Leaders of twenty-three Western Hemisphere countries attended the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles on June 6–10, with a focus on “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future.” The summit sought cooperation on shared challenges, including economic recovery, climate change, health, and migration. The meeting showcased a divided region and is unlikely to produce any substantial outcomes, write four experts for the Council of Councils global perspectives series, but it has prompted some pragmatic first steps toward stronger regional partnerships.
A Fragmented Western Hemisphere, Declining U.S. Influence
In contrast with most other high-level diplomatic encounters, the Summit of the Americas has been a controversial idea from the start. After all, given the profound economic and geographic disparities between Western Hemisphere nations, it has always been a challenge to identify common interests or build consensus. A hemisphere-wide free trade agreement, the main idea that led to the first summit in Miami in 1994, proved impossible to negotiate. Today, it would be even less likely, with protectionism on the rise.
Since the 1990s, Latin American economies have been going through a process of deindustrialization. Intra-regional trade is becoming less important, while exports to China are increasing, causing advocates for regional integration to lose political clout. The United States’ increasingly limited economic influence in the region led the Inter-American Dialogue’s Michael Shifter to coin the term “post-American Latin America,” and Washington will have to learn to work with a region that is less dependent on it now than at any point in recent decades. In addition, the Biden administration’s focus on strengthening democratic rule led it to exclude the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the summit. It also produced a backlash from both Mexico’s left-wing populist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and Brazil’s right-wing populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, who is currently seeking to undermine public trust in Brazil’s electoral system ahead of October’s presidential election.
Given that the United States and Latin America diverge on the dominant issues of the day—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China—the space for broad geopolitical coordination is limited. Washington was therefore right to focus on areas where cooperation is more viable, such as migration, public health, and the environment. In the same way, the Biden administration’s decision to organize the first-ever Cities Summit of the Americas in April 2023 in Denver, Colorado, is a pragmatic step. Mayors are among the hemisphere’s most visionary leaders, and they are often less prone to the destructive polarization that currently shapes national politics across much of the region.
Success Depends on What Comes Next
While the lead-up to the summit focused on who was and wasn’t coming, more than twenty heads of state participated, as did ministers from the remaining nations. The summit provided the first regionwide, post-COVID-19 venue for national leaders to mix with mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders, civil society activists, and others, as well as to discuss in person the last few years’ mounting challenges. But it lacked comprehensive or even concrete plans to take on these thorny issues, instead laying out potential directions for future efforts and leaving things mostly to be determined.
Health policy kicked off the agenda, the region having suffered more than most from the pandemic. New regional initiatives were announced to increase the number of trained personnel and to bolster health systems in the face of ongoing challenges and for future pandemics or other public health crises.
Then migration rightly took center stage. More Latin Americans are on the move than in any time in recent history, driven from their home countries due to government repression, economic desperation, insecurity, natural disasters, and climate change. While, in the United States, most observers look only at arrivals at the U.S. southern border, many Latin American countries have absorbed more migrants in both absolute and relative terms. At the summit, leaders took a first step to address the challenge together, many of them pledging to streamline migration processes and take in more sojourners. They also discussed new multilateral financing to help diffuse these costs.
Economic recovery, too, was a central focus. The United States rolled out a Latin American version of its recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The vision for the Western Hemisphere, called the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity initiative, opens the door for interested countries to work together on pillars including trade, climate change, supply-chain resilience, and human and social capital formation. As of now, it is more an invitation to discuss, coordinate, and negotiate than a developed plan.
Summits are, in the end, largely about rhetoric. Making a real difference regarding safer migration, stronger health systems, and greater economic growth and prosperity takes more than a few days of meetings. This Summit of the Americas showed how early it is in the hemisphere tackling these pressing issues. Success depends on what comes next.
Summit Goes as Planned, but Falls Short on Specifics
Notwithstanding the initial fuss over the guest list, the summit has taken place largely as planned by the United States. Although Mexico’s president held true to his threat not to participate if any of the region’s governments were excluded, only a handful of leaders boycotted the summit, including those from the three Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). As with other regional meetings over the years, disputes over who should attend overshadowed the planning stage. But, over the course of the weeklong gathering in Los Angeles, several ideas that could be considered substantive were advanced.
U.S. President Joe Biden made his democracy plea the centerpiece of Washington’s decision to host the summit. Also on the agenda were climate change, health, immigration, and energy. Biden also launched his Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity initiative, but without much detail on what it consists of.
Summits are mainly photo opportunities, as well as a chance for leaders to meet one another and get to know newer players who have been recently elected. Communiqués and initiatives are generally agreed on in advance, although, this year, Mexico’s foreign minister came out with a surprise proposal to replace the Organization of American States with a more inclusive body representing all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Also, Mexico called for normalizing relations with Cuba and an end to the U.S. embargo on the island. There didn’t appear to be much enthusiasm for either proposal.
Many leaders expected a major announcement from the United States on a substantial commitment of funding for Latin America’s infrastructure and economic development. However, as has been the case for some time, most of what was promised was private sector investment that had been offered by previous U.S. administrations and had never materialized.
Ultimately, the Los Angeles summit likely achieved Washington’s main objective of showcasing a renewed commitment to the region. But compared with the many other priorities on Biden’s plate, it fell far short of being newsworthy.
An Opportunity to Lead in Difficult Times
The golden age of the 1994 Summit of the Americas is long past, and that era looks quite odd when compared to the current political and economic developments in the Western Hemisphere. Still, both have something in common: the opportunity for the United States to lead.
At the 1994 summit, President Bill Clinton communicated the spirit of the inaugural meeting, one of optimism and possibilities, with the United States taking center stage. The ideas Clinton offered included strengthening free markets, boosting regional and hemispheric institutions, protecting human rights, and promoting democracy. It was less of a concrete plan and more of a general roadmap, but it was one the region was then ready to follow. First, because the end of the Cold War and the rise of a unipolar world opened new political space. Second, because the disastrous economic situation of the 1980s left the region open to change.
The 2022 summit offers the United States a renewed leadership opportunity but in a different and more challenging context. Latin America’s political leadership is on the defensive and increasingly nationalistic. After the 2019 riots, the COVID-19 pandemic, continuous economic failures, and political instability, societies are on the offensive calling for change. Still, each country faces different challenges, and, the summit will most likely not bring them together in a common agenda.
The only thing democracies in the region have in common is a mixture of poor performance, endemic corruption, and weak and divisive leadership. Those are the governments that are discussing an agenda for the future of the hemisphere. The question for the Biden administration is: will his proposed Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity be seen as the proper framework for advancing shared economic development?
Biden was clear about three things in his opening speech. First, the hemisphere must be united in facing common and interconnected challenges, including immigration, violence, and the potential for China to disrupt our democracies and interests in the region.
Second, there is a need for U.S. partnerships with the region to make commitments to address these shared challenges. However, the absence of several Central American countries and Mexico, and Argentine President Alberto Fernández’s divisive speech to the summit demonstrated the region is not ready to unite.
Third, Biden is telling the region that he is ready to listen. But the question is if the United States is prepared to act in accordance with what it hears. The problem is one of priorities. With all the global challenges piling up, the region will likely continue to do business as usual after the summit, especially since Latin American governments often prefer to work on a bilateral basis rather than multilaterally. All this makes leadership a complicated task in the Western Hemisphere. The 2022 summit shows that the position is open for any who want to accept the challenge.