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Summary: The Decline of U.S. Influence? AQ on Foreign Policy in the Americas

(Image: Roey Yohai)

March 26, 2015


  • Russell Crandall, Professor of American Foreign Policy and International Politics, Davidson College
  • Guy Edwards, Research Fellow, Institute for Environment & Society, Brown University; Co-Director, Climate and Development Lab
  • Diana Villiers Negroponte, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Alana Tummino, Senior Editor, Americas Quarterly; Director of Policy, Americas Society/Council of the Americas (moderator)

On March 18, Americas Quarterly (AQ) launched its Winter 2015 issue with a public panel discussion on the United States’ declining influence in Latin America. Senior Editor Alana Tummino joined three distinguished authors whose articles in the magazine grapple with the implications of shifting power dynamics in the hemisphere. Tummino began the panel discussion by focusing on U.S. disengagement with the region, occurring as Latin American inter-regional ties have strengthened and new international trading partners have taken a greater role in the region.

New Actors and Russia’s Reengagement with Latin America

Diana Villiers Negroponte of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars highlighted Russia’s growing presence in Latin America since it resumed its economic relationship with Cuba in 2000. According to Negroponte, Russia’s reengagement strategy initially centered on aircraft sales to Cuba and its intent to open an airline hub in Havana. Negroponte also acknowledged the role of Russian dignitaries in strengthening inter-regional ties, citing former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin’s use of his connections in the oil and gas industry to make deals for oil exploration rights in Venezuela, even though Russia has the largest gas reserves in the world.

“Not only was oil a tool of foreign policy,” Negroponte said, “but there was the potential sales of equipment. The downstream potential for business in Latin America was exploited fully by Igor Sechin.” Additionally, a series of failed but influential bids to invest in Argentine nuclear power plants further established Russia’s interest in Latin America.

Russia’s most recent efforts the reengage the region occurred last year, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the resulting U.S. and EU sanctions. Embarking on what Negroponte called a “make friends tour,” Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his counterparts and signed commercial deals in Argentina, Cuba, and Nicaragua before attending the BRICS Summit in Brazil—itself a sign of shifting global power dynamics. These trade deals, Negroponte said, were “good on paper” but she remains skeptical of their execution.

Reevaluating the Idea of a Post-American Hemisphere

Davidson College Professor Russell Crandall noted that while Latin American governments and economies increasingly function outside of U.S. influence, Washington has also increasingly prioritized consulting and diplomacy as the bedrock of its foreign policy. Negroponte echoed this idea, characterizing current U.S. policy in Latin America as one driven by economics and human rights. However, regional backlash against recent U.S. sanctions on select Venezuelan officials, Crandall argued, signals that the concept of U.S. antagonism toward Latin America still holds a good deal of influence and guides regional responses to foreign policy.

Crandall identified a trend of journalists and scholars continuing to use a “residual Cold War lens” when looking at regional interactions, which may explain the contentious tone of recent U.S.-Venezuela exchanges and their analyses in international media.

Climate Change Action as a Medium for Hemispheric Cooperation

Brown University’s Guy Edwards noted that declining U.S. influence in the region has coincided with a greater initiative on the part of Latin American governments to combat climate change. Peru, Edwards noted, has been a leader in coordinating climate discussions, hosting the United Nations climate talks in 2014 and orchestrating an incredibly difficult negotiation.

Latin Americans, Edwards argued, are both more concerned and less skeptical about climate change than North Americans. “On climate change, Latin Americans are showing the United States what to do,” he said, while recognizing that President Barack Obama was working to bring the U.S. up to speed. He also noted that climate change has been a background issue for U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere, and pointed out that the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors need an arena in which to work together, particularly as the region’s energy needs increase and governments make decisions about how to meet those needs.