A New Vision for the Western Hemisphere

By Ambassador Francis Rooney and Dan Mahaffee 
On November 5, 2012

Consider a region with growing economic and geopolitical importance, home to several of our highest-value trading partners, with significant immigration into and remittances in and out of the United States, and presenting security challenges vital to our interests.  One would think that such a region would be at the top of the list of our foreign policy priorities.

In reality, this region exists in the Western Hemisphere, but our attention to Latin America has been sporadic and episodic since the 1980’s and early-1990’s.  As we moved away from our Cold War-era attention to the region, we had some promising initial steps with efforts at greater regional integration.  However, we failed to follow these initial efforts with needed follow-on measures and consistent policy, due to divisive and distracting issues of domestic politics at home and a focus on the Middle East and South Asia, propelled by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  As a result, we have been forced to react to events, many of which are dictated by nations openly hostile to the United States. 

Whatever the outcome of November 6th might be, the victor has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to build a vision for the reshaping and revitalizing our relationship with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.  For the increasingly busy post-campaign transition staffs of President Obama and Governor Romney, it is not too soon to begin laying the groundwork for such a vision.

In a recent exercise we conducted regarding our Western Hemisphere policies and a way forward, we found key items for an Administration’s agenda towards the region.  An agenda based around an understanding of the need for greater economic ties, a joint approach to security challenges, and shared political and cultural values can be a vision that shows the region that America is not only a power in the region but also a partner.

Through NAFTA and various preceding organizations like the IADB, the United States was once a key driver in the economic integration of the region.  There were subsequent free trade agreements with Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru, and CAFTA-DR with the countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic.  While these trade pacts have opened up economic opportunities for the nations involved, we have failed to capitalize on follow-up opportunities that would further the economic vitality and integration of the region. 

Integration of the economies of the United States and Canada with those of the Caribbean and Latin America can not only provide economic benefits but also address the economic inequality that fuels governments which are hostile to the United States, and deprives these nations of the bounty that their natural and human resources could provide.  For all the socialist vitriol of leaders like Hugo Chavez, his promises to improve the lot of impoverished masses have kept him in power.  His opponent in the recent election also made clear that he would continue many of these social programs.

Furthermore, these commercial partnerships present a clear alternative to the mercantilist policies of China, provide opportunities for American manufacturers and consumers, and create a bloc of Western Hemisphere nations united in negotiations regarding a Pacific trade agenda.

These commercial ties can also leverage educational exchange in strengthening regional ties.  As individuals from the Western Hemisphere come to study at our greatest colleges and universities, we can not only attract the best and brightest talent here, but also strengthen and enrich shared values throughout the region.  To accomplish this, we must decouple adverse perceptions about mass immigration from a policy, which allows visas for top students and entrepreneurs.

In an era where crime and terrorism have undergone the same globalization as economies and cultures, the security challenges of the Western Hemisphere are not the concern of one nation.  Building on the success of Plan Colombia, we can continue the fight against narcoterror across the region, based around a model of mutually reinforcing kinetic operations and the building and strengthening of institutions resistant to the pressures of crime and corruption.

Also, as narcotics move from Latin America through Africa into Europe, these issues are no longer solely an American concern.  Our traditional security partners in Europe also have a role in the Western Hemisphere through shared interests and their historical and cultural ties to the region.

While it is often an issue that divides the U.S. from other nations in the region, it must also be understood that the oppression, intellectual bankruptcy, and the aging regime of Cuba present a security risk to all of the Americas.

Beyond these economic and security concerns, the vacuum created by the lack of consistent U.S. attention requires a shift in our political approach to the hemisphere.  The OAS, long the main multilateral institution for the hemisphere, is now on life support.  While it would be destructive to the organization for the U.S. to withdraw its support for the OAS, the next President must also build a close multilateral relationship with the leaders from the region.  While it is true that many question the utility of the regional summits, the President can set forth a U.S. vision for the Western Hemisphere through a summit with the Presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama Uruguay, and the Prime Minister of Canada.

Such a vision can revitalize our policies and partnerships with the Western Hemisphere.  No longer can we take this region for granted as merely our backyard, nor can we miss the opportunities presented by a vibrant, integrated Western Hemisphere.

To download a copy of the article, click here.

Ambassador Francis Rooney is a Trustee of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC) and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Panama Canal Authority.  From 2005-2008, he was U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  Dan Mahaffee is the CSPC Director of Policy and Board Relations.