Latin America as Strategic Opportunity

I’ve stayed away from the State of the Union address, and haven’t even read the transcript. But so far, the most interesting element from a foreign policy perspective that I’ve seen is the announcement that President Barack Barack Obama will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this March.

That’s great news, and I’d normally call it long overdue. But it’s worth noting that 2009-2010 might not have been the best time for an overbearing American presence in the region. The Honduran crisis, the heightened tensions between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, and the fallout over the U.S. military base deal with Colombia all made for a potential diplomatic minefield. But all of those crises have now been either resolved, in the case of Colombia, or else frozen, as in the case of Honduras.

And the truth is, it was in both America’s and Latin America’s interest that Latin America handle these crises on its own. For Latin America, to fully de-hyphenate its regional identity from that of a U.S. sphere of influence, and for the U.S., to economize its diplomatic resources at a time of global demand and financial scarcity.

The choice of countries Obama will visit is also instructive of the changes in the region over the past two years, in that it cements the victory of Latin America’s reformist left over the populist brand of leftism that just a few years ago was the cause of exaggerated alarm in some foreign policy circles. By its sheer weight, Brazil is the clear leader of that current, and establishing close ties with President Dilma Rousseff should be a high priority for Obama. Chile’s President Sebastaian Piñera is the first rightist successor to that tradition, and encouraging continuity in the transition from left to right will go a long way to defanging the appeal of the Chavez brand of leftist populism. And El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes represents what’s at stake in some of the region’s smaller countries, and reinforcing his shift away from his more-radical party is a smart move, and certainly unexpected. I’d have added Peru, which has been both active and successful on regional trade and diplomacy, but you can’t have everything.

As for the focus of policy in the region, I think it represents a tremendous opportunity to put into action the QDDR’s emphasis on leading with civilian power in U.S. foreign policy, as described by Anne-Marie Slaughter in this James Joyner post. I’d also argue that it presents an alternative approach to that emphasis, which as currently formulated is framed as part of a whole-of-government effort to intervene in potential conflict zones before the conflict and resulting destabilization occur. I’m skeptical of that formulation, mainly because the delicate balance that we call social stability is an alchemy more than a science. That makes preventing conflict a tall order. It also complicates a civilian emphasis in doing so, not only because the environments will be inherently insecure, but also because it makes civilian diplomacy one point on a spectrum that includes military force. That’s problematic for reasons that are too numerous to go into here.

On the other hand, reinforcing social stability in societies that have already resolved the conflicts that previously divided them is on much more solid ground, and is precisely the area in which civilian diplomacy and institution-building takes its natural place. There’s also the need for “military diplomacy,” in the form of security sector reform. But the very nature of the environment — that is, post-conflict — makes it clear that the civilian agencies will take the lead.

Latin America has now long since emerged from its period of violent ideological conflicts, with democracy and a commitment to peaceful resolution of regional conflicts both solidly entrenched. But it still faces enormous challenges in terms of institutional effectiveness and economic justice. In other words, it represents exactly the kind of environment in which the newly formulated emphasis of U.S. foriegn policy would flourish.

That strikes me as a strategic opportunity. Hopefully, the Obama administration will seize it.

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