Attention Deficit: U.S. and Latin America

At the International Political Science Association World Congress, held in the beautiful and fascinating city of Buenos Aires (a few pics below), one term I heard a lot, lot, lot is hegemony. That’s because Latin America has been under U.S. hegemony for quite a long time. Our military hegemony is unquestioned – although of limited use (gunboat diplomacy is increasingly unacceptable and the normative costs have become high). Our economic hegemony is under challenge by Chinese investments, but this is not a settled question. Much of the region remains open to free trade with the U.S. – if only the U.S. were more willing.

Memorial to the disappeared at the statue of Belgrano before the Casa Rosada
Foreign dignitaries laying a wreath at the monument to the great founder of Argentina, Jose de San Martin

One strategy the region has pursued has been to build their own regional institutions, but these have met with limited success. The close relationship between the U.S. and Mexico has reduced the engagement of one of the region’s power centers. Brazil vacillates between wanting to be a regional leader and pursuing other goals. Other regional powers such as Argentina and Venezuela have their own profound problems. The region has also struggled to manage the ongoing crisis of Venezuela, while the U.S. has plenty of resources to induce specific countries to prefer the bilateral relationship to a multi-lateral regional one.

The nations of Latin American make various moves to demonstrate their independence. They engage with other power centers – China, Russia, Iran, and the EU. In the war in Ukraine, Latin America has been reluctant to take sides. This can create specific material benefits (such as Chinese investments and access to Russian fertilizer), create options, but perhaps most importantly it gets U.S. attention. This comes to my area of interest.

Partners or Subordinates

Several papers referred to Gramsci and his ideas on hegemony, which have been adapted to international relations. I’m not Gramsci scholar (and yes he was a Communist), but the key concept is hegemony by coercion or hegemony by consent. The nations of Latin America recognize that they are stuck with U.S. hegemony in the region, but they would like it to be by consent – not coercion. This is Joseph Nye’s equation of hard power vs. soft power.

I’m not an IR scholar, but hegemony by consent is a partnership but with a hierarchy, some partners are bigger and stronger, but they offer the smaller players things of value so that their participation is (mostly) voluntary and brings mutual benefits. At its best, this has been the key tool of U.S. diplomacy worldwide, from founding the UN, to rebuilding Europe, establishing NATO, promoting free trade, Atoms for Peace, and so on. It may be a low bar, but I remain committed to the argument that the U.S. is the least bad great power in history. In Walter Russell Mead’s formulation, this is the great combined project of the Hamiltonians and the Wilsonians. The Hamiltonians, the businessmen, believe in the win-win, a real innovation in diplomacy and world affairs that were long-dominated by a gimlet-eyed dog-eat-dog realism. (Mead uses the term “scorpions in a bottle.”) The Wilsonians are the missionary strain of U.S. global engagement who want to spread democracy and freedom. (Mead argues that this strain predates Wilson, but that he was its most articulate proponent.) The U.S. has used these institutions to exercise influence and whatever good intentions were voiced, Washington made careful calculations of the benefits of these institutions to the U.S. But other nations and entities also had a voice and benefitted as well.

Hegemony by consent is preferable to everyone involved, it helps turn unwilling subordinated states into allies. It is also in accord with the deepest values of the American people (again, it goes without saying that we don’t always live up to them.)

The Cost of Consent

So, why can’t we engage in a large-scale effort to build a regional hegemony by consent in Latin America?

Quite simply, there is a cost, and it isn’t just financial – it’s also political.

The Biden administration is dealing with a hot war in Ukraine, a rising China, and global climate change. This is in addition to difficult domestic scene featuring inflation, natural disasters, and a deeply divided polity. Biden doesn’t control Congress and is gearing up for re-election. Giving goods to Latin America would devour a huge amount of political capital overall and that scarcest of presidential resources: time.

To effectively engage Latin America, the administration would have to identify politically viable policy options, go through the difficult process of selling it domestically, and then internationally. This involves extensive analysis, endless internal meetings, followed by meetings with Congress and interest groups, meetings with international partners, and a public campaign. Even a few presidential events to advance the cause will be a very, very big deal logistically. Most importantly, any moves on behalf of Latin America represent other items that would have to be given up. This might be money: funds spent on Latin America are funds not available for other priorities. But it also represents time. Congress can only consider so many items, so something would have to be moved off the docket on behalf of Latin America. Presidential events for Latin America issues, mean fewer events for other issues.

There are hard political third rails. Big moves like bringing Venezuela in from the cold (as Obama sought to do with Cuba) are unlikely. Major aid packages are expensive and politically unpalatable. U.S. public opinion is not keen on free trade or immigration reform right now.

Presidents can move the needle on these things, but it is a huge investment of time and energy and given everything going on in the world, you can see why Latin America does not get the attention it deserves.

There is a presidential resource that could be tapped for Latin America engagement… for my thoughts on Vice Presidents and Latin America, check out this short piece on my other site.

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