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HomeCountriesArgentinaA new beginning for US-Latin American relations?

A new beginning for US-Latin American relations?


Juan Gabriel Tokatlian*

latam_riverWill 2012 – an election year in the United States – be the beginning of a turning point in US-Latin American relations? For that to happen it is essential for Washington, among both Democrats and Republicans, to accept two critical questions: to start the very complex (and not effortless) process of giving up its ‘frustrated superpower syndrome’ vis-à-vis Latin America; and to positively (not grudgingly) recognize the peaceful decline of the Monroe doctrine. It is clear that the onus of confronting a changing relation in the Western Hemisphere falls more to Washington than to Mexico City, Havana, Caracas or Brasilia.

The US’s frustrated superpower syndrome regarding Latin America is a deeply-rooted phenomenon. It began before the United States turned into a world power; it emerged when Washington first became the hegemonic actor in the Western Hemisphere. By the beginning of the 20th century it was a reality, even though it was more evident in Central America and the Caribbean than in South America.

The syndrome was not the product of a bizarre policy option, the exclusive decision of a single party in the United States, nor the consequence of some personality traits among American policy-makers, nor the outcome of a malevolently-crafted conspiracy. In reality, the frustrated superpower syndrome is the logical consequence of two different but intertwined factors: the objective disparity of power and the subjective sense of superiority.

The syndrome follows a particular pattern. A group of countries or a whole region is considered relatively irrelevant because no fundamental threat arising from that region affects a vital interest of the superpower. Thus, the syndrome is installed. But it is even more acute when the region is seen to be largely irrelevant, due to resilient cultural prejudice and/or because of its minor material importance. Such a region is seen as a low priority and receives intermittent attention. However – and this is significant – this type of region is not perceived as, or treated as, a challenge or a menace but as somehow subordinate and immature: the image of such a region among many players within the superpower is that of dependency, not of an enemy.

Thus, the superpower’s policy-makers do not feel that they require sophistication or innovation to establish policies for a dependent region: in the past they have repeatedly adopted bureaucratic policies towards low value areas and have repeated stereotypes. Under-attention and lack of originality are prevalent. Notwithstanding, from time to time there are outburst of enthusiasm; for example the expectation that the region will be finally “transformed” in accordance with the preferences and objectives of the superpower. But a sudden political turmoil, the resurgence of unmanageable leaders, extended poor economic performance, and/or a diplomatic crisis puts an end to the unilateral honeymoon of the great power with that low value region. The same time-tested, fairly ineffective strategies are once again employed and redeployed with an identical result: no great achievement, no major transformation. This repeated pattern generates frustration. However, the superpower has no intention of rethinking its relations with that region. The self-defined low importance of its relationship with the low value region and its often-proclaimed benevolence do not allow for profound changes among key actors within the great power. As a consequence, another cycle begins; and a new, larger frustration looms just over the horizon.

An emblematic test-case of the frustrated superpower syndrome has been US-Latin American relations. The last hundred years of the Inter-American political economy has provided ample evidence that the syndrome has been pervasive and pernicious. The Latin American Wikileaks are just the latest illustration. If the syndrome is going to be overcome then the change must begin in Washington. If there was ever a chance to replace the syndrome, it is now when global unipolarity is being seriously eroded, when hemispheric hegemony is being questioned, and when US domestic politics is dramatically faltering.

At the beginning of the 21st century Latin America is going through notable adjustments, most of them encouraging, some of them upsetting, all of them significant. In economics, politics, and diplomacy the region has shown remarkable changes which, if properly understood and responded to by the United States, may pave the way for a less unbalanced and more fruitful relationship in the Americas.

What is going on? It has become apparent that the 19th century Monroe doctrine is faltering. At the start of the 21st century a combination of structural factors and recent dynamics at the global, hemispheric, regional and American levels is generating an unprecedented state of affairs; Latin America, in general, and South America, in particular, has the opportunity: to decrease the scope of its dependency on the United States; to renegotiate, on better grounds, its asymmetry vis-à-vis Washington; and to accelerate its diversified world insertion. However, in this context, the new Barack Obama administration has until now just looked puzzled and passive.

In effect, a pragmatic China is arriving in the area with resources, trade, and soft power. An unsatisfied Russia is returning to the region with commerce on the one hand and new military muscle on the other. An assertive Iran is getting closer to South and Central America, both diplomatically and in terms of energy policies. An emerging India is making incipient and productive contacts, on the economic and political fronts, with Latin America. An active South Africa is increasingly involved in South-South cooperation with the Southern Cone (Argentina and Brazil, in particular) countries. Even Japan is showing a renewed interest in the area. Meanwhile Europe has become the leading supplier of conventional armaments, to Chile and Brazil in particular. Since 2005, two South America-Arab countries summit and two South America-Africa summits have been held. Simultaneously, several non-state forces – anti-globalisation movements, global NGOs, political groups, transnational criminal organisations – have all increased their presence in the hemisphere, while the United States government has been obsessed for a long time with Iraq, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, and recently overwhelmed by the revolts in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The perception that the area is irrelevant – a very familiar viewpoint in Washington – is mistaken. In terms of ecology, South America is an environmental superpower, something that is becoming crucial in the 21st century. In terms of strategic resources, the region is a major power: high oil and gas reserves in the Andes (Venezuela, in particular) are now combined with great discoveries in Brazil; the bio-fuel capacity of Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia is significant; Argentina and Brazil are two important non-military nuclear producers; food supplies in the area are abundant; water reserves are noteworthy; and there is substantial mineral wealth.

In terms of Latin America’s multilateral participation the region has demonstrated a very high degree – in comparison to other peripheries – of institutionalisation: Latin America has contributed positively to the establishment and maintenance of international regimes, while actively supporting peace-keeping missions worldwide under the framework of the United Nations. The voting pattern of the region, since the creation of the U.N. until now, has been moderate and mostly constructive.

Geopolitically, South America is a relatively large, stable and peaceful “island”. The world has seen an avalanche of new nation-states in the last six decades: membership of the United Nations has increased from 51 at its foundation in 1945 to 192 today. In this light, South America stands out as a region that has witnessed the least state creation. From the mid-19th century onwards, and throughout the 20th century, only one new state was formed: when, in 1903, Panamá gained independence as the result of its separation from Colombia (with the encouragement of the United States). More recently, the departure of former British and Dutch colonial rulers led Guyana (1966) and Surinam (1975) to become independent. In comparative terms this region has experienced fewer international wars than any other in the last two centuries: South Americans tend to dispute diplomatically but not militarily. All the countries in the area are democratic – something that is unusual in other peripheries. An emerging global player from the region – Brazil – is bringing to the world scenario more virtues than vices: Brasilia has never been a revisionist, ideological or confrontational country; its main international identity has to do with its pragmatic, peaceful ascendency.

Even though the current global economic crisis is paramount in its scope and its scale, South American countries are better prepared than one decade ago for such a major external shock. There is no clear perspective on how the situation will evolve; notwithstanding, the region can probably get through this difficult moment and be able to begin a new phase of economic growth with a better standing than in the 1980s and 1990s.

Obviously, there are several major problems that affect South America. Several of them need global solutions (for example, drugs and organised crime), some of them are being solved by the region (for example, domestic institutional crisis and bilateral political frictions), and most of them (especially, the social agenda) are being tackled (with mixed fortunes) by the governments.

The US-Latin American agenda – trade, illicit drugs, migration, environment, investment, organised crime, corruption, energy, human rights, rule of law – is directly intertwined with a multiplicity of interests, policies and actors in both areas. With respect to the majority of these issues the defensive or reactive posture of Washington is all too evident. This is quite surprising because in recent years Washington had suffered some setbacks in the area. For example, the Free Trade Area of the Americas was not signed nor started in 2005 as was originally supposed to happen: the latest Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago showed that the United States has no clear, new agenda to propose and discuss with the area. The upcoming 2012 Summit in Colombia seems destined to be a very low-profile event, both for Washington and Latin America.

Alongside the stalemate on trade, independent observers and renowned experts agree that the “war on drugs” has not worked globally or in the hemisphere. Plan Colombia and Plan Mérida (for Mexico and Central America) are showing poor results in terms of the curtailment of the drug phenomenon. Neither militant nor low-scale prohitionism is working and the United States continues to ignore the need for new thinking on this topic.

In addition, Washington, as a simultaneous source of order and disorder in the hemisphere, has been ineffective in avoiding the spectre of failed states in the region, especially in Central American and the Caribbean. Some of its policies have, in fact, exacerbated the fragile condition of some countries in the Americas. The United States has attempted to discuss – with as yet no tangible result – an energy-based scheme with Latin America broadly and with South America, specifically: the initial proposal on this issue by the Obama administration was too general and hardly symmetrical. Recently and for the first time in its history, and after the US Southern Command decide to re-establish the IV Fleet (dismantled in 1950), the region has conceived a South American Defense Board without any participation by the United States.

In that context, one of the most critical issues in the Americas today is Venezuela. How will Washington cope with a Latin American president, once the most commanding in decades, and who is running, paradoxically, a poorly administered state and whose health is rapidly deteriorating? One option is to do nothing and to wait the outcome of the Chávez rise and fall: this seems to be impossible because of the impact on the United States of a too successful radical but potentially unstable experience in the Western Hemisphere. Sooner or later American passivity could easily turn into apocalyptic geopolitics if the Venezuelan situation gets out of control domestically. This, in turn, may end up openly militarising Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Caracas and the Caribbean Basin in search of “stability” in its old backyard.

Another alternative may be to enhance a policy of gradual, more vocal, unilateral encirclement of Venezuela. The purpose of this tactic would be to generate improved attention and coordination among governmental agencies vis-à-vis Caracas and a more solid consensus between the executive and the legislative in Washington on Venezuela, while simultaneously informing different external audiences that the United States is very serious about Chávez. Several indicators showed that this track was part of President George W. Bush’s preferred policy during his second mandate, a policy that has, in essence, been followed by President Obama. But the result of the current policy has been threefold: more annoyance on the part of Washington, more arrogance on the part of Caracas, and more alarm in Latin America.

A third alternative does not seem to be in Washington’s radar: a realistic, prudent and flexible combination of coexistence together with non-interventionist support for the deepening of Venezuelan democracy. Yet, as well as being necessary, this could be possible. There may be room for concerted diplomacy, involving the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and (very discreetly) Cuba in order to cope with the effects of a revolutionary phenomenon in the region in the event of turmoil as a result of a political transition in Venezuela. These six countries represent today the political balance of the region. An overall, sound strategy can be designed and implemented if dogmatism and parochialism are left behind. The five Latin Americans nations, the United States and Venezuela, all have genuine national interests in play and not many of them are incompatible: this recognition is fundamental in order to generate a regional modus vivendi. Neither Washington nor Latin America needs more volatility, more polarisation, and more fragmentation. There are too many other potential hotspots in the world ready to be ignited.

However, unless there is a genuine effort on the part of different state and non-state actors in the United States to seriously rethink South America reality with new conceptual frameworks and more practical lenses, Washington will continue to repeat the argument of the past: that government officials and politicians do their best but South America is not capable of developing mature Inter-American relations. At this stage in the relationship, this contention is more of an excuse than a coherent assertion.


*Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Professor of International Relations at the Universidad Di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina).

‘An earlier version of this article appeared on the International Policy Digest website.

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