Does the U.S. Have a Good Strategic Plan for Latin America?
With fewer than three months until the U.S. election, the administration of President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for the Americas, listing as top priorities areas such as security, illegal migration, human trafficking and drug trafficking, among others. What are the most significant aspects of the administration’s new “Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework”? To what extent and in what ways will countries in the region cooperate with the United States toward its goals? What does the Trump administration’s strategy say about U.S.-China competition in the region?
Fernando Cutz, senior associate at The Cohen Group and fellow at the Wilson Center: “In 2017, then-National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster led efforts at the NSC to write President Trump’s National Security Strategy. In that document, we emphasized threats facing the Americas, including violence, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, transnational criminal organizations, corruption, an encroaching China and the need to restore democracy in Venezuela and Cuba. We also looked at opportunities facing the region, including a growth in stable, friendly and prosperous democratic states that present an opening for increased American trade and partnerships. The new document that the Trump administration released last month seems to restate many of the points that were made three years ago, with some minor updates and some expanded verbiage. The significance of this policy comes from the fact that it was released to much fanfare in South Florida just a couple of months prior to a presidential election, while no similar National Security Strategy expansion document was being released for any other geographic region. It is therefore hard to assume that this was not being utilized more for its potential political value in Florida than for any perceived policy benefits. Despite this, the document itself lays out a solid and largely bipartisan vision that, with small changes, could likely be used by either a second-term President Trump or a President Biden in 2021. What the United States is finally beginning to address in confronting China’s growing economic influence in the region is that we can’t show up to the table empty-handed and expect to démarche our way into Chinese money rejection. Leveraging our strengths through public-private partnerships and through organizations such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (USDFC) is how we can work together with countries in the region and around the world to offer them a better path forward.”
Roger Noriega, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute: “The Trump administration’s new Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework provides a logical context for its transactional approach to advancing the president’s priority of fortifying U.S. borders against illegal immigration and related crimes. The new framework confronts two primary threats that are targeting democratic capitalism in the Americas: the predatory practices of transnational organized crime (for which the Cuba-controlled Venezuelan regime is a driving force) and China’s mercantile exploitation. Although some unlikely partners (in Mexico and Central America) have adapted themselves to the Trump administration’s transactional demands, robust U.S. diplomacy and development is required to help other governments address the economic and social causes of systemic poverty. A healthy private sector is not a panacea; capitalism requires states capable of shaping and enforcing the rules of the game. The administration’s promotion of ‘self-reliance’ and ‘resilience’ in the region is laudable. But that long-term aspiration does little to help regional leaders who are managing chronic poverty and the economic collapse caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has been criticized by some in the region for being ‘obsessed’ with China, Cuba and Venezuela. However, it cannot be denied that these regimes are active threats to free-market capitalism, democracy and the rule of law. The most effective U.S. strategy will not seek to impose an anti-China bias on governments that have no interest in being in the middle of a geopolitical tug-of-war. By the same token, regional leaders cannot dodge their responsibility to defend the rule of law and economic freedom. The new framework and the ‘América Crece’ agreements—backed by new financing from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation—with a dozen countries in the region are steps in the right direction.”
Margaret Myers, director of the Asia & Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “Some of the proposed pillars of the Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework—advancing economic growth, promoting democracy and strengthening alliances—are similar to those advanced in the administration’s 2018 policy toward the hemisphere, and indeed to those promoted by previous administrations. Most would agree, as the framework indicates, that outreach in these three areas is indeed critical to ensuring a ‘prosperous, safe and democratic region.’ But whether the administration will indeed dedicate the resources necessary to build these pillars, and do so thoughtfully and with the region’s best interests in mind, is exceedingly uncertain. The timing of the framework’s announcement, in South Florida in August, suggests that it—like much of Trump’s policy toward the region—is intended to shore up support for his re-election in November, especially among the South Florida Latino community, rather than upgrade hemispheric relations. The region should nevertheless expect to see more engagement related to China and its ‘malign political influence,’ as indicated in the document, including through a number of hopefully beneficial capacity-building initiatives. That said, so long as the Trump administration continues to prioritize domestic and even electoral interests over hemispheric ones, China will continue to be viewed in an increasingly positive light by Latin American audiences.”
Rubens Barbosa, former ambassador of Brazil to the United States: “The United States’ new strategy for the Americas repeats concepts and priorities of previous governments. Generic objectives are included to preserve U.S. interests in relation to security, illegal immigration, human and drug trafficking, and democracy. The fact that only Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela are mentioned clearly indicates the administration’s concern of the ideological deviation of those countries in the region. The United States does not refer to the difficulties of Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, nor to ways in which it could help restore their prosperity to strengthen a better and diversified relationship. Despite the document’s opening statement, Latin America continues to have low geopolitical priority in U.S. foreign policy. The lack of interest in the region of both U.S. government and companies gave way to a growing presence of foreign powers. It is not a surprise that the only new feature in the document is the geoeconomic priority, included in this kind of policy paper for the first time; China is mentioned in a prominent way. In a revival of the Monroe Doctrine, the new strategy states that the United States will counter China’s economic aggression and malign political influence and encourage countries to avoid buying Chinese technology (5G), accepting financial cooperation in order to avoid debt trap and even selling commodities so as to not expose their sovereignty. Brazil is perhaps the main focus of this concern, given that it falls under these three points. China is the number-one trading partner to Brazil. It is not in the region’s interest to import U.S.-China confrontation and to take sides on this dispute. National interest above geopolitical concern and ideology should be the name of the game.”
Nasim Fussell, partner at Holland & Knight: “Despite the on-again off-again relationship between President Trump and President Xi, the administration signed the U.S.-China phase one trade deal in January; however, this neither reduced the tariffs nor tackled the core structural issues identified in the administration’s Section 301 Report on China. With only nominal progress made through unilateral actions, the administration seems to be shifting focus to global strategic alliances to combat China’s ‘malign influence,’ as stated in its recent Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework. As it should be, trade is a centerpiece of the framework. By advancing economic growth and expanding free markets in the Americas, the administration seeks to counter the spread of China’s mercantilist behavior and unfair trade practices. The framework offers a comprehensive vision for a safe, prosperous and democratic Western Hemisphere, which requires combating China’s growing influence in the region. Has the Trump administration awoken to the reality that it cannot go it alone when it comes to China? Hopefully so, as the right approach requires more strategic alliances and fewer blunt, unilateral actions that harm U.S. consumers and businesses while shrinking important export markets for American producers. Such an awakening would be good news for the Western Hemisphere. The question remains whether the Trump administration will have the interest, and a meaningful opportunity, to expand on this vision in a second term.”
While the Trump administration’s “America first” policies are aimed primarily at giving higher priority to national security and economic growth for the United States, the White House’s approach will have impacts on energy relations with the rest of the hemisphere that should also be considered.
In the early 1980s, when the Inter-American Dialogue was born, the U.S. was actively supporting right-wing governments from El Salvador to Nicaragua. There were “tremendous misunderstandings between Latin America and the United States,” says Michael Shifter, longtime president of the D.C.-based think tank. These days, it seems those tremendous misunderstandings have returned with a vengeance, making the Dialogue’s work even more relevant.