Monday, July 14, 2008

Foreign Policy in the Americas: Obama vs. McCain

Given what the U.S. is doing to/in other regions of the world, and how well Latin America has done in the last 8 years while the U.S. was mired elsewhere, I’m not sure “fewer governments are waiting with greater expectation for the new US president than those of Latin America,” but Gott raises some interesting questions here. Certainly, a McCain presidency would do nothing to improve relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, or to take even a single step out of the disastrous and ineffectual U.S. policies towards Cuba for the last 50 years. McCain can talk all he wants about a “new policy,” but every time Venezuela, Cuba, and Latin America writ large specifically come up, he sounds exactly like Bush.

But I’m rather ambivalent of Obama’s comments and position on Latin America, too. Of course he’s right that the Iraq War has destroyed the U.S.’s standing throughout the world, including Latin America. However, his rhetoric (which is admittedly rather generic and non-specific) seems to indicate he’s of the opinion that Latin America needs the U.S. to guide hemispheric policy and help the individual Latin American nations progress. In point of fact, the last 8 years would seem to indicate the exact opposite, as I’ve discussed before. While Bush ignored Latin America (save for the 2002 effort to overthrow Chavez and the subsequent rhetorical battle against Venezuela’s president), South American flourished, as leftist presidents are guiding and have guided their countries through dramatic economic and social improvements in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and even Venezuela. It’s patently clear that Latin America has been doing alright for itself without any U.S. guidance.

And that’s what kind of makes me ambivalent about Obama. Certainly, it’s tough at this stage to say exactly and concretely what kind of plans or policies he has for Latin America, because he's not offered much beyond general, open-ended comments. Still, the two clearest models, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, the two Democratic presidents that might offer the clearest examples of what foreign policy from a Democratic president could be, are pretty poor examples (I think we can exclude Carter because his policy was based almost strictly on human rights violations in military dictatorships, which simply no longer applies in the Americas). However, drawing on vague, Kennedy-esque notions of an “alliance of the Americas” strikes me as the kind of paternalistic rhetoric common to the mid-20th century. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, while beneficial for some countries in various ways, was also extremely patronizing, imperial, and too closely bound to Cold War polarizations to be as effective as Kennedy’s supporters would like to have us believe. And Clinton’s insistence that Latin American countries join in his neoliberal Washington Consensus (which, let us not forget, South American leaders like Menem and Cardoso agreed to do) resulted in the Argentine economic collapse and also caused long-term negative consequences that leftist leaders in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil (among others) are only now overcoming. Far from being some benign program of social and economic improvement, the Alliance for Progress and the Clinton administration’s Washington Consensus were just two in a series of presidential (Democratic and Republican) efforts where the U.S. government presumed it knew what was best for Latin America, regardless of whether the individual countries wanted that help or not. While I don’t know that Obama’s plans for Latin America will be just one more misstep in this direction, I don’t know that they won’t be, either. Indeed, neither Obama (or McCain) have what we could consider a high level of experience in terms of Latin America, and Obama’s constant referral to an “alliance of the Americas” leaves me uneasy, particularly in its vague, Kennedy-esque tone .

That said, I still think Obama’s far preferable to McCain. At the least, he has claimed to be open to holding a dialogue with leaders with whom he may or may not agree, including Castro and Chavez. Whether he actually sticks to this will be interesting to watch, but even the shift in rhetoric is a major improvement in foreign policy compared to the previous 8 years. And I feel Obama would for a number of reasons treat with major economic powers in the hemisphere (most notably Brazil and Argentina) on far more equal footing than McCain ever would.

Nonetheless, he’s done nothing to convince anybody that he would be a major departure from his predecessors in terms of dealing with Latin American nations as equal partners and allies rather than as inferior nations needing the U.S.'s guiding hand to develop, a position that's downrighth anachronistic at this point. Quite simply, Latin America no longer "needs" the U.S. in the way U.S. politicians think it does; it's been getting along just fine lately, and it's up to Obama and others, and not Latin America, to adjust to this fact. If Obama does model his foreign policy approach for the hemisphere on either the Kennedy or Clinton administration in either attitude or substance, I think he’ll be mostly ineffectual in hemispherical politics. Hopefully, this won’t be the case, but there’s no way to predict right now.