.
E

ven as the IX Summit of the Americas is getting underway in Los Angeles, the postmortem on the process has already started. This gathering of Western Hemispheric leaders was organized under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) following the first Summit hosted by the United States in Miami in 1994. With the host country being responsible for setting the agenda and establishing the invite list, many hoped that this would represent an opportunity for the Biden administration to improve relations with Latin America and the Caribbean and layout his vision for Hemispheric Affairs. While many of these hopes have been dashed in face of the challenges the Summit faced, there may yet be hope.

Entering the Summit, the Biden administration was beset by a several challenges in articulating a clear vision for the Summit and for regional affairs. From the get-go, the Biden administration was off to a rocky start and postponed the Summit from its initial 2021 date—a move that, while understandable in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other international challenges, did not bode well as a sign that the region was a priority for the administration.

One could have hoped that the extra time would have meant that the Biden administration would launch an ambitious agenda for the region. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Many different themes were being discussed for inclusion—particularly in the areas of democracy and governance, pandemic and disaster preparedness, equitable and green economic recovery, and digitalization. While all of these are important themes and will be discussed at the Summit, the Biden administration has not articulated a clear foreign policy towards the Americas that discussions at the Summit can advance.

A further complication was the administration’s focus on and ensuing debates about whether non-democratic governments should be invited to the Summit. Given that the region has often pushed for the United States to include all members of the region regardless of political system, it should not have been a surprise when countries protested the news of the potential exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the Summit— yet, it seems to have come as a surprise all the same. Much of the news in the lead-up to the Summit focused on this issue and less than one week from the Summit White House officials said they were still determining the final invite list. One leading U.S.-Latin American watcher, Eric Farnsworth, bemoaned the lack of substance going into the Summit and noted that debates over who would be invited made it feel more like “junior high.”

All of this has led others to highlight that the Summits have a long-running central problem—they combine very different countries with different interests and problems. This has led to some calling on a recalibration of U.S. policy towards the region. Likewise, Dan Restrepo, one of the Obama administration’s Latin American experts, has questioned the utility of the Summits of the Americas in favor of mini-lateral Summits with different sub-regions of the Americas. Restrepo is right in highlighting the differences across the region and the need for the United States to do more than a once-every three-year Summit devoted to the Americas. The United States has often turned towards mini-lateral approaches to the region when Pan-American mechanisms do not materialize. For instance, with talks about a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas failing, Washington pushed for a network of smaller trade deals—leading to the “spaghetti bowl” of trade agreements that we see in the region today. Discounting the Summit and Pan-American mechanisms is troubling. This can lead to a situation in which an increasing number of overlapping—both in terms of mandates and membership—regional organizations exist, limiting the effectiveness of any of them.

While much of the focus on the challenges facing the Summit comes from assessments of how the United States has engaged with the region, the Summit also failed to drum up much domestic interest in the region. Previous U.S. attempts to improve Inter-American relations, such as the Alliance for Progress and the Good Neighbor Policy, not only focused on U.S. foreign policy, but on ensuring domestic interest and support for these initiatives. While president Biden’s special advisors on the Summit did travel around the country discussing the Summits process, these were relatively limited compared to past examples that included coordinating with Hollywood and creating business associations specifically interested in promoting Inter-American cooperation. Only by building domestic support can meaningful policy changes toward the region occur.

Using the IX Summit to address all the problems facing the region and reset Inter-American affairs in the face of these challenges was never a realistic possibility. Yet despite these challenges, it may yet be a starting point for refocusing attention on the region. If the Summit is to serve as a starting point for improving U.S.-Hemispheric relations, it is critical that the Biden administration take the necessary steps now. Important meetings were held in the lead up to the Summit. However, these seemed just as focused on ensuring participation from the region as it did to listening to the challenges the region faces. These meetings should occur more frequently—and the United States needs to find ways to ensure that relations continue to be built progressively rather than seeking a “reset” every few years. While one of Biden’s special advisors on the Summit assured an audience that there were mechanisms in place, more needs to be done to ensure follow through. Importantly, this includes making sure that U.S. embassies in the region have ambassadors to represent the United States. It also requires setting a strategy that actively seeks to engage the region beyond just the Summit.

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed: June 2, 2022.

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed: June 2, 2022.

Inter-American affairs have an often-contentious history, but the idea of an Americas that collectively address shared challenges is not new. This is also far from the first time that the Summits of the Americas have been viewed as in decline. However, past examples of developing Hemispheric mechanisms for cooperation also saw their ups and downs. Improving U.S. relations with the region will not be an easy task and the Summit should serve as a steppingstone rather than an end in and of itself. Yet, improved relations remain possible—maybe I’m just a dreamer, but hopefully I’m not the only one dreaming of a new Western Hemisphere.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Keeping the Western Hemisphere Dream Alive

Los Angeles, California, USA. Photo by Fudo Jahic via Unsplash.

June 7, 2022

While the planning of the IX Summit of the Americas has not lived up to the hopes of many, it does highlight the challenges and paradoxes facing the Americas. Rather than viewing this as a failure, the Summit should serve as a starting point for renewed attention to the region, writes Adam Ratzlaff.

E

ven as the IX Summit of the Americas is getting underway in Los Angeles, the postmortem on the process has already started. This gathering of Western Hemispheric leaders was organized under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) following the first Summit hosted by the United States in Miami in 1994. With the host country being responsible for setting the agenda and establishing the invite list, many hoped that this would represent an opportunity for the Biden administration to improve relations with Latin America and the Caribbean and layout his vision for Hemispheric Affairs. While many of these hopes have been dashed in face of the challenges the Summit faced, there may yet be hope.

Entering the Summit, the Biden administration was beset by a several challenges in articulating a clear vision for the Summit and for regional affairs. From the get-go, the Biden administration was off to a rocky start and postponed the Summit from its initial 2021 date—a move that, while understandable in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and other international challenges, did not bode well as a sign that the region was a priority for the administration.

One could have hoped that the extra time would have meant that the Biden administration would launch an ambitious agenda for the region. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Many different themes were being discussed for inclusion—particularly in the areas of democracy and governance, pandemic and disaster preparedness, equitable and green economic recovery, and digitalization. While all of these are important themes and will be discussed at the Summit, the Biden administration has not articulated a clear foreign policy towards the Americas that discussions at the Summit can advance.

A further complication was the administration’s focus on and ensuing debates about whether non-democratic governments should be invited to the Summit. Given that the region has often pushed for the United States to include all members of the region regardless of political system, it should not have been a surprise when countries protested the news of the potential exclusion of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the Summit— yet, it seems to have come as a surprise all the same. Much of the news in the lead-up to the Summit focused on this issue and less than one week from the Summit White House officials said they were still determining the final invite list. One leading U.S.-Latin American watcher, Eric Farnsworth, bemoaned the lack of substance going into the Summit and noted that debates over who would be invited made it feel more like “junior high.”

All of this has led others to highlight that the Summits have a long-running central problem—they combine very different countries with different interests and problems. This has led to some calling on a recalibration of U.S. policy towards the region. Likewise, Dan Restrepo, one of the Obama administration’s Latin American experts, has questioned the utility of the Summits of the Americas in favor of mini-lateral Summits with different sub-regions of the Americas. Restrepo is right in highlighting the differences across the region and the need for the United States to do more than a once-every three-year Summit devoted to the Americas. The United States has often turned towards mini-lateral approaches to the region when Pan-American mechanisms do not materialize. For instance, with talks about a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas failing, Washington pushed for a network of smaller trade deals—leading to the “spaghetti bowl” of trade agreements that we see in the region today. Discounting the Summit and Pan-American mechanisms is troubling. This can lead to a situation in which an increasing number of overlapping—both in terms of mandates and membership—regional organizations exist, limiting the effectiveness of any of them.

While much of the focus on the challenges facing the Summit comes from assessments of how the United States has engaged with the region, the Summit also failed to drum up much domestic interest in the region. Previous U.S. attempts to improve Inter-American relations, such as the Alliance for Progress and the Good Neighbor Policy, not only focused on U.S. foreign policy, but on ensuring domestic interest and support for these initiatives. While president Biden’s special advisors on the Summit did travel around the country discussing the Summits process, these were relatively limited compared to past examples that included coordinating with Hollywood and creating business associations specifically interested in promoting Inter-American cooperation. Only by building domestic support can meaningful policy changes toward the region occur.

Using the IX Summit to address all the problems facing the region and reset Inter-American affairs in the face of these challenges was never a realistic possibility. Yet despite these challenges, it may yet be a starting point for refocusing attention on the region. If the Summit is to serve as a starting point for improving U.S.-Hemispheric relations, it is critical that the Biden administration take the necessary steps now. Important meetings were held in the lead up to the Summit. However, these seemed just as focused on ensuring participation from the region as it did to listening to the challenges the region faces. These meetings should occur more frequently—and the United States needs to find ways to ensure that relations continue to be built progressively rather than seeking a “reset” every few years. While one of Biden’s special advisors on the Summit assured an audience that there were mechanisms in place, more needs to be done to ensure follow through. Importantly, this includes making sure that U.S. embassies in the region have ambassadors to represent the United States. It also requires setting a strategy that actively seeks to engage the region beyond just the Summit.

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed: June 2, 2022.

Source: American Foreign Service Association. 2022. Tracker: Current U.S. Ambassadors. Last Accessed: June 2, 2022.

Inter-American affairs have an often-contentious history, but the idea of an Americas that collectively address shared challenges is not new. This is also far from the first time that the Summits of the Americas have been viewed as in decline. However, past examples of developing Hemispheric mechanisms for cooperation also saw their ups and downs. Improving U.S. relations with the region will not be an easy task and the Summit should serve as a steppingstone rather than an end in and of itself. Yet, improved relations remain possible—maybe I’m just a dreamer, but hopefully I’m not the only one dreaming of a new Western Hemisphere.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.