Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

A (Real) Turning Point in U.S.-Latin American Relations?

Will November be the beginning of a turning point in U.S.-Latin American relations? For that to happen, it is essential for Washington, both Democrats and Republicans alike, to accept a new reality in order to start the very complex process of avoiding the frustrated superpower syndrome vis-à-vis Latin America. Importantly, Washington will need to recognize the peaceful dwindling of the Monroe doctrine and with it, Washington’s influence on the region. The onus of the changing relations in the Western Hemisphere falls more on Washington than on Mexico City, La Havana, Caracas or Brasilia.

A Dysfunctional Syndrome

Waning U.S. influence, or frustrated superpower syndrome, in Latin America, is a deep-rooted phenomenon. It began before the United States turned into a world power and it has evolved since Washington became the hegemonic actor in the Western Hemisphere. By the beginning of this century, the former was a reality, even though it was more evident in Central American and the Caribbean than in South America.

The frustrated superpower syndrome, notwithstanding, has not been the product of a bizarre canon, an exclusive outlook of a single party in the United States, the consequence of some personality traits among American policymakers, or the outcome of a malevolent-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 it is too safe for a great power or because no fundamental threat arising from that region affects a vital interest of the superpower.

Thus, the syndrome becomes ingrained. But it is even more acute when a region is believed to reflect very low concern due to a resilient cultural prejudice and/or because of its minor material magnitude. Such a region attracts slight priority and receives intermittent attention.

However, and this is quite significant, this type of region is not perceived or treated as a challenge or a menace but as somewhat subordinate and immature. The image of such a region among many players within the superpower is that of dependency and not of an enemy. Thus, a superpower’s policymakers view towards a dependent region does not seem to require sophistication or innovation: bureaucratic politics towards low-value areas are a recurrence of the past and a repetition of stereotypes. Under-attention and lack of originality are prevalent.

Notwithstanding, from time to time there are outbursts of enthusiasm. For example, the expectation that the region will finally be “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 ends up with the initial, unilateral honeymoon of the great power with that low-value region.

The same time-tested, fairly ineffective strategies are employed and redeployed with an identical result: no great achievement, no major transformation. This repeated pattern generates frustration. However, the superpower really has no intention to rethink its relations with that region. The self-defined exceptionality and 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 U.S.-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.

If the syndrome is going to be overcome then the change must begin in Washington. If the syndrome ever has a chance to be replaced the time is now when global unipolarity is seriously eroding, hemispheric hegemony is softly questioned, and U.S. domestic politics are in transition.

By the beginning of this century, Latin America is witnessing notable adjustments; most of them encouraging, some of them upsetting, all of them significant. In economics, politics, and diplomacy the region has experienced remarkable changes, which, if properly understood and responded to by the United States, may pave the way for a less unbalanced and more responsive relations with the Americas.

Bye Bye Monroe

What is going on? It has become apparent that the 21sr century Monroe doctrine is dwindling. 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 conjuncture: Latin America, in general, and South America, in particular, have the opportunity to decrease the scope of its dependency on the United States; renegotiate, on better terms, its asymmetrical relations with Washington and accelerate its diversified world insertion. In this context, the Obama administration looks, up to now, puzzled and passive.

In effect, a pragmatic China is arriving with resources, trade, and soft power. An unsatisfied Russia is returning to the region with commerce on the one hand and military muscle on the other. An assertive Iran is closer to South and Central America, both diplomatically and in terms of energy politics. An emerging India is making incipient and productive contacts, on the economic and political sides, with Latin America. An active South Africa is increasingly involved in South-South cooperation with Southern Cone (Argentina and Brazil, in particular) countries. Even Japan is showing a renewed interest in the area. Meanwhile, Europe has been the leading supplier of conventional armaments to Chile and Brazil. Since 2005, two South America-Arab summits have been held, while two South America-Africa summits have occurred since 2006.

Simultaneously, several non-state forces, in particular, anti-globalization movements, global NGOs, political groups and transnational criminal organizations, have increased their presence in the hemisphere while the United States has been obsessing with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda and recently is overwhelmed by the revolts in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The notion about the irrelevance of the area—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: oil and gas reserves in the Andean ridge (Venezuela, in particular) are now combined with discoveries in Brazil. Bio-fuel capacities in Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia are significant. Additionally, Argentina and Brazil are two important non-military nuclear energy producers; the food supplies in the area are abundant; the water reserves are noteworthy, and the mineral deposits are also relevant.

In terms of Latin America’s multilateral participation, the region has demonstrated a very high degree—in comparison to other peripheries—of institutionalization. Latin America has contributed positively to the establishment and maintenance of international regimes, while actively supporting peacekeeping missions worldwide under the framework of the United Nations. The voting pattern of the region, since the creation of the UN, 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 in 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, only one new state was formed, when, in 1903, Panama gained independence as the result of its separation from Colombia (with the encouragement of the United States).

More recently, the departure of the British and Dutch from the region led Guyana (1966) and Surinam (1975) to independence. In comparative terms, this region has experienced less international wars than any other region in the last two centuries. South Americans tend to have diplomatic and not military disputes. All the countries in the region are democratic—something that is unusual in other regions.

Even though the current global economic crisis is paramount in its scope and proportion, South American countries are better prepared than a decade ago for such a major external shock. There is no clear perspective on the evolution of this critical conjuncture; notwithstanding the region can probably endure this moment and be able to begin a new phase of economic growth with a better standing than in the 1980s and 90s.

Obviously, there are several major problems that affect South America. Several of these states need global solutions (for example, drugs, and organized crime), some of them are been 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 U.S.-Latin American agenda – trade, illicit drugs, migration, environment, investment, organized crime, corruption, energy, human rights, rule of law – is directly intertwined with a multiplicity of interests, policies, and actors in all areas. The majority of these issues reflect the defensive or reactive posture of Washington.

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 it was originally supposed to be: the latest Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago showed that the United States has no clear new issue to propose and discuss with the area. The in-coming 2012 Summit in Colombia seems destined to be a very low-profile event, both for Washington and Latin America.

Parallel to 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 Merida (for Mexico and Central America) show poor results in terms of the curtailment of the drug phenomenon. Militant or apathetic prohitionism is not working and the United States continues neglecting 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 specter of failed states in the region; especially in Central America 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 no tangible results to date, an energy-based scheme together with Latin America, broadly, and with South America, specifically: the initial proposal on this issue by the Obama administration has been too general and hardly symmetrical. Just recently and for the first time in its history, after the US Southern Command decision 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 the formally most commanding Latin American president in decades who is running, paradoxically, a poorly-administered state and whose health is rapidly deteriorating? One option is to do nothing and to wait for the outcome of Chávez challenge and decline: 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-a-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 been, in essence, 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, more alarm in Latin America.

A third alternative does not seem to be in Washington’s radar: a realist, prudent and flexible combination of coexistence together with a non-interventionist support for the deepening of Venezuelan democracy may be possible and is necessary. There may be a room for concert 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.

Today, these six countries express a political balance in the region. An overall, sound strategy can be designed and implemented if dogmatism and parochialism are left apart. 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, polarization, and fragmentation. There are too many potential hotspots in the world 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: government officials and politicians around the beltway do their best but conclude that South America is unfit for the development of mature Inter-American relations. At this conjuncture, this contention is more of an excuse than a coherent assertion.