U.S. Engagement in the Western Hemisphere Needs Attention


Patrick Duddy, a retired American diplomat, is the director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.  From 2007 to 2010 he served as the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.  On September 11, 2008 he was expelled from Venezuela by then President Hugo Chavez.  In July of 2009 He returned to Venezuela as President Obama’s emissary.  

OPINION — This year’s commemoration of 9/11 did not resonate in Latin America in the same way it did in the United States.  That is not just because the attacks of September 11, 2001 happened in the U.S. and not in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico or some other country in the Western Hemisphere.

Many in the region also remember, somewhat ruefully, that it was on the very day of the attacks that all 34 active member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) signed the InterAmerican Democratic Charter.  The charter established democracy as a necessary precondition for full participation in the Inter-American system. Because of the United States’ strong support for adoption of the charter, Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru when the 9/11 attacks occurred.

Adoption of the charter was a source of deep satisfaction in Latin America.  Many hoped it would usher in an era of greater cooperation and more productive relations between the U.S. and the rest of the American Republics.  Unfortunately, it was, understandably, eclipsed by the terrorist attacks in the U.S.

To be sure, the horror of those attacks was felt sharply by the overwhelming majority of the U.S.’s Western Hemisphere neighbors.  Citizens from throughout the Americas died in the two towers.  The United States has long been a magnet for the people of the region notwithstanding their deeply rooted ambivalence about U.S. foreign policy and resentment of U.S. interventionism.  Indeed, Venezuela’s opposition leader and interim but legitimate (albeit dispossessed) president, Juan Guaido, reflecting on the memorial events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, called the United States a beacon (faro in Spanish) for democracy and human rights.

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Nevertheless, many in the region watched with foreboding as, following the attacks, the U.S. embarked on a new crusade, the Global War on Terror.  They understood, perhaps better than many in the U.S. itself, that the brief post-Cold War period during which U.S. primacy was essentially unchallenged, was over.  The commitment to deepening relations between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in the new world predictably receded as a significant goal of U.S. foreign policy.

In the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, President Biden made clear that, going forward, the U.S. would no longer become involved in quixotic efforts to transform countries and cultures. Indeed, as Eric Posner has pointed out in an essay for Project Syndicate, Biden signaled that the U.S. was effectively abandoning the foreign policy idealism “that began with Woodrow Wilson…”. Instead, the president suggested that the United States would recenter its foreign policy on the U.S. national interest – which, of course, recalls President Trump’s “America First” orientation, albeit wrapped in less corrosive language.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the Biden administration’s embrace of national interest focused pragmatism should make the case for reengaging with Latin America (and for doing so consistent with our obligations as a signatory of the InterAmerican Democratic charter with Latin America) more compelling.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, speaking recently to the Council of the Americas in Washington on the anniversary of the charter’s adoption, stressed that the charter is more important and relevant than ever.

Latin America, Almagro noted, remains the most violent and unequal region of the world.  Government corruption is endemic in some countries. Drug trafficking and organized criminal violence have created nightmarish conditions in others. The quality of democratic governance is slipping, and not only in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala).  In Nicaragua, the Ortega regime has become unapologetically authoritarian.  The Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro has generated more than five million refugees fleeing political repression, shortages and criminality. In a word, much of the region is struggling and that is precisely why the United States needs to reengage.

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The case for U.S.  engagement is not just altruism.  The U.S. has more free trade agreements with Latin America than any other region.  More than forty percent of all U.S. manufacturing exports are sold to our Western Hemisphere partners. Some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves are located in Canada and Latin America. Many of the illegal drugs that enter the U.S. originate in the region as does an enormous proportion of the undocumented migrant population. Finally, the U.S. is now the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world after Mexico. Many of our citizens and permanent residents have close family ties in the other American republics.  In short, our people, our economy and at least some of our most challenging social issues are directly tied to the rest of the Americas.

The Biden administration has so far been flailing badly in the Western Hemisphere.  The administration’s reaction to the recent crises in Cuba and Haiti has cast into sharp relief the improvisational character of current thinking in Washington. Faced with the assassination of a president in Haiti and the most-wide spread demonstrations in Cuba in a generation, the Biden team’s message was “We stand with you” but also “Don’t come here.”  Vice President Kamala Harris visited Central America and announced a new assistance package conditioned on local government reform efforts while enjoining the restive poor inclined to flee poverty and criminal gangs “not to come” to the U.S.  These measures do not constitute a strategy and just relieving pressure on our Southern border doesn’t either.  Indeed, the administration’s confused and contradictory messaging on immigration has fueled a surge of “irregular migration.”  Even The Washington Post has called the situation on the border “out of control.”  Meanwhile, Chinese economic influence grows.

The Biden team entered office promising to end U.S. bullying of the region and to reverse Trump administration policies that they considered inhumane but just doing that does not advance U.S. interests.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and indications that U.S. involvement in the Middle East is shrinking, it is time for the United States to rediscover the Americas. It is time to develop a strategy to make both political and economic progress sustainable in the Western Hemisphere and to deepen our relationships with the region most intimately connected to us.  This should not be understood as a clarion call for nation-building.  We have tried that in many places around the world, including the Americas, and it mostly doesn’t work.

The Biden administration needs to articulate a new way of engaging our neighbors, one that avoids reviving the failed policies of the past, one that implicitly recognizes that our own interests can be advanced by helping the countries of region address their unique challenges.  Of course, given the cost of our failed efforts in Afghanistan, we will have to carefully analyze how we do that.  Our experiences in Central Asia and the Middle East have taught us a hard lesson; we must not overestimate our ability to make a difference.  That should not, however, dissuade us from engagement.  Most importantly, we need to understand that ignoring the region’s problems will not insulate us from them.

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2 Responses

  1. askforidea says:

    Great analysis, thanks for sharing. Very interesting stuff to read. Keep sharing!

  2. Arnold VELA says:

    Great aspirations! But easier said than done. The tremendous inequality in wealth require a greater share of the economic development, one tha needs to grow. Additionally, how do we incentive elected leaders and their cronies to keep their hands off the public purse? Corruption seems endemic but there does not seem to be a counter culture that is able to take root.

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