Can the United States afford to integrate itself with Asia at the cost of Latin America?.
Re-establishing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has been a long time coming. But all the current U.S. excitement about Cuba only highlights a big strategic void: Why is the United States so hesitant to engage itself more in Latin America as a whole?
For all the attention the U.S. government has paid to far-away places like Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of problems are festering much closer to the home front. The list of troubled countries in the Western Hemisphere is topped by Latin America’s largest economies. That should raise alarm bells in Washington.
Plenty of trouble spots down south
Brazil, South America’s largest economy, is teetering on the brink of a political collapse. In Mexico, the second-largest economy, expecting any semblance of law and order has become a joke.
Oddly, there is little sign of consternation in the U.S. capital. When it comes to engaging with Latin America, the United States evidently prefers to choose the minimalist course of action.
What is painfully missing is a deeper form of engagement, which at the same time does not repeat the imperious attitudes of the past.
There have been a few times in the 20th century when the United States did engage successfully in Latin America.
First, there was FDR’s Good Neighbor policy, which turned the region away from a flirtation with fascism.
Next came JFK’s Alliance for Progress, which opened the door to the technocrats and development-oriented thinking. Finally, there was George H.W. Bush’s Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, which led to the engagement for free trade.
And yet, despite these interludes, what was started was never completed.
This lack of follow-through is ultimately an utterly self-defeating behavior. As a consequence of geographic proximity, any evasive strategy in the United States’ immediate “neighborhood” will always come back to haunt it – and not so much in faraway South America, but rather right on U.S. soil.
As is the case with African migrants in Europe, immigration from Latin America to the United States stems from unresolved poverty. In the U.S. case (as in Europe’s), this originates in part from the United States’ failure to fully integrate itself economically with its southern neighbors.
This is what Western Europe has done with Eastern Europe over the past quarter century. While this requires sizable investments and a long-term perspective, it is likely the only viable way forward.
The strategy of benign neglect which the United States pursues in contrast works against its own interest. One pernicious effect of Mexico’s underdeveloped economy is that Mexican drug gangs (following in the footsteps of their predecessors, the Colombian gangs) find a wide-open launch pad for their business activities all across the United States.
While the drug problem in the last century mostly appeared in big U.S. cities, the drug trade now reaches into the rural backwaters of the United States, such as poverty-stricken, mountainous areas of West Virginia.
It begs disbelief that these cartels are far more active, if perversely incentivized, integrators of the economies of the Americas than mighty U.S. corporations and the equally mighty U.S. government.
But that is precisely how things are shaping up right now. All that the U.S. government manages to come up with are concepts such as the “War on Drugs” (or whatever its current official name is) and trade deals that primarily serve the interests of large U.S. corporations.
Latin America is not Asia
The U.S. government and U.S. businesses, meanwhile, are chasing another dream — the Asian dream. And yet, the United States, no matter how hard it tries, will not succeed in what it yearns for most — to be considered as being of Asia by the Asians themselves.
The latter effort was part of determined U.S. efforts to disassociate itself from Europe. This disassociation— rudely interrupted by Vladimir Putin’s machinations — was undertaken by the United States to stay in tune with its foundational myth of being a “young” continent free of “old world” entanglements.
In Washington’s eyes, it’s simple: Asia is young and dynamic. Partnering with this region can only benefit the United States.
It boils down to a straightforward trade – drop Europe, pick up Asia. And Latin America? It does not even enter the equation.
Latin America anyone?
The mighty United States evidently considers such an undertaking as too insignificant for so seasoned and large a player as itself.
The only time when Latin America really surfaces on Washington’s strategic radar with any urgency these days is when China undertakes economic diplomacy in the region, including offering soft loans to resource-rich, politically unstable countries.
In doing so, the Chinese are simply exploiting a vacuum incomprehensibly left by a United States that neglects both the risks and the opportunities of Latin America.
Can things be turned around constructively? Certainly not solely merely by merging Havana back into the greater Miami economy.
**Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture, which he founded and launched in January 2000. He also is the President of The Globalist Research Center.
In addition, he is the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the United States as part of NPR’s Morning Report. Mr. Richter has also frequently appeared on leading television and radio programs such as CNN International and PBS’s Newshour.
He has moderated more than 150 policy events in Washington, D.C., featuring prime ministers, CEOs, Nobel laureates and heads of international organizations.
His articles and views have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Singapore’s Straits Times, South China Morning Post, Bangkok Post, Al Ahram, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Die Welt, Die Zeit and Foreign Affairs.
From 2002-08, Mr. Richter was a monthly columnist for Les Echos, the leading financial daily in France. He was also the U.S. correspondent for Rheinischer Merkur from 1990-98, as well as a monthly columnist for CEO Magazine.
In addition, he has been a keynote speaker on geopolitical and geoeconomic issues and trends at major international conferences organized by asset managers, investment banks and public policy institutions in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Prior to starting The Globalist, Mr. Richter led a global strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C., advising governments, leading global banks and corporations, international organizations and foundations around the world.
In that capacity, he served as North American advisor to the German Economics Ministry and Vice Chancellor in the early 1990s, when he successfully shaped the “New Federal States” campaign, designed to create a dynamic brand image for the former Communist East Germany.
In the fall of 1990, at the request of the U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, he drafted the Sense of the U.S. Senate resolution calling for forgiveness of Poland’s Communist-era public debt. It proved a crucial step in the successful conclusion of the April 1991 Debt Agreement in the Paris Club.
For those activities, he was awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit by the President of Poland in June 2014, as part of the country’s celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the arrival of freedom.
Mr. Richter received his J.D. from the University of Bonn, Germany in 1984, was a Rotary Foundation Award recipient in 1980-81 and a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association in 1986-87.
His 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect,” correctly forecast the Clinton Administration’s emphasis on fiscal consolidation in U.S. public accounts.
In 2013, he was the co-editor of the book, “In Search of a Sustainable Future: Reflections on Economic Growth, Social Equity and Global Governance.”