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Back to the Future: A Proposal for the 2013 OAS General Assembly

March 30, 2012

Sometimes, exploring the past is the key to unlocking our ability to imagine the future. I’m reading a collection of speeches from Elihu Root’s unprecedented diplomatic tour of South America in 1906.

Elihu Root, then-Secretary of State, was a guest of honor at Third Conference of American Republics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks:

According to your program, no great and impressive single thing is to be done by you; no political questions are to be discussed; no controversies are to be settled; no judgment is to be passed upon the conduct of any state, but many subjects are to be considered which afford the possibility of removing barriers to intercourse; of ascertaining for the common benefit what advances have been made by each nation in knowledge, in experience, in enterprise, in the solution of difficult questions of government, and in ethical standards; of perfecting our knowledge of each other; and of doing away with the misconceptions, the misunderstandings, and the resultant prejudices that are such fruitful sources of controversy.

What if this were to be the agenda set for the 2013 Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly?

On Feb. 1, during a regular meeting of the Permanent Council, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza presented a proposal for a revised strategic vision. In response, Venezuela proposed a one-year break to “consider” the strategic vision.

In my blog post about the Venezuelan proposal, I suggested that while the proposed break should not be dismissed outright, there’s a pretty big risk that a complete break in action would do more harm than good.

It seems unlikely that this sabbatical will take place anyway, given that Guatemala has already offered to host the 2013 General Assembly. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if a break in routine would help the OAS refocus.

What if the one-year break were to be a break not from gathering for the annual General Assembly, but rather from regional diplomacy marred by ulterior motives?

What if the only thing on the agenda for the 2013 OAS General Assembly were to be the kind of discussions that remove barriers to collaboration, giving each member state a chance to brag about their own advancements “in knowledge, in experience, in enterprise, in the solution of difficult questions of government, and in ethical standards”, in an effort to “[do] away with the misconceptions, the misunderstandings, and the resultant prejudices that are such fruitful sources of controversy”?

What if it were to focus on the growth and innovation we’re seeing throughout Latin America, to promote regional collaboration through learning from each other’s successes?

This would be a lot easier said than done. It would require the delegations of each member state to set aside ego, political agendas, and old rivalries. For example:

• The US would have to back down on its strictly unilateral political exclusion of Cuba in regional dialogues.

• The ALBA nations would have to tone down the anti-US rhetoric.

• Some nations would have to give up political posturing, such as Argentina with the Falklands/Malvinas dispute and Bolivia with coca leaf legalization.

• There would need to be a proverbial ceasefire on regional infighting, such as the maritime disputes between Peru/Bolivia and Chile.

It’s worth noting that some of these political agendas and old rivalries might be settled before the June 2013, either through the Summit of the Americas in April, this year’s General Assembly in June, or through the international court system.

Additionally, times are very different now than they were in 1906. The Latin American diplomats were honored that the US Secretary of State would grace them with his presence, and it’s quite possible that the summary of the 1906 summit provided by Secretary Root was a glorified oversimplification of reality anyway.

But in what’s being hailed as Latin America’s Decade, it’s important to take inventory of the advancements being made within the Hemisphere. For instance:

• Let Peru talk (in broad terms) about how they caught Comrade Artemio, dismantling one faction of a long-standing Maoist terrorist group.

• Let Brazil talk about lessons learned in uncovering and dealing with government corruption.

• Let Mexico talk about what changed between 1985 and 2012 to help them withstand a major earthquake, with a death toll difference of about 10,000 lives.

For this to work, it would be up to Secretary-General Insulza to keep everyone focused and to quickly resolve any conflicts that arose during the General Assembly.

Furthermore, the US would need to be willing to lead from the sidelines. With all the discussion of a Post-American World, the US needs to redefine its role within the developing world order before the rest of the world does.

In a blog post at Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria suggests:

As the rest of the world rises, the United States has to transition from a dominant, hegemonic role to one in which the U.S. is a catalyst, a coordinator and an agenda setter.

An OAS General Assembly focused on advancements in Latin America could provide an opportunity for the US to adjust geopolitically without relinquishing influence.

Let the Permanent Council hammer out the details of the new strategic vision, to be officially released at the 2014 OAS General Assembly.

In a hemisphere drowning in what the AS/COA has termed “an alphabet soup of regional integration organizations”, what could be accomplished if there were just one regional summit focused not on policy-making, but on relationship-building?

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