Lone Summit: Latin American countries say no to the Summit of the Americas. Cartoon: Carlos Latuff
The United States has hosted the Summit of the Americas only once – it was the forum’s first-ever meeting convened in Miami in December 1994. It was the pinnacle of post-American international hegemony. -Cold War and American global triumphalism. It’s no surprise that the Clinton administration completely dominated in setting both the specific agenda for the Florida event and the priorities for the new gathering as a whole. This was the time when liberal models were spreading rapidly across Latin America; Communist Cuba was almost completely marginalized in continental politics and seemed very close to regime change. Participants at the Miami Summit enthusiastically agreed to work on the Trade Zone of the Americas (FTAA) as well as to promote democracy and prosperity on the continent, to fight corruption in all its forms and to eliminate the trafficking of illegal drugs.
Even then, these goals proved extremely difficult to achieve. The implementation of the FTAA encountered many obstacles and did not meet the 2005 deadline; the United States preferred to move from seeking a multilateral agreement to negotiating bilateral trade agreements with certain neighbors to the south. Corruption and drug trafficking have never been eliminated in the Western Hemisphere, with the two scourges proving more tenacious and more adaptive than expected. Extreme poverty on the continent is on the rise today, having reached almost 14% of the population by the end of 2021. Cuba’s communist political regime, contrary to all apocalyptic predictions, has shown remarkable resilience and successfully survived the generational change in leadership. Moreover, since 1994, the balance of forces in the world has changed quite radically to the detriment of the former American omnipotence; the romantic illusions of borderless liberal globalization, the “end of history” and the “unipolar world” have given way to more realistic projections of maturing multipolarity and advanced regionalization in international relations.
Has Washington learned the lessons of 1994? The upcoming Ninth Summit of the Americas to be held in Los Angeles from June 6 to 10, 2022 should provide an answer to this question. However, the preparation for the summit raises doubts about the willingness of the United States to reassess its traditional approaches vis-à-vis Latin America. Twenty-eight years ago, the Clinton administration, at the height of the international power of the United States, only prevented Cuba from having a presence in Miami. Now, a much weaker Biden administration intends to exclude not just Havana from participation, but also Caracas and Managua. The case of Caracas is particularly surprising, given recent persistent attempts by the White House to convince Venezuela to replace Russia as the main supplier of oil to the United States.
This arbitrary selectivity in invitations has already raised legitimate concerns in Latin America and even questioned the willingness of some prominent Latin American leaders to join the event in Los Angeles. However, the problem is not limited to participation alone. There are good reasons to believe that the Biden administration will try to accomplish two main missions at the ninth summit. First, try to gain unanimous Latin American support for the current US stance against Moscow. Second, force Latin America to choose between Washington and Beijing in favor of the former.
None of these missions are likely to be easily accomplished. Most Latin American countries have no intention of making the Russian-Ukrainian conflict their top foreign policy priority. Some of them might be very critical of the Kremlin’s special military operation, but most of them – including major powers like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina – are reluctant to impose severe economic sanctions in Moscow. On the contrary, they often see anti-Russian sanctions coming from the West as an opportunity to fill the void and gain stronger positions in Russian markets. Plus, they just don’t like the White House teaching them what they should or shouldn’t do in international affairs. And, indeed, who among the rulers of sovereign states would like to become an obedient schoolboy trained by a demanding teacher?
With China, the chances of the United States succeeding in Los Angeles are even lower. In 28 years, China has gone from a non-entity in Latin America to a real economic power. The growth of its trade with the continent is truly astonishing: between 2000 and 2020, Chinese trade with Latin America increased from 1.7% to 14.4% of the region’s total trade and was around 450 billion dollars. in 2021. More than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean countries have joined China’s “Belt and Road” initiative; six of them joined the Beijing-based Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank. The mere idea that Latin American countries have to choose between China and the United States today seems strange, even absurd.
There is no doubt that the United States will continue to be an important player in Latin America. Its relations with southern neighbors have a very long history and are growing immensely. US soft power in the region still exceeds that of any other non-regional actor. The United States has numerous and vibrant Latin American diasporas. Perhaps the Los Angeles meeting will make a valuable contribution to managing transnational migration in the Western Hemisphere, promoting the Sustainable Development Goals, and responding to the challenge of climate change. But to succeed, the Biden administration must abandon its old habits of superpower arrogance and address the multiple real needs and concerns of American neighbors. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Be the leader, but never the lord.” Washington has yet to bring together the art of chieftaincy in the region that was once the imperial backyard of the United States.
The author is director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs. [email protected]