U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere has suffered a series of setbacks over the past month. The first, the Washington summit earlier this month between Presidents Barack Obama and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, was simply lackluster. The second, last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was an outright fiasco. Instead of laying out a common agenda for the hemisphere and rebuilding America’s leadership role in the region, the U.S. found itself isolated in a diplomatic corner over Cuba, to say nothing of the Secret Service prostitution scandal that soon overshadowed the proceedings.
More generally, Obama’s Latin America policy is suffering from a lack of what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing,” compounded by how the administration organizes the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. The president had an initial opening at his first Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, in 2009, to reset what had become a very problematic relationship between the United States and most of the rest of the hemisphere during the George W. Bush administration. Most regional leaders also made it clear they understood that, given the global financial crisis and the challenges of winding down America’s involvement in two Middle Eastern wars, Obama could not immediately pivot U.S. foreign policy to the region.
But as I noted two years ago, “There was insufficient follow-up to take advantage of the momentum generated by the Trinidad meeting.” Just as candidate George W. Bush’s rhetoric about the importance of Latin America understandably evaporated after Sept. 11, the Obama administration, in continuing to react to a series of crises elsewhere in the world, has also put the Western Hemisphere on the back burner.