In the last sections of his 2014 State of the Union address, after devoting a good deal of attention to strategies for restoring America’s domestic prosperity, President Barack Obama turned to U.S. foreign policy. The bulk of his comments about America’s place in the world dealt with Middle East issues—four paragraphs about Syria and chemical weapons, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the continuing struggle against extremist organizations that threaten U.S. interests. Earlier in the speech, the president, focusing exclusively on the perceived benefits to American workers, called on Congress to give his administration “fast track authority” to conclude massive multilateral free trade pacts tying together the U.S. with trading partners across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Otherwise, Obama devoted only a single sentence to each of the other major regions of the world. He closed this chapter of the speech by reiterating the bedrock belief of the U.S. foreign policy community that “no other country in the world does what we do. On every issue, the world turns to us.”
Apparently the heads of state attending the second summit of the Latin America and Caribbean Economic Community (CELAC) didn’t get the memo. Hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, the CELAC conclave, which gathers leaders from all the states of the Western Hemisphere with the exception of the U.S. and Canada, had a festive air about it. The various chief executives, even from countries that are considered close U.S. allies in the region, heralded the fact that CELAC was no longer a one-hit wonder and approved steps to transform the initiative from a forum into a more substantial regional organization. If Washington had hoped that CELAC, the brainchild of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, would fade away as an inconsequential gathering of regional leaders, the Havana summit did not seem to accommodate that script. Instead, CELAC “is increasing its platform as a principal forum for political dialogue in the region” and has the prospect to further erode the standing of the Summit of the Americas, where the U.S. still has the premier seat at the table.
At the Bolivarian Alliances of the Americas, another Chavez creation that brings together a smaller group of Latin American states controlled by leftist governments, denunciations of the insidious imperialist role of the United States in the region are to be expected. But the fact that U.S. partners in the region such as Colombia and Mexico take part in CELAC suggests that even for pro-American governments, there is concern about the level and depth of the U.S. commitment to the hemisphere—and that nothing is lost in hedging one’s bets by retaining good ties to Washington while supporting closer regional economic integration without the U.S. Doing so also allows Latin Americans to engage on a more even playing field with the leading economies in Asia, especially as China replaces the United States as their leading trading partner. Perhaps some of these countries are concluding that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have “less reliance” on Washington.