It is sometimes thought that the failure to pay much attention to a region at least has the advantage of doing no harm. Not true. It leaves the door open for the unexpected and uncomfortable to define the totality of the relationship and gives us little leverage to offset problems when they do arise. It is akin to our stance in Syria, where doing nothing doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Sometimes you own a problem not because you “broke it” but because your neglect has exacerbated it or made it possible.
For this reason, if the Obama team does not want to preside over the descent of U.S.-Latin American relations to their worst level in years, they are going to have to start thinking about concrete, meaningful, positive initiatives of the kind they have thus far sidestepped or failed to follow through on during the past few years. A breakthrough on Cuba, recognition of Brazil as a true partner in the community of major powers, prioritization of collaborative rather than divisive policies with Mexico, a new trade roadmap, trailblazing policies in areas associated with the Internet economy and data security, and meaningful energy and climate cooperation could all be elements of a more constructive approach. But most important would be recognizing that policy isn’t something that we do to a region only when we feel like it. The most effective and enduring policy initiatives are ones we take with our partners – based not just on our needs and agenda but on listening to theirs and finding common ground. In other words, the best policy initiatives are based on the kind of genuine mutual respect that has been lacking from the U.S.-Latin America agenda for years – well, forever.
And while U.S. officials may condemn and pursue Edward Snowden, they must also pause and ask what it says that, of the countries that have offered him asylum, the vast majority were in our own neighborhood – in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and, reportedly, Ecuador. In fact, it is worth asking what role the Morales fiasco played in pushing some of these countries to offer him asylum. In any event, this may all seem like a sideshow to those in the Washington foreign-policy community who spend most of their time these days worrying about the Middle East, China, cyber-conflict, terrorism and big trade deals – which is of course, precisely the problem. In today’s world, there is no such thing as benign neglect.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy. He is the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.”