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The Monterrey Summit: To Advance the Agenda, Keep Expectations Realistic

January 09, 2004

Much is on the line as President Bush travels to Monterrey, Mexico for the Summit of the Americas, a "special" summit organized in response to perceptions of rapidly deteriorating political and economic conditions in the Americas. Breathless commentary has now become the conventional wisdom: 9/11 was a significant set-back for the idea of a truly American community as the United States focused on other priorities. Meanwhile, hemispheric nations, mired economically, failed to advance the domestic reform process, preferring instead to concentrate on quixotic opposition to US and UK military intervention in Iraq. Special concern was reserved for the US-Mexico bilateral relationship, which had begun so promisingly but stagnated. Even so, just as expectations for continuously improving relations were unrealistic prior to 9/11, the pendulum has now swung too far toward pessimism. The President's visit is therefore an opportune moment to restore a sense of realism and common purpose in the Americas.

Nobody should be surprised, nor apologize, that the United States has aggressively pursued its fundamental security interests after 9/11. Neither should anyone expect that without careful nurturing from both sides, US relations with other nations in Latin America and the Caribbean would be on a continuous upward trend. In some ways, the Americas have performed like the Dow: irrational exuberance in the 1990's followed by a crash of confidence to lows not seen for years. Literally and figuratively, people took their money out of a region they had shoveled it into during the boom times. Such an approach, however, is unsustainable. If the relationship is to be restored to full health, policy-makers must now look for the kind of steady, compound growth that, while perhaps unremarkable, will ultimately lead to the most significant mutual returns over time.

This seems to be the Administration's approach. In advance of Monterrey, President Bush has announced a new policy to regularize illegal migrants so long as they have a job, without necessarily granting citizenship or even permanent residence. It is not the "whole enchilada" as envisioned by Mexico, but it is a start, and is clearly targeted at Mexico and Central America. In addition, the United States has announced the lifting of steel tariffs imposed in 2001, an open sore in the hemispheric context. Together, these represent important steps, improving the atmospherics although not guaranteeing success. The President's trip itself is an important signal; a bilateral meeting between Presidents Bush and Fox will provide the opportunity to move beyond the mutual disappointments of the past two years to establish a more realistic, and therefore productive, relationship, based on a better understanding of what is possible.

Beyond the bilateral aspects of the visit, some critics argue that the Summit agenda is not sufficiently "presidential," since it focuses on initiatives including micro-economic reforms, business creation, and the like, rather than on grand geo-strategic issues. But in fact, the primary job of democratically elected leaders is to provide for the physical and economic security of their citizens. Job creation must therefore be at the top of the list. Sexy? No, but the issues under discussion, if fully implemented - and, as a report just issued by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas finds, that is a big and critically important "if" - will do much to unshackle the entrepreneurial spirit in Latin America and the Caribbean, leading to job creation, economic growth, and a reduction over time in the wage and income gap. Soaring rhetoric it is not, but as nations like Chile and El Salvador have found, sticking to the reform path even when it is difficult pays rich dividends. In financial markets, it is the equivalent of dollar cost averaging.

At the same time, the United States should not allow itself to be provoked by the antics of hemispheric leaders who feel some satisfaction in making rhetorical debating points intended for domestic consumption. Not all countries in the Americas will agree with us all the time, whether on trade, or Iraq, or Cuba, even as we seek their support. Rather, we should seek common ground on which to pursue common interests.

United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean need each other, and given our economic, historical, and cultural ties, it remains in our mutual long-term interests to work together. It was always unrealistic to expect a comprehensive accommodation among sovereign nations - even the United States and Canada sharply disagree from time to time - and unmet expectations were bound to lead to disappointment. At the same time, it is now equally harmful to assume that the lack of such accommodation signals that a community of hemispheric democracies is unworkable. If our mutual goals are realistic, and we work together to achieve them, we may in fact find that a focus on steady, incremental progress where it can be made leads to the ultimate goal we collectively seek: a united, democratic and prosperous hemisphere that sees its future as inextricably linked. If we want to stay together, we have to work together, investing for the long term. In the Americas, as with financial markets, there is no better way.

*Susan Segal is President and CEO of the Council of the Americas.