A New Partnership Agenda with the Hemisphere

Published 29 days ago

Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Daniel F. Runde. 16 September 2021

The moment of serious U.S. reengagement with the Western Hemisphere is long overdue. Six decades after the launch of the Alliance for Progress, the United States is once again in need of an ambitious framework for regional engagement. On August 17, 1961, the Kennedy administration signed the partnership agreement along with 22 countries in Uruguay. President Kennedy sought to offer a comprehensive, positive, and—most importantly—jointly designed agenda that was inspired by a shared vision for hemispheric relations and backed by adequate resources. He understood that, in many ways, Latin America is the most important region of the world to U.S. well-being, security, and prosperity. He also understood the concomitant implications of U.S. inattention: other countries would fill the vacuum.

If we replace the Soviet Union with the People’s Republic of China, there are many historical parallels today. Latin America finds itself in a similar geopolitical situation as in the early 1960s—at a crossroads as several large countries vie for influence by offering alternative visions for the future. As a cornerstone of its Latin America strategy, the Biden administration should consider launching an updated version of the Kennedy-era Alliance for Progress. Additionally, it should rebrand the program under a new name that speaks to the most relevant issues in Latin America, including inequality and economic recovery. By seizing opportunities and customizing solutions, the United States has the opportunity to build an agenda in partnership with and not merely for the hemisphere—one that is positive, centers on shared priorities and mutual cooperation, and seizes on areas of strategic importance, rather than simply reacting to regional shortcomings.

Economic Prosperity and Integration Like the Alliance for Progress, increasing economic integration in the Americas should be a priority for any new partnership today. With the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement as a blueprint, the United States should push for more economic integration through increased trade agreements. Such agreements would diversify value chains, making them less risky and more resilient. It would limit the incentives for undocumented immigration and potentially weaken the potency of illicit markets throughout the hemisphere. In a 5-10 year window, greater regional integration could mean the creation of a powerful economic bloc of over one billion people. Together, this would give the region a central role in the development of its digital infrastructure, for instance, which would be a strategic win against extra-regional actors such as China.

The Western Hemisphere is rich in natural resources, technology, and human capital. With adequate incentives for investment, including trade preferences with the United States, greater foreign direct investment would likely flow to the region, and value chains for U.S. companies would become more diverse, safe, and adaptable.

Economic potential in the region will be left unrealized without the help of assistance and investment. The United States should revise its outdated aid criteria and redouble its commitment to inclusive development in the region. It should also facilitate private investment in worthy regional opportunities. The Eisenhower administration launched the Inter-American Development Bank in the run-up to Kennedy’s Alliance, an institution with lasting regional impact to this day. Now is the time to rethink the framework for U.S. development assistance and investment in the region to maximize opportunities and resources. The Inter-American Development Bank should be used, with a much needed capital increase, to assist the region in economic recovery after the waves caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Democracy and Institutions A new regional partnership should prioritize strengthening democracy, education, and political reforms. Solid democratic institutions will contribute to citizen security, reduce corruption, ensure long-term economic prosperity, and allow countries in the region to withstand the more corrosive effects of their economic and political engagement with China, Russia, and other extra-regional, authoritarian actors. The addition of Nicaragua to the list of dictatorships in the region—joining Venezuela and Cuba—and democratic backsliding elsewhere should be of concern to every democratic nation, especially the United States.

Fortunately, there is an existing framework for democracy promotion in the region, but it has seldom been observed to its fullest extent. The United States should lead a push to make the commitments enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter relevant again, and send the message that it is in the business of helping to consolidate and improve democracy (including its own in many ways), rather than just policing it throughout the hemisphere. While concerns such as poverty and inequality often seem more pressing, a strong push to consolidate democracy through institutional reforms would insulate the region from the kind of corruption, decay, and populism that has exacerbated both poverty and inequality.

Regional Institutions and Security Latin America’s regional institutions should be supported and empowered. Over the past two decades, alternative political agendas in the region spawned of a web of parallel regional institutions that excluded others from regional conversations and opened the door to extra-regional actors. Political developments have reduced the appetite for such efforts, but the threat has not entirely receded. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently suggested replacing the Organization of American States (OAS) with an institution that serves as more of a “mediator,” owing to disputes with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and his view that the secretary general’s strong defense of democracy infringes upon sovereignty. The proliferation of parallel institutions has furthered extra-regional influence in the area of development finance and lending. The United States should strengthen the OAS as the premier venue for hemispheric cooperation, redouble its backing of the Inter-American Development Bank, and support other key elements of regional infrastructure including clean energy, agriculture, and transportation infrastructure.

Relatedly, security is a concern throughout the region, from preventing undue extra-regional influence, to citizen safety, to online security. The United States should rely on existing agreements and institutions, such as the OAS, to deepen security cooperation with the region. Immediate action should be taken to interrupt and reverse the growth of transnational criminal organizations, from support for interdiction to anti-money laundering and joint financial intelligence efforts. Criminal organizations stand to benefit from a recruiting bonanza if the United States fails to assist the region in emerging from its Covid-19 economic doldrums. To be best positioned to tackle the problems of the future, the definition of security should be expanded to include defense from biological, ecological, and digital threats.

A Partnership Agenda with the Hemisphere While any new alliance should emphasize improving economic development, it will be necessary first to contend with Covid-19, which has buffeted the region. Covid-19 is now the top cause of death in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Peru, and economic contractions in the region are estimated to be some of the most severe globally. Cooperation should include supporting vaccine rollout—including in tandem with COVAX/Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance where appropriate—providing medical supplies, and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises that have suffered the worst consequences of the pandemic, especially in countries such as Mexico.

If the United States aims to increase economic integration and opportunity in the region, it should ensure the region’s swift recovery and bring the Build Back Better spirit to its shared neighborhood. Given the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with the Biden administration’s emphasis on moving away from the Middle East and entering strategic competition with China and Russia, a U.S. return to its own hemisphere makes good sense. A return to our shared neighborhood would also recognize that great power competition is happening in our near abroad too, not just in far-flung regions of the world.

For the first time in 27 years, the United States is hosting the Summit of the Americas. The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to (and should) leverage this forum to build and launch an updated version of the Alliance for Progress, demonstrating impressive U.S. ambition for the Western Hemisphere. The State Department and all those involved in planning should ensure that the summit’s return to the United States can serve as a turning point for meaningful U.S. engagement with the region.

President Biden—like President Kennedy before him—should seize the moment and launch a bold and timely new initiative of U.S. engagement and partnership with the hemisphere. Using the lessons learned from the past, and a clear eye to the challenges of the future, the United States can once again be the trusted partner of choice for its neighbors in the region. Neither the United States nor the region can afford the alternative.