In a well-developed ritual of political transition in Washington, the State Department’s bureaucracy is already mobilizing to “read in” incoming secretary Mike Pompeo on the most pressing issues. Coming from the CIA, the secretary-designate will already have strong views and, after one year in the Trump administration, has undoubtedly developed a clear understanding of the priorities of the president whom he serves. Meanwhile, the department he seeks to lead has been reduced in both scope and stature by the outgoing secretary, and will be hard pressed to re-establish its more traditional diplomatic position.
Internal advocates for the hemispheric agenda will have to make the case for broad and sustained U.S. engagement within these political realities. They can be successful if they focus on a few key priorities within a framework consistent with the administration’s America First approach and the interests of our hemispheric neighbors. It may not be pretty, but it can get the job done.
A first step for those briefing the incoming secretary would be to acknowledge that very real security threats emanate from the region—whether traditional, like drugs and criminal gangs, or nontraditional, from states using cyber tools to meddle in elections to the potential for cross-border pandemics, among others. While not necessarily at the same level as North Korea or Iran, these issues nonetheless require vigilance and resolve to address effectively, and should not be ignored. But they cannot be stopped at our borders alone unless we are willing to seal ourselves hermetically from the rest of the world; we need the willing assistance and true partnership of friendly nations to address these issues effectively. Partnership requires that all parties gain, and that political leaders gain politically by working with the United States. This is the key. To the extent that costs to regional leaders of a close association with the United States go up, cooperation will very likely go down, and U.S. security will suffer.
Cooperation takes many forms, but, as the United States learned hard during the Cold War...