One positive outcome of China’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere is a glimmer of renewed interest in US-Latin American relations. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been little in the way of coherent US strategy for this region. Engagement has usually been ad hoc, crisis-driven, and Latin American allies have noticed. But the US is about to pay a high price for classifying Latin American policy as an indulgence and needs to pivot before it’s too late.
Just as President James Monroe made clear to European powers in 1823 that they were not welcome in the Western Hemisphere, President Biden needs show Beijing he will not accommodate their colonization of Latin America. A new foreign policy for Latin America, one with couture tailoring for individual countries, is needed for the US to remain competitive in a second Cold War.
But the US is skeptical of engaging abroad. Voters have a hard time pointing to the tangible benefits partnerships bring. This is particularly but most ironically true when it comes to their southern neighbors, even as flows of illicit drugs rise and the US looks to near-shore critical manufacturing.
However, the real reason for US hesitancy to prioritize Latin America is an underlying sense that engagement is immoral. Guilt abounds over past foreign policy blunders. Engagement is now confused with military intervention, cultural insensitivity, and the very type of colonization China is pursuing through its Belt-and-Road initiative. The US craves assurance that she is acting in pure and responsible ways. This is precisely why moral arguments are essential to sell any new strategic approach for the Western Hemisphere to Americans, no matter how vital the strategy is for America’s national interests and security and no matter how much Latin American leaders petition for US involvement.
The good news is there is plenty of space for making a moral argument for US engagement, especially when it comes to Latin America.
The heart of this moral argument lies in just intentions to preserve a world order that promotes self-government, individual rights, and human dignity. A new world order run by Beijing will not even pretend to respect anyone’s liberties. China is not melting into the liberal international order and softening on human rights as elites predicted decades ago. Rather, Beijing has continued to be blatantly authoritarian and has been committing genocide against the Uyghurs for close to ten years. It has embarked on a campaign to intimidate civil society groups, rock the widely-held consensus on human dignity and impose a collectivist definition of rights in the highest international forums. If successful, Beijing’s redefining of human rights will leave billions of people around the world with far fewer basic protections than they enjoy today.
The US has not wielded power perfectly. Certain choices have complicated and fueled human rights problems. But the US at least strives to use her position to advance fundamental rights and liberties. Absolute purity of intention will never exist on this earth so Americans must stop letting the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Another factor in the lack of appetite to confront China in Latin America is the seemingly slim chance of success. Countering Beijing’s influence appears expensive, difficult, and abstract, and hazardous. It feels wrong to divert scarce resources towards foreign policy goals when success looks far-fetched and domestic challenges abound.
But the costs of good strategy are often overestimated. When the Monroe doctrine was created, the US did not have the means to enforce it. John Quincy Adams cleverly banked on the British navy for enforcement, and avoided any formalized agreement that could entangle the States in European power rivalries. Today, an equally creative, cost-effective approach can be developed by fostering private-sector activities. The Biden Administration can use existing trade architecture to build investment and private sector growth in the region. Latin American countries want foreign investment and with the right support from DC, Biden can deliver it. This type of positive engagement is a far cry from interventionism.
Fresh approaches toward Latin America may, however, be difficult in the sense that building good strategy takes careful planning and clear-headed leadership to implement. This has been the piece missing since the Cold War. But with approaches grounded in economic incentives and crafted on a country-by-country basis, we can expect modest success.
Take US foreign policy on human trafficking as a small example. In the 2000’s, a carefully fashioned diplomatic strategy harnessed economic incentives to press Mexico into passing legislation that aligned with United Nations anti-trafficking standards. Simultaneously, the US offered customized training to Mexican law enforcement and worked side-by-side with them to dismantle major trafficking rings. Similar stories are evident across a number of countries in Latin America in the 2000’s. Incentives, rather than threats, worked well in contexts where there was a preference for democracy. The US shouldn’t engage in Latin America unless there is a reasonable chance of success. But the Monroe has worked before and, with thoughtful modification, can work again.
Finally, any moral enterprise is hazardous. They take courage to pursue and elicit criticism. The key is to remain focused on end goals.
From a moral perspective, US citizens should consider how a clear Latin America policy would serve not just their own interests, but also the interests of Latin American countries. Beijing’s goals in the region are entirely selfish. Forced private sector investment, infrastructure projects, and energy lending are the means China is using to exploit economies, extract natural resources, coerce governments, and buy support for its nefarious Taiwan reunification policy. Beijing wants to upend the world order and does not care about the tremendous instability it is causing worldwide.
By pushing great power rivalries out of geographic proximity, the Monroe Doctrine was intended to not just serve American interests but also to create the political stability needed for self-government. This was not only true in the 1820’s, when the Monroe emerged, but also in the twentieth century. Even Theodore Roosevelt, often believed to hold an overtly imperialist interpretation of the Monroe, observed in 1917 how the Americas were growing in their abilities to protect and govern themselves. But under Beijing’s eye, self-government will become even more of a dream for Latin Americans than it is today.
Optimists believe China’s investments will result in better quality of life for Latin Americans. But in the long-term, Beijing’s apathy over corruption, good governance, and human rights will only stoke organized crime and cultivate quasi-sovereign states, stripping citizens and elected leaders of their political autonomy and repelling the very foreign investment the Western Hemisphere yearns for. Conversely, good governance will attract US businesses looking to near-shore, a once-in-a generation opportunity that should not be squandered.
The US must be frank with herself. She must realize that now is not the time to put too many strings on Latin American relations. To do so would jeopardize US security, by making it easier for Beijing to win contracts and solidify its hold on the region. At the same time, the US should not shy away from articulating how US partnerships equate to better deals in the short-run, and higher quality of life for Latin Americans in the long-run.
The need to prioritize Latin America policy is nothing new. Europeans colonized the region in the 19th century, there was concern over Nazi influence in the aftermath of WWII, and now China is seeing how many allies it can win through economic coercion.
The US thinks it is avoiding problems by staying out of Latin American affairs. But she has never truly been isolationist, and should reflect on the practical and moral reasons why.