For the first time in nearly two centuries, the United States will find a Latin America that has unapologetically dropped the region's traditional deference to U.S. power. When President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive for the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April, they will step into a political and diplomatic environment dramatically different from that confronting any of their predecessors. Understandably, the Obama administration will assert its disposition to forge partnerships, recover ground lost in recent years, and work toward the shared prosperity, social inclusion and common security agenda to which the region's governments have loosely agreed. But, with a global financial crisis and domestic recession constraining resources, not to mention a foreign-policy agenda that is all but saturated with other strategic priorities, the United States faces clear limitations on what it can achieve in its own neighborhood. Still, the forces of interdependence within the Americas remain as compelling as ever and require a strategy that advances U.S. interests in this new environment. As the countries of Latin America become stronger and more independent, the United States will face an uphill battle to make relationships work.
President Obama must take stock of several new hemispheric "facts of life" that will frame the political-diplomatic calculus for U.S.-Latin American relations in the coming years. Most important, the new administration must endeavor to see the hemisphere as it is and not through the lazy filters of "best-friendism," wishful thinking or demonization.