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The Real Hemispheric Agenda

October 31, 2008

"Financial recovery, energy, and climate change should be top priorities"

To read the draft documents that governments are putting together for the next Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, it would appear that inter-American relations have never been better, or that a global financial tsunami had not just hit. The first line of the draft Declaration of Commitment, to be signed by all the leaders attending the Summit, suggests that hemispheric actions be “guided by a renewed spirit of regional cooperation, integration, and solidarity.” Summit participants would commit, in a spirit of “advancing collective solutions,” to “eliminate poverty and hunger, create jobs, and raise the standard of living of all our people.”

This would be an ambitious agenda even in the best of times. To be sure, Summit negotiators can be forgiven for laying out an aspirational framework initially, if for no other reason than to push back the inevitable hard bargaining on the Summit agenda until after the U.S. and Canadian elections. As well, nobody predicted a crisis of this speed and magnitude rearing its head in the global economy. Even without financial constraints, summits are always a delicate thing, particularly when there are countries at the table who openly and aggressively disagree. That does not mean they cannot be successful— witness the various Cold War Summits featuring U.S. and Soviet or U.S. and Chinese leaders—but it does mean that the agenda must be focused, achievable, and based on mutual self-interest.

Agreement on a meaningful path forward will not be easy. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and others have made clear their palpable dislike of the United States, and they continue to pursue an agenda determined to be at odds with a broader hemispheric collaboration. The hemisphere hasn’t been this divided politically since, well, since Cold War days. The last time the hemisphere met together, in Argentina in 2005, there was a sandbagging of the United States by the host nation, hardly conducive to the achievement of long-term regional goals.

More recently, two countries have taken the extraordinary step of sending home U.S. ambassadors, to which the United States has reciprocated. A third, Honduras, foolishly delayed the accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador there, a slap in the face for a friend trying to keep Honduras economically afloat. Venezuela’s president has traveled to Putin’s Russia and come back with agreements on arms, nuclear reactors, and political support, while inviting long-range Russian bombers and ships to joint exercises with the Venezuelan armed forces. Similarly, Venezuela’s relationship with Iran continues apace, with a deepening political and economic focus that can be described, at best, as unhelpful.

But at least Venezuela and the United States continue to maintain a strong commercial relationship, based on raw self-interest. Bolivia has no such reservations, and is assiduously attempting to cut all ties with the United States, from cooperation on drug eradication programs to, bizarrely, ending USAID and Peace Corps programs. How this will help end Bolivia’s grinding poverty and inequality—a top Summit agenda item—is unclear, especially at a time when global capital flows overall are shrinking. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, Bolivia’s new development strategy appears to be, “let them eat coca.”

Comes now the April Summit into this mix of increasing hemispheric volatility. It will be among the first foreign trips that the newly-elected U.S. president will be asked to make. The political stakes will be high. The considerable political risk must be managed, while, on the upside, real, concrete accomplishments must be achievable.

The current agenda includes a catch-all of social development initiatives which are worthy and valuable yet don’t require hemispheric agreement at the leaders’ level. At the same time, an agreement to “end poverty,” for example, in the midst of a global economic crisis, is unlikely to be effective. Similarly, provisions to “promote private sector development, diversify economic activity, improve competitiveness, and strengthen economic integration,” which are in fact desperately needed in the current circumstances, fly in the face of ongoing actions across South America. It’s possible, of course, that such provisions are purely hortatory, but if they are, they do little but develop unrealistic expectations encouraging cynicism about the Summit process itself.

With this in mind, the Summit agenda should focus on those areas where hemispheric agreement can be achieved for meaningful results. Financial coordination and recovery, energy and climate change should be top priorities.

Sure, Latin America did not cause the financial meltdown, but the region is caught up in its wake. Hemispheric coordination to spur recovery would be an appropriate response. Consultation on regional financial policies, keeping markets open, and working together to open markets further through conclusion of the Doha negotiations would be an important place to begin.

As well, energy and climate change impacts every hemispheric nation directly, and even the United States and Venezuela have a robust relationship in this area. At the same time, the host nation, Trinidad and Tobago, is not just the largest exporter of Liquefied natural gas to the United States, it is also an island nation threatened over time by rising sea levels caused by climate change.

The new U.S. president will want to be seen addressing energy and climate change issues early in his term, and nations such as Brazil and Canada will be more than pleased to come to the table to discuss alternative fuels. Investment climate issues across the hemisphere would be on the table, and the agenda should be expanded to include a greater emphasis on energy infrastructure, connectivity, green technology and enhanced trade in energy products and services. With appropriate follow up, the Trinidad Summit could well produce actions on energy that would, in fact, improve the lives of everyone in the hemispheric community, a top Summit goal.

That changes the purpose of the Summit, of course, from an effort to forge a common, comprehensive hemispheric agenda, to a focus on a more narrow set of achievable goals. Other important issues will face the new U.S. president outside the Summit context, including the need for full throated support for democracy and democratic institutions. Regrettably, anti-democratic actions are intensifying in some countries despite the approval of the Democracy Clause on September 11, 2001. Decertifying opposition political candidates, harassing the independent press, curtailing the activities of human rights activists and other such actions should have no place in a democratic hemisphere. They should be roundly rejected, not just by the United States, but by others who aspire to leadership in the hemisphere, too.

The same is true for one of the most complicating and potentially destabilizing issues now facing the region: the growing presence of external actors including Russia, Iran, and global reach terrorists such as Hezbollah. Persistent and patient diplomacy with friends and allies to establish a norm of responsible behavior will go a long way toward establishing expectations for regional engagement and interaction. In the past, this would have been done as part of the Summit. It must now be achieved on a separate track.

The truth is, the original Summit of the Americas was called in 1994 when the Cold War had just ended, democracy in the Americas was emergent, trade agreements including the Free Trade Area of the Americas were seen as the most effective way to encourage broad-based development and partnership with the United States was actively courted by most hemispheric leaders and people. No longer. The world has changed. To remain an important part of the new president’s hemispheric tool kit, the next Summit must successfully build hemispheric confidence and address the most pressing concerns.