The state of the United States in the Americas


When President Obama delivers his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, he is unlikely to include his administration’s vision for Latin America — except for touching on immigration reform, which is related but not central to regional affairs.

It only seems appropriate, then, to use this moment as an opportunity to address what the state of the United States is in its own hemisphere.

North America’s economies are more deeply integrated than ever before, with the 20th anniversary of NAFTA serving as a reminder of North America’s forward-looking commercial integration efforts. And the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement several years in the making that pushes for greater trade and investment, among member states from Asia and the Americas, is well into its negotiations and expansion.

At the same time, a number of regional initiatives and developments that exclude the United States are growing in importance.

• The Pacific Alliance, an innovative partnership among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, is far along in its process of deeply integrating the four economies to maximize their competitiveness — and to increase their attractiveness to Asian markets.

• The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is increasing its platform as a principal forum for political dialogue in the region — though it by design excludes both Canada and the United States, and Brazil's growing intra-regional role shows potential.

Clearly Latin America is changing. And many of those changes do involve the United States. But many of the region’s changes represent a demonstrable step away from U.S. influence.

The apparent interest of China in expanding its stake in Latin American affairs will continue to shape the region’s trajectory, though whether the Asian state will prove a productive, competitive, or threatening actor remains to be seen.

Some of the region’s challenges — particularly from the vehemently anti-U.S. Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) countries — may seem like relics left over from long-past ideological battles, nonetheless play a part in determining the role of the United States in the region.

Perhaps the most important trend we see in the region’s current climate has to do with expectations. As the United States adjusts to what might be called its regional preeminence, its counterparts throughout the region expect to be treated as equals, standing on even footing with a country accustomed to its own exceptionalism. The National Security Agency (NSA) controversy has brought additional challenges to regional public opinion especially.

As a result the United States, then, must grow accustomed to operating in a region whose public and leaders see it without illusions. Learning to operate in this new setting will require an evolved vision for our regional foreign policy.

That vision could take many different directions. Vice President Biden has expressed his hope for a region that is, for the first time, secure, democratic, and middle class — and that hope is not far-fetched.

But hope alone will not translate into a vision for the region. And while efforts like the 100,000 Strong to expand the number of Americans studying in the Americas, and Look South, intended to help more American companies do business with the United States’ 10 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners in Latin America are steps in the right direction, they alone do not comprise a cohesive and comprehensive foreign policy platform for the region, especially given recent developments.

Colombia is nearer to ending its long and violent conflict than at any point over the past several decades. Drug violence continues to plague much of Central America, while leaders throughout the hemisphere are growing tired of the bloodletting, beginning instead to explore alternative approaches to the war on drugs — such as Uruguay’s recent legalization of marijuana.

Though we continue to wait for the resolution of Canada's Keystone XL pipeline project, Mexico's recent energy reforms are slated to both invigorate the Mexican economy and, coupled with unprecedented U.S. oil and gas production, dramatically further efforts toward North American energy independence.

Brazil's global position has skyrocketed — and will be tested when it hosts this summer's World Cup even as protests threaten to disrupt the country's major cities. In Cuba, political repression continues, though Cuban economic reforms, however glacial, are an undeniable reality. Nicolás Maduro sits precariously atop a Venezuelan government whose likely collapse carries serious regional implications.

So, things are happening in the Americas. But for the United States, the region seems new and unfamiliar.

So what is the state of the United States in the Americas? It remains, as of yet, undefined.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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