysts to advocate major policy changes toward the LAC region. During last year’s electoral season and first months of the Obama administration a host of influential policy study organizations with close ties to the President and Democrats issued innovative policy proposals and frameworks to move the executive toward a more relevant, engaging posture concerning the governments and peoples of the LAC region. Aside from then candidate Obama’s own blueprint, A New Partnership for the Americas, the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Brookings Institution, the Council of the Americas, and the Inter-American Dialogue all served up their respective recommendations for transforming U.S. policy in the Americas.2 As President Obama prepares for his first trip to the LAC region and the Summit of the Americas3 , slated for Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009, his foreign policymakers will likely sift through these documents to map out his journey to catch up with the many changes unfolding in the Americas. President Obama’s efforts at the upcoming summit and thereafter take on even greater importance as the region looks toward Washington for political coordination and financial support to confront the economic crisis that now threatens the region’s relative economic and political stability.
Our analysis advances an understanding of President Obama’s calculus as he works toward implementing a new U.S. policy for LAC. Rather than describe and evaluate each proposal for the documents under review, our survey identifies key points of consensus and variance among the critical policy challenges that shape U.S.–LAC relations. The common thread that weaves throughout many of these proposals, and underscores the Obama campaign’s own blueprint, is a preference to develop cooperation through converging national interests as articulated by the United States and LAC governments. This convergence thesis holds that most of the nations of the Americas now share the same national interests, despite significant changes in the region.
The prevalence of the convergence thesis among the documents under review raises an important question that President Obama will need to answer in the coming months and years. Do LAC nations retain the same strategic national interests and policymaking approaches to make convergence the guiding principle for a new U.S. policy framework?
Cooperation and Convergence
Accordingly, Obama’s blueprint, consciously reminiscent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy,6 defines the hemispheric good and spells out key points of interest convergence such as freedom from political tyranny (democracy), fear and violence (security), and want (opportunity).
The Brookings report details such a hemispheric partnership. The commission’s report concludes that without partnership the region will confront “growing risks and missed opportunities” to address such disparate challenges as organized crime and climate change. Such a regional partnership would identify mutual interests, objectives, and policy solutions and advance a geometric cooperation to the extent that:
The other policy frameworks propose more modest approaches to changing U.S. policy, yet they all borrow from the convergence thesis. The CFR taskforce report offers the most detailed policy analysis and set of prescriptions, advocating that U.S. policy engage the LAC governments on their terms, not those imposed by Washington. WOLA adopts a similar approach in arguing that U.S. policy should set out to facilitate and support a “hemispheric community” by building bridges to solve common problems. The Council of the Americas concludes that the need for economic development is the most important national interest held by all LAC countries and advocates a reevaluation of U.S. trade policy in light of the diminishing returns accrued under former President Bush’s strategy of “competitive liberalization.” The Inter-American Dialogue is more cautious in concluding that:
Taken together, these policy approaches offer President Obama a noteworthy list of innovative alternatives reflecting the convergence thesis.
Challenges and Interests
The Brookings report and the Council of the Americas’ call for a “trade plus” development agenda to boost economic growth and opportunity in LAC. The Brookings commission does call for making regional economic integration “work for all,” and admits that “trade, by itself, is not a development or poverty-reduction strategy.”12
Yet, the commission’s recommendations stress further trade liberalization, including ratification of the Colombia and Panama FTAs. The Council of the Americas offers a blunt criticism of the U.S. government’s excessive reliance on the politics of competitive liberalization and subsequent failure to conclude either the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement (FTAA) or the Doha round of the World Trade Organization’s negotiations. However, it does not offer an alternative regional economic development framework that would incorporate targeted trade liberalization within a broader effort to spur economic and social development. Instead, the Council of the Americas recommends that U.S trade policy shift gears to advance regional integration through the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership.13
The Inter-American Dialogue also advocates free trade as a guideline for U.S. policy, including ratification of the Colombia and Panama FTAs. Yet, the Dialogue’s report emphasizes that the current “made in the USA” economic crisis poses considerable risks to the LAC region. Hence, it cautions against protectionism and encourages President Obama to make certain that LAC countries have access to U.S. markets and financing from multilateral banks and the International Monetary Fund. This report suggests that the Obama administration conduct regular consultations with LAC governments to assess policy options and responses in order to manage the crisis more effectively. Accordingly, the Dialogue suggests that the United States intensify cooperation with the hemisphere’s participants in the G-20, namely Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico.14 Such efforts are likely to be well received by LAC governments, but it is not certain that the U.S. and LAC nations share similar analyses of the problems leading up to the current crisis or solutions for recovery. Regardless, President Obama could make his biggest impact upon economic development in the region by achieving a speedy economic recovery of his own.
Energy and Climate Control
Given this critical point of interdependence, the CFR taskforce and the Brookings commission cast a critical gaze upon the rise of “resource nationalism” in LAC and the parallel increase in state ownership of energy resources and production facilities, such as President Hugo Chavez’ political control over Venezuela’s state-held petroleum company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. or PDVSA, and Bolivia’s nationalization of its natural gas reserves in 2007. The Brookings report suggests that energy nationalism has “led to disruptive disputes over pricing and ownership,” thereby stalling much needed regional cooperation and private investment. In response, the CFR report recommends building upon the U.S.-Brazil biofuel cooperation agreement15 to coordinate greater renewable energy production within a broader effort to increase energy production through a Hemispheric Alternative Energy Initiative. The Brookings commission recommends that the United States seek out partnerships with LAC governments to establish a Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Americas. The CFR taskforce, Brookings, and the Council of the Americas also advocate greater cooperation, especially with Brazil, to further develop civilian nuclear energy capacity.
These recommendations are not easily reconciled with the divergent national interests associated with the rise of “resource nationalism,” nor do they detail a clear set of guidelines to establish regional cooperation capable of reducing carbon emissions. Both the CFR report and the Brookings commission recommend the formation of regional working groups to plan energy infrastructure investments and develop hemispheric wide positions on upcoming international climate control negotiations.
The Brookings’ proposal also includes the creation of another regional working group to develop cooperative responses to the damaging externalities of climate change. The Council of the Americas suggests that the Obama administration seek out a common agenda on climate change within the Western Hemisphere prior to the global climate change meeting slated for December 2009 in Copenhagen, while the Dialogue encourages policymakers to focus on cooperation with Brazil given its global stature and importance as an energy producer. Yet, too little attention is paid to the tremendous disparity in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions between the nation-states of the Americas. Before formulating a regional energy policy, the Obama administration will need to understand how the asymmetries of economic development, energy production, and carbon emissions contour each nation-state’s efforts to overcome the complex policy challenges associated with energy and the environment.
Both the CFR taskforce and the Brookings policy framework place emphasis on developing a comprehensive U.S. immigration reform in consultation with LAC sending countries. Moreover, the CFR taskforce, WOLA, the Brookings commission, and the Inter-American Dialogue all agree that recent U.S. immigration policy undermines regional cooperation. The Dialogue asserts that the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico “has become a highly charged symbol of disrespect,”17 and the CFR taskforce concludes that:
The CFR taskforce proposes a comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes U.S. security, economic, and foreign policy interests while offering a circular migration system based on legal migration, workforce development, and skill training, and a return to the sending country to foster economic development.
Both the CFR taskforce and the Brookings commission advocate greater investment in workplace verification laws and border security as well as a path to legal status for the millions of immigrants currently without legal standing. The Obama campaign also promoted comprehensive immigration reform that would strengthen border security and the immigration bureaucracy while offering a “responsible path” to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Lastly, the Inter-American Dialogue offers President Obama two immediate recommendations that would partially rectify the erosion of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere and shorten the political distance between his administration and LAC.
The Dialogue suggests that the new administration discontinue construction of the wall bordering Mexico and suspend federal efforts to target illegal immigrants for workplace raids and arrests. If taken, these recommendations would bolster President Obama’s regional leadership and dull the sharper edges of U.S. immigration policy. Paradoxically, such measures might galvanize further opposition to comprehensive immigration reform if the current economic crisis continues to threaten the employment and economic security of the U.S. electorate.
All of the policy proposals favor a comprehensive immigration reform that would treat the untenable situation of millions of undocumented migrants while seeking to create a more effective immigration system to process more legal immigrants as well as developing tools to prevent illegal migration. Moreover, most of these recommendations would be well received by the immigrant sending countries and throughout LAC. However, immigration is also one of the most complex of the intermestic affairs that challenge the new U.S. administration, one further complicated by the deepening economic crisis and rising unemployment.
Drug Trade and Crime
The CFR taskforce, Brookings commission, WOLA, and the Inter-American Dialogue also agree that U.S. policy should seek to reform and strengthen law enforcement and the judicial systems in LAC. WOLA advocates the implementation of more effective drug control strategies that treat drug abuse as a “public health crisis,” reduce illegal weapons shipments to LAC, and dedicate greater resources to civilian institutions to investigate and prosecute criminal networks. WOLA also proposes that such a strategy include a rural development component that couples crop eradication efforts with the promotion of alternative livelihoods for farmers currently producing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana in the region. Lastly, WOLA reminds policymakers that combating drugs and crime in LAC should emphasize civilian institutions and human rights.
The CFR taskforce partially shares WOLA’s analysis of the challenge, but presents a more detailed alternative policy that relies on unilateral measures to increase the effectiveness of drug and crime control policy. The taskforce sets out several initiatives to reduce illegal weapons flows, including the ratification of the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Material. It encourages greater cooperation with the Mexican authorities to reduce the flow of drug money through the casas de cambio or currency exchange businesses peppered along the U.S.-Mexican border, a critical financial infrastructure for the international drug trade. Lastly, the CFR taskforce proposes that the U.S. government create a “system similar to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-based Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Group” to centrally analyze all the available financial information related to the regional drug trade in order to better support the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Given the CIA’s long and controversial history in the LAC region, this proposal deserves greater detail and concern.
The Brookings commission proposes a policy framework to increase the effectiveness of U.S. efforts in reducing the drug trade and related crime through a more integrative approach among LAC countries. First, it advocates a comprehensive, cross-national review of counternarcotics policies and the convocation of a hemispheric wide dialogue on illegal drugs. The Inter-American Dialogue also encourages policymakers to facilitate an “honest, well-informed, and wide-ranging exploration and debate on alternative drug policies across the Americas.”21 Given the evident failure of the two-decade-long U.S. “war on drugs,” this is an overlooked but sensible first step to reforming a policy approach compatible with the scope and variation of the challenge found throughout LAC.
Democracy and Human Rights
The Inter-American Dialogue also shares a similar perspective, but focuses its recommendation on strengthening the Inter-American Democratic Charter in order to ensure the collective defense of democracy in the region.22 The Dialogue notes that many LAC governments have questioned the U.S. resolve to defend democracy and human rights, often pointing to Washington’s celebratory tone when President Hugo Chavez was deposed for several days in April of 2002 by military officials and civilian business leaders. Given existing doubts, the Dialogue suggests that President Obama should parlay his own heralded democratic credentials to work with the Organization of American States (OAS) to elaborate the mechanisms and resources through which the Inter-American Democratic Charter could serve as the primary institutional mechanism for defending democracy in the region.
President Obama’s Cuba policy could overlap with attempts to refresh the OAS and rely upon the democracy charter to frame a multilateral effort to promote both democracy in Cuba and its full incorporation into the OAS and other hemispheric multilateral organizations and consultations. Obama’s New Partnership for the Americas points to Cuba as a critical test case for demonstrating this policy principle and ushering in a new era of U.S. relations with LAC. The Obama campaign’s blueprint proposes to “empower” the Cuban people, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island and send remittances, and counseled “aggressive and principled diplomacy” to liberalize relations with Cuba in order to encourage a transition to democracy.
All of the policy documents under study posit that contemporary Cuba does not threaten vital U.S. interests and support the liberalization of U.S.-Cuba relations to encourage democracy and symbolize a new era of U.S.-LAC relations.
The CFR taskforce recommends the repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton law that restricts the U.S. executive’s power to calibrate economic sanctions against the island. The Brookings commission proposes that the United States end its opposition to Cuba’s full incorporation into the global community and regional international governmental organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, while working with the European Union to develop a fund to finance Cuban civil society and entrepreneurial development. The challenge for the new U.S. Cuba policy, like so many other issues, is not an absence of options, but how best to proceed to achieve the goals of supporting democracy while normalizing relations with the island given the entrenched domestic political constraints.
Implementation of Policy Change
The Council of the Americas seconded candidate Obama’s proposal to name a special envoy for the Americas that shortens the policymaking distance between the White House and the LAC region with a “direct line” to the president. Yet, both proposals leave too many unanswered questions about the responsibilities of such a post and how such an envoy would work in tandem with the State Department and other executive agencies responsible for LAC relations.
With or without an envoy, President Obama can exercise great influence over inter-American consultations and regional cooperation. President Obama’s participation at the Summit of the Americas is a first opportunity to assert his leadership, but such efforts will need to be sustained over the course of his four-year term to achieve any success. Toward this end, the CFR taskforce proposes that the U.S. president convene a regional “best practices” summit to draw attention to the entrenched problems of poverty and inequality, discuss solutions, and disseminate best practices to address these challenges across the LAC region. The Brookings commission advances the notion of an A-8 (modeled on the group of eight or G8) wherein the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Mexico, along with four other LAC nations, would spearhead a regional leadership body to discuss and take action on matters of regional concern.
The Brookings commission also suggests that the U.S. government facilitate a “series of informal, issue-specific, and flexible networks” to institutionalize dialogue through a principle of “variable geometry” wherein countries cooperate more closely on those issues that are of most interest. In contrast to both the CFR and Brookings reports, the Inter-American Dialogue advocates a renewed emphasis on the OAS. Without discounting the importance of other regional arenas for consultations and cooperation, the Dialogue argues that:
Aside from the structure of consultations and coordination, all the documents under review advocate special attention to Mexico and Brazil. The Inter-American Dialogue predicts that Mexico poses the “toughest challenges and greatest opportunities for productive cooperation in the hemisphere,” while the CFR report observes that “Security cooperation is becoming increasingly central to U.S.-Mexico relations.”
The CFR report, WOLA, the Brookings commission, and the Dialogue all confirm that Mexico is pivotal for resolving the immigration debacle, confronting the rising problems of drugs and violence in the region, and pushing forward economic development initiatives.
The focus on Brazil differs from that on Mexico. For the Inter-American Dialogue:
While both countries are viewed as pivotal partners for improving regional security, these reports single out Brazil’s leadership across a number of policy areas, including the Doha round of the WTO negotiations, renewable energy and climate control, and nuclear non-proliferation. Accordingly, President Obama must carefully engage Brazil and discover how best to cooperate with this special nation-state if he chooses to transform U.S. policy in the Americas.
Lastly, WOLA and the Council of the Americas offer a “first 100 days” list of measures for immediate implementation. WOLA emphasizes the importance of closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and lifting the ban on travel to Cuba to signal a notable shift in U.S. policy. The Council of the Americas also delivers such a “to do” list, beginning with an immediate change in U.S.-Cuba policy and including the appointment of an envoy for the Americas, support for Brazil and Mexico to join the G8, and ratification of the Colombia and Panama FTAs. However, these lists pay too little attention to the role of the U.S. Congress in determining which measures President Obama can take without Congressional approval or funding.
The Inter-American Dialogue may offer the best advice to President Obama as he prepares to travel to the upcoming Summit of the Americas. Despite broad political interest in deepening cooperation with the region’s governments and peoples, the Dialogue cautions President Obama and suggests that he:
1. Shortly after the Bolivian government ordered U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg expelled from the country and U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the measure as “a grave error that has seriously damaged the bilateral relationship” between the U.S. and Bolivia, UNASUR held an emergency meeting at the Chilean government palace (La Moneda) in Santiago, Chile. The “Declaration of La Moneda” that emerged from the summit was unanimously agreed upon by the UNASUR member states and stressed the importance of “unrestricted respect for sovereignty” and “non-interference in internal affairs.” Signatory countries also expressed their “fullest and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales.” The full text of the statement can be accessed at: http://lta.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idLTAN1533709020080916
2. The Obama ‘08’ campaign document, A New Partnership for the Americas (2008), is associated with the Center for American Progress and can be found at: http://obama.3cdn.net/ef480f743f9286aea9_k0tmvyt7h.pdf; the Council of Foreign Relations’ Independent Task Force Report No. 6; U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Director For A New Reality (2008) can be accessed at:http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/LatinAmerica_TF.pdf; the Washington Office on Latin America’s Forging New Ties: A Fresh Approach to U.S. Policy in Latin America (September, 2007) can be accessed at: http://www.wola.org/media/Forging%20New%20Ties-FINAL.pdf; the Brookings Institution’s Report of the Partnership for the Americas Commission, Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership For A Turbulent World (November, 2008) can be accessed at: http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1124_latin_america_partnership.aspx; and the Council of the Americas’ Building the Hemispheric Growth Agenda: A New Framework for Policy (January, 2009) is available at: http://www.as-coa.org/article.php?id=1409; and the Inter-American Dialogue’s A Second Chance: U.S. Policy in the Americas (March, 2009) can be accessed at:
3. The theme of this, the Fifth Summit of the Americas is “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability." For more information on the summit access the Summits of the Americas Information Network at http://www.summit-americas.org/.
4. For a critique of the George W. Bush administration’s reliance on “competitive liberalization” see Nicola Phillips’ article “U.S. Power and the Politics of Economic Governance in the Americas.” Latin American Politics and Society. Vol. 47, No. 4. Winter, 2005:1-25.
5. As reported in the Obama ‘08’ campaign document, A New Partnership for the Americas (2008), accessed at: http://obama.3cdn.net/ef480f743f9286aea9_k0tmvyt7h.pdf
6. For a concise and critical description of Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America, see Peter Smith’s Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations. New York. Oxford University Press. Second edition, 2000:63-86.
11. For more information on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals access the official website at: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.
13. For a brief statement of U.S. policy and the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership see the United States Trade Representative’s fact sheet, “United States to Negotiate Participation in Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.” September, 2008 and available at: http://www.ustr.gov/assets/World_Regions/Southeast_Asia_Pacific/Trans-Pacific_Partnership_Agreement/Fact_Sheets/asset_upload_file602_15133.pdf
14. For a briefing on the G20 and the financial crisis see the Brookings Institution’s “The G20 Financial Summit: Seven Issues at Stake.” This document can be accessed at: http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2008/1112_g20_summit.aspx
15. For more information on the United States-Brazil agreement to advance biofuels see Mark Langevin, “Renewable Cooperation: Reflections on United States-Brazil Cooperation on Biofuels.” American Diplomacy. November 25, 2008 and available at: http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/2008/1012/comm/langevin_biofeul.html
16. Bayless Manning introduced the concept of intermestic affairs in “The Congress, the Executive and Intermestic Affairs: Three Proposals” published by Foreign Affairs in January, 1977. In this article he concluded,
19. For a briefing on Mexico’s drug war see the Council on Foreign Relations’ backgrounder, “Mexico’s Drug War,” published on November 20, 2008 by Stephanie Hansen and available at: http://www.cfr.org/publication/13689/
20. For a description of the Andean Counterdrug Initiative see the U.S. State Department’s website: http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/rpt/pbg/93280.htm
22. To read the charter is available at: http://www.oas.org/charter/docs/resolution1_en_p4.htm