from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

Rethinking U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Latin America

March 01, 2012

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The most recent edition of Foreign Affairs has a great piece by Chris Sabatini, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at the Council of the Americas. In "Rethinking Latin America" he points out that the most distinguishing aspect of U.S.-Latin America relations is the U.S. focus on internal dynamics -- building democratic institutions, promoting social and economic inclusion and the like -- as opposed to more hard-headed traditional international relations issues. This occurs not only in the Washington policy world, but also in academia. Reflecting back on my own graduate work, I distinctly remember the time spent reading the “classics” on U.S.-Latin America relations. These were relatively easy weeks, precisely because there has been so little written. This approach, Sabatini believes, “has distorted Washington’s calculations of regional politics and hampered its ability to counter outside influences and deal sensibly with rising regional powers.”

To be fair, the United States does focus on domestic issues in other places and regions around the world. Discussions of democracy filled much of the Bush administration’s Middle East docket, and issues of economic development, voting, and civil society also occupy Africa and Southeast Asia policymakers. And the United States does, at times, address big international relations issues in Latin America, including the role of transnational security threats, economic ties, and regional organizations. But the dominance of domestic issues — over which the United States has little or no control --  in Latin America-oriented foreign policy is distinctive. Sabatini also rightly points out that many policymakers and thinkers continue to see Latin America through a Cold War lens, and use the region as a pawn in domestic partisan battles, all to the detriment of U.S.-Latin America relations.

I’d like to think this is shifting. At least parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and political process recognize the need to engage Brazil, Mexico, and other nations in multilateral forums and on global issues. Many are prioritizing energy, trade, and security, and beginning to analyze the nuance of regional interactions, from Brazil’s often uneasy relationship with its neighbors to Mexico’s relations with Central America.  But these shifts need to be broader and more encompassing. Otherwise the fears of many Latin America watchers will come true, and the United States will lose ground in the hemisphere.