Is the System the Solution? Past Policies, Current Dilemmas, and Inter-American Relations in the 21st Century

More than 20 years have passed since the last full-fledged U.S. military intervention in Latin America (Panama, 1989, in case your memories are hazy).  Starting in the 1980s, democratization flowered in the region for numerous reasons—but mostly internal reasons based in Latin American history and society. Starting in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, security concerns ebbed for the United States in Latin America. Suddenly, the fear of communism that animated U.S. policymakers was no longer (outside of Cuba of course). If economics and security are the main motivators of US policy towards Latin America, it seemed that in the post-Cold War Latin American scene, US-Latin American economic relations would prove important. Certainly, with the “war on drugs,” security concerns animated inter-American relations; but in a less intense way than with regard to anti-communism.

That said, the United States, I would argue, has not done a diligent (or even good) job at fostering harmonious inter-American economic relations. Although the United States has signed trade agreements with a number of key allies, the U.S. insistence on neo-liberal politics (basically free-market economic modernization theory, minus a strong state) helped foster a backlash in the early 2000s, in which the majority of South American nations tacked leftward in economic policy. In addition, the “drug war” created a lot of anti-United States sentiment.

Latin American reaction to the (seeming) end to U.S. military intervention has been:  hurray! And after the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which the United States had become so preoccupied with other parts of the world, it lost focus on Latin America: well, many Latin Americans concluded, that’s not such a bad thing.  As long as they don’t meddle in our affairs, we’re happy. But, stepping back from initial perceptions, many Latin Americans, and North Americans, would come to the conclusion that both of us need each other.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to the file cabinet and pull out the “inter-American system” file.  The idea of a harmoniously-interacting Western Hemisphere has been around for a long time. Think James Monroe and Henry Clay in the 19th century.  Moving into the 20th century you have Franklin Roosevelt, Adolf Berle, and Arthur Whittaker, among others.[1] With the growth and development of many of Latin America’s economies, the danger of an inter-American system that would be exploitative is much diminished.  One possible vision for inter-American relations would be a combination of 1) The Good Neighbor Policy (nonmilitary intervention); and 2) A live-and-let-live attitude towards economics and more generally political economy; 3) a realization that the Western Hemisphere is a “big tent” where non-Western Hemisphere nations (extra-continental powers?) play a role.

If one could roll the clock back, it seems that if the United States had done more to cultivate closer inter-American relations, the Great Crash of 2008 would have had less impact on the United States and Latin America. If both Latin American and the United States had worked together to build a more prosperous Western Hemisphere, we all would have been less “blindsided” than we otherwise would have been.  Let’s face it. Europe is a mess. China is an expansionary power—including into the Western Hemisphere. Thus, the United States has an incentive to promote cordial relations with the “neighborhood.” One way to do this would be for the United States to be more accepting of statist polity experiments in the region (Bolivia, Venezuela). After all, do we really expect that “Chicago Boys” experiment in Chile to be the model for the hemisphere? That was the exception, not the rule—and, moreover, the experiment failed on a number of levels, most tragically with regard to human rights of course. And finally, it would be good if Washington’s leaders also recognized that China will be an important player in Latin America for years to come.  Sure, the Monroe Doctrine said the United States would not accept “extending the system” of any already-existing extra-hemispheric power in the Western Hemisphere. We are going to have to ignore that stricture in a rapidly globalizing world. Fighting this trend will be tilting against windmills. And perhaps the United States can negotiate with China to ensure that the trade deals it makes with Latin America are not economically exploitative nor environmentally damaging. Speaking of which, an inter-American system can be a good way of  promoting sustainable development hemisphere-wide.


[1] Whittaker’s book on the inter-American system is The Western Hemisphere Idea—Its Rise and Decline (Ithaca, 1954); Berle’s idea on United States-Latin American relations are set forth in Latin America—Diplomacy and Reality (Westport, CT, 1981).