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U.S. Foreign Policy in Latin America’s Decade

March 13, 2012


“But the real story of Latin America today … is a story of political transition and a broad commitment to democratic development, a story of pragmatic leaders who helped turn a once-troubled region into an area of dynamic 21st century economies and societies, a story of active new players on the global stage.”

~ Secretary Clinton


As scholars debate the rise or fall of the American empire, some analysts have declared the 2010’s to be Latin America’s Decade. In addition to strengthening regional integration, the economies of Latin America seem to just keep growing despite the global economic downturn.

But the rise of Latin American influence goes beyond that. As the countries of Latin America assert themselves in the global arena, policymakers in the U.S. need to come to terms with what Russell Crandall calls the Post-American Hemisphere.

In a recent piece for International Policy Digest, Juan Gabriel Tokatlian described a hemispheric political context marked by frustrated superpower syndrome:

In reality, the frustrated superpower syndrome is the logical consequence of two different but intertwined factors: the objective disparity of power and the subjective sense of superiority.

For decades, U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America has reflected both. While many of the ideas advocated by the Washington Consensus were sound in principle — if not always in practice — the phrase “Washington” Consensus itself says a lot.

In her confirmation hearing, Secretary Clinton described a foreign policy based on Smart Power, or seeking to strike the perfect balance between Hard Power (coercion) and Soft Power (attraction).

Dr. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. sought to clarify this concept in “Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power”. According to Dr. Nye, contextual intelligence is the bedrock of Smart Power:

Contextual intelligence must start with an understanding of not just the strengths but also the limits of U.S. power. The United States is the only superpower, but preponderance does not constitute empire or hegemony. The United States can influence, but not control, other parts of the world.

Similarly, in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the AS/COA, provided a call to action for policymakers and academics alike:

The first step should be acknowledging that in a diversifying global economy, the role of the United States in the Western Hemisphere has shifted from dominance to preeminence.

Even hard core skeptics of the idea of a 21st century decline of the West would be hard pressed to deny the regional implications of what Fareed Zakaria has termed the Rise of the Rest.

Moving forward, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “A New Theory for the Frontier: Collaborative Power” bears consideration. In this article, Dr. Slaughter explores a theoretical and pragmatic shift from Smart Power to Collaborative Power.

Where Smart Power is based on standard transactions within the established world order, Collaborative Power is based on multilateral teamwork. In other words:

• if Hard Power is based on coercion;

• and Soft Power is based on attraction;

• then Collaborative Power is based on consensus.

Dr. Slaughter’s article seems to have drawn more criticism than praise within the blogosphere, although the criticism seems to have more to do with the examples she used than for the theory itself as she explained it.

Still, this concept of Collaborative Power — further described as “power with” versus “power over” — might provide some direction for public diplomacy in an age marked by the democratization of information.

President Obama said it well in his speech from Santiago, Chile during his March 2011 state visit to Latin America:

So this is the Latin America that I see today — a region on the move, proud of its progress, and ready to assume a greater role in world affairs.

While some questions remain as to whether these emerging powers will be able to successfully translate economic growth and integration into geopolitical influence, policymakers in the U.S. need to be cognizant of how the power structure is changing within the hemisphere.

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