Is the US relationship with Latin America characterized by progress or decline? The Inter-American Dialogue convened members from the policy and diplomatic community to discuss a recent Brookings Institution policy brief “Better Than You Think: Reframing Inter-American Relations” and to assess the current nature, strength and outlook of Inter-American affairs. Richard Feinberg, the Professor at the University of California San Diego who authored the report, as well as the current Ambassador of Chile, Juan Gabriel Valdés and former Secretary of Commerce and current Chair at Albright Stonebridge Group, Carlos Gutiérrez, were invited to participate in the panel.
Panelists assessed the evolution of US interests in the region, detailed recent developments in the relationship, and prescribed preferred methods through which more sustained engagement could be facilitated. Feinberg stressed the importance of viewing the relationship with a dose of optimism in order to instill confidence in both sides for the need for continued collaboration. While Valdés and Gutiérrez agreed with the need for positivity, they professed that overt optimism presented a narrow channel for the possibility and the necessity for growth and improvement in the relationship.
The past is an important component of the present. The role of the US in the region has markedly evolved and so have the indicators by which it the protection of its core interests can be measured. Optimism about the present state of relations seems appropriate when current conditions are juxtaposed with America’s somber past in the region, including its support for military dictatorships. Nevertheless, as Feinberg noted, US influence in the region is no longer determined by its ability to manipulate the internal workings of other governments. His report argues that the four current, core US interests in Latin America are: “(1) progressive, resilient political democracies with respect for human rights; (2) reasonably well-managed, market-oriented economies open to global trade and investment; (3) inter-state peace among nations; and (4) the absence of credible threats to the United States from international terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.”
Feinberg believes that his optimism is well-founded and the progress in the achievement of US interests in the region, demonstrable – the region experiences almost no inter-state conflict and is experiencing some of the lowest levels of civil conflict of the past two decades, democracy has been consolidated in the majority of the hemisphere, incomes have shown improvements and poverty and inequality rates have declined, reserves have gone from negative in the 1980s to almost $1 trillion currently and high levels of trade and foreign investment are being experienced.
The US has also sought to improve its relationship with its important and strategic hemispheric partners to the South. According to Valdés, the Latin American policy of the Obama administration has been based on the principles of “engagement, rather than isolation, the acceptance of dissent” as well as the idea of selective association. According to him, the relationship is not characterized by US disdain or indifference, and it is not seen by the US as a “security issue or hegemonic concern” but rather, one of normal relations and of mutual respect. Like Feinberg, he does not see the diversity of political ideology in the region, as well as the presence of “rejectionist” countries as necessarily bad. Feinberg also welcomes selective association and cautions the US to use strategic patience with countries that reject American intervention and ideals.
Despite the need for optimism to ensure the sustainability of mutual interest and engagement, both Valdés and Gutiérrez cautioned overzealous positivity. Valdés expressed his uneasiness with the “triumphalism” that characterized the description of the situation as it could lead to passivity and the notion of the relationship as fixed, with this new framework being “all you can expect.” Gutiérrez, who expressed less optimism in the current state of the relations, noted the extensive fragmentation in the hemisphere and the one-dimensional, reactive policy of the US towards Latin America.
Changes in Latin America will also require the US to alter its policies and its understanding of the region accordingly. Already, this change has begun to manifest itself in the relationship. “More autonomy and diversity in Latin America has not made the US less important, but rather, more equal,” said Valdés. Latin America experienced high economic growth levels and a commodity boom that led to the creation of a middle class. Despite slowing growth and due to the existence of relatively high levels of income inequality and of poverty, Latin American governments must continue to sustain expensive social programs. For Valdés, a sturdier US-Latin American relationship will be formed when the US “engages with some countries in the hemisphere in a common effort for economic and social development” as what Latin America needs now is an active relationship with the US and not a “contemplative attitude from its partner.” Gutiérrez recommends that the US gain a better understanding of how Latin America has changed, how the nationalism of its countries has evolved, and what the new Latin American model is. He does not think that the US should conflate globalization or regionalization with Americanization. His solution is for the US to develop a better vision of what the hemisphere should be like, infuse creativity into foreign policy strategies in the region, and understand the region’s social needs.
Although improvements will be necessary, the US and Latin America have experienced a period of mutual learning and growth unlike any other. Obstacles still stand in the way of what could be stronger relations, including the growing influence of China in the region, serious and ingrained problems with the rule of law and corruption in Latin America, and a full lack of understanding in US policy circles of the issues that affect countries in the region; nevertheless, panelists agreed that relations are headed in a positive direction and that optimism could never hurt.