Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Assessing Obama's Latin America Policy

Michael Reid (from The Economist) has an article in Foreign Affairs assessing the Obama administration's Latin America policy. Although it is much better than most such efforts, by highlighting how moderation has served U.S. interests quite well, it still advances three ideas about Latin America that I think need more context.


Because it is not a source of strategic threats, Latin America languishes at the bottom of the United States’ long list of foreign policy priorities. It is rarely the object of a coordinated approach from the White House. Rather, individual agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Treasury Department, exert unusual influence over policy. So do lobbies within Congress, such as Cuban Americans or sugar and cotton farmers.

It is good that the region is not a major focus of the U.S. and that we don't have a grand strategy. Very rarely in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations has such attention been beneficial to Latin Americans themselves. This should not be viewed as negative. Yes, lobbyists exert a lot of influence but that's true of all countries/regions.


Latin America has been much less inclined to blindly follow the United States for another reason: China.

Latin America has very rarely followed the U.S. blindly, except perhaps very weak Central American dictatorships. So this harks back to a mythical past. Even setting that aside, leftist ideology in Latin America predates China's entrance by a long time. Later in the essay he uses the word "biddable," as if that were previously the norm.


In today’s Latin America, it is hard to imagine that more confrontational policies would have achieved better results, as some of Obama’s critics imply: since the United States is no longer the only game in town in much of Latin America, bullying is often ineffective.

This reminded me of John Mearsheimer's argument about needing to dominate the Western Hemisphere, which in the past has led to disastrous policies. Bullying has rarely served long-term U.S. interests because it creates blowback and unintended consequences. So I totally agree with Reid that Obama took the right stance, but he seems to suggest that bullying might have been effective in the past.

I am grateful, though, that he doesn't write anything about "losing" Latin America. I hope we are finally putting that one to bed.


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