Professor Smith on Latin America: The Latest Edition of a Compelling Story

Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. By Peter H. Smith.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 438. $34.95.

Peter H. Smith, Simon Bolivar Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of California – San Diego, has updated one of the most comprehensive pieces of scholarship to date on the subject of U.S.-Latin American relations. Originally published in 1996, the newest edition of Talons of the Eagle is far from flawless; nonetheless, its exposition on the history of inter-American affairs is both inclusive and of great merit. Smith proposes that the U.S. historically has sought to retain continuous hegemonic control over the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. has always possessed an inherent advantage in its interaction with Latin America, and the sovereignty of Latin American nations continuously has been confronted with the risk of being challenged by the U.S. According to Smith, U.S.-Latin American relations cannot be fully understood except from a historical perspective that expresses the Latin American viewpoint, as a unitary focus on U.S. foreign policy initiatives towards Latin America fails to incorporate the multiplicity of factors which shape hemispheric relations. Accordingly, Talons of the Eagle argues that although the U.S.’s methods of intervention in hemispheric affairs have varied with time, the fundamental goals of U.S. policy toward the region have remained indelibly intact.

Smith contends that an underlying logic has marked the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, and concludes that the primary determinants of U.S.-Latin American affairs have been extrahemispheric in nature. Smith divides the history of U.S.-Latin American relations into four distinct chronological periods, each of which has been shaped by the prevailing international balance of power and the contemporary interpretation of the pursuit of national interests. These divisions included the Imperial Era of the 1790s to the 1930s, exemplified by the creation of an ultimately defining U.S. sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere; the Cold War, characterized by a bipolar international order and the protection of U.S. geopolitical and ideological interests; the “age of uncertainty,” lasting from 1990 to 2001 and typified by the absence of a grand strategy to guide U.S.-Latin American relations; and the War on Terror, which commenced on 9/11 and continues to the present.

Smith maintains that the U.S. utilized three distinct strategies to secure its hemispheric objectives during the Imperial Era. Initially, the U.S. secured greater influence in the Western Hemisphere through territorial acquisition and the establishment of spheres of influence. Secondly, Washington crafted a commercial empire through an informal network of political and trade ties. Finally, the U.S. established hegemony through the mandated exclusion of foreign interference, the maintenance of enforced stability, and the strengthening of economic agreements. Smith argues that the U.S.’s foremost objective in the Western Hemisphere historically has been the protection of its strategic and economic interests. He deftly blames the Wilson administration for its exploitation of ideology as a rationale for involvement in the internal affairs of sovereign Latin American nations. Wilson rationalized U.S. intervention as a means of promoting democratic development within the hemisphere, yet Smith justifiably claims that Wilson’s support for interventions in Central America and the Caribbean “tended to retard the prospects for democracy” (80). He blames the political instability and social unrest that later plagued Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic on Wilson’s high-minded but futile attempts to spread democracy through U.S. overseas engagements.

Good Neighbor Policy Not That Good
Surprisingly, Smith identifies the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a paradigm of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Under FDR, the U.S. renounced military intervention in Latin America and condemned interference in the internal political life of sovereign nations. Smith charges that Roosevelt sought to inextricably bind Latin America to the U.S. by strengthening economic and diplomatic ties throughout the region. He accuses the U.S. of inducing Latin American nations into arrangements of greater economic and political cooperation, maintaining that “the United States managed to reach trade agreements only with countries that were heavily dependent on U.S. markets for agricultural…products” (73). However, some critics might dispute this point, arguing that U.S.-Latin American relations visibly improved under Roosevelt’s leadership.

The Good Neighbor policy resulted in an economic trade boom and curtailed U.S. tampering throughout the region, curbed media stereotyping of Latin Americans, and secured hemispheric support for the U.S. during World War II. Smith acknowledges that cultural exchange between the U.S. and Latin America prospered under FDR, and admits that the political principles of national sovereignty and the juridical equality of states made some headway under the Good Neighbor policy. Nonetheless, he explains this by asserting that that U.S. “tactics had changed, but goals were much the same” (79). The ostensible cooperation and goodwill that typified hemispheric affairs during Roosevelt’s presidency, he argues, disguised the U.S.’s intention to politically and economically exploit Latin American nations for its own gain. Unfortunately, one might quibble that the author fails to convincingly verify that the U.S. foresaw its hemispheric objectives in such realist terms.

Smith skillfully analyzes the extrahemispheric concerns, ideological convictions, and strategic priorities that characterized U.S.-Latin American relations during the Cold War. He comprehensively details the distribution of power, policy goals, and national interests that framed U.S. involvement in the Western Hemisphere between 1940 and 1980. Smith places particular emphasis on U.S. national security concerns and the perceived need of the U.S. to contain Soviet global expansion. He argues that the U.S. strategy of backing authoritarian regimes in Latin America did not necessarily represent a break from the U.S.’s preference for democracy, but rather coincided with the government’s concealment of its intended goals: “It represented, instead, a cold-blooded calculation: that dictatorial regimes would be more predictably and efficiently anticommunist than other types of government, including democratic systems” (125). Through his exposition of the dynamics that characterized the inter-American relationship during the Cold War, Smith reinforces his abiding thesis that U.S.-Latin American affairs largely reflect perceived national interests and the global balance of power.

Smith offers an effective conceptual framework in which to comprehend hemispheric issues, as he reasons that the structural relationship between the U.S. and Latin America has followed distinct patterns that have changed with time. He defines relations between the U.S. and Latin America in overwhelmingly realist terms, an appropriate framework for his methodological intentions. Yet, the realist premise on which Smith bases Talons of the Eagle only partially explains the nature of the U.S.-Latin American relationship. While he describes the U.S. perspective on Latin America strictly in terms of narrowly-defined national interests, Smith lauds “Latin America’s lofty appreciation for faith, beauty, and nobility” – we have a bit of Ariel here (110). Smith details the varying strategic methods employed by Latin American countries to counteract the dominating influence of the U.S. throughout the region. Nonetheless, he simultaneously gives particular credence to the formation of cultures of resistance and the region’s “search for self-identity,” suggesting that Latin American nations are not motivated primarily by national self-interest (110). Additionally, Smith’s examination of the “age of uncertainty” focuses on the emergence of Latin American civil society and the increasing challenges presented by transnational actors – even though both trends could serve to undermine Smith’s realist agenda, as they attest to the growing influence of non-state regimes within the international system.

During the “age of uncertainty,” U.S. policy toward the hemisphere adhered to no unified strategy. Such non-traditional issues as economic liberalization, illegal immigration, arms control, and narco-trafficking consequently moved to the forefront of the U.S.-Latin America policy agenda. Smith provides valuable insight into the underlying causes of transnational phenomena, revealing the palpable inadequacies of U.S. programs to combat illicit flows of people and goods. One of Talons of the Eagle’s inherent strengths is its insistence on a Latin American perspective on major issues shaping hemispheric affairs. Smith thus offers substantial insight into the pitfalls of the Washington Consensus economic model, the effects of U.S. demand on the perpetuation of the drug trade cycle, and the political and social ramifications of curtailing illicit labor flows from Mexico.

Smith presumes that, in the wake of the Cold War, the U.S. has achieved its long-standing goal of unrivaled supremacy in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, the U.S. actually seemed to attain “hegemony by default.” Smith contends that the end of U.S.-Soviet rivalry has prompted the U.S. to view Latin America as less of a political asset: “while Latin Americans were seeking a new partnership with the United States… the United States was anticipating unilateral domination throughout the Western Hemisphere” (300). While the hemisphere had retained its economic significance as a consumer of U.S. manufactured products and an absorber of U.S. investment, Latin America’s capacity for political innovation had become limited by careful cultivation of parochialism with which Washington hoped to package the region. To substantiate his claim that the U.S. promotes its unconcealed will in the Western Hemisphere, Smith alludes to the U.S.’s 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1994 refugee operation in Haiti. Yet, Smith could be undermining his portrayal of U.S. uncontrolled preponderance in the region through his perfectly plausible portrayal of the War on Terror as a valuable, if unintended opportunity for Latin American nations to explore unexpected policy alternatives. The rise of the “pink tide,” skepticism over the neoliberal economic model, the increasing role of Brazil as a global economic actor, the failure of the FTAA, and the forging of stronger trade and diplomatic ties with China and the Middle East attest to Latin America’s newfound ability to reassert its importance as a political and economic actor. Furthermore, this line of thinking helps to establish how costly the distraction of Iraq has been on Washington’s ability to plough a straight line in a habitat where the region was provided with all sorts of options to diversify and pluralize its ties with new players, be they slumbering candidates for superpower status, like India, or rogue nations in the White House’s purview.

Washington’s War on Terror
Smith argues that the War on Terror has transformed the dynamics of the inter-American relationship. It has recast the political status of Cuba, drug trafficking, and illegal immigration as fundamental concerns of U.S. national security. The U.S. largely has ignored Latin American opposition to the Iraq War, resulting in “institutionalized neglect” of hemispheric concerns (320). Yet, Smith alleges that Latin America merits high-level attention from the U.S. due to its geographical proximity and status as a potential breeding ground for terrorists. He claims – perhaps overly dwells – on the possibility that Latin America could provide a base for terrorists seeking to launch assaults, that terrorist movements could arise from within Latin America itself, and that the U.S. could be forced to divert valuable resources to the region in the event of political or social upheaval. Smith suggests that the U.S. should view its conduct of relations with Latin America as “a matter of authentic foreign policy” (377). He nevertheless concedes that the relative tranquility of the region has benefited U.S. political, economic, and national security imperatives. He warns that continued U.S. neglect of Latin America could result in a proliferation of terrorist activity throughout the Western Hemisphere, but he is unconvincing in his claim that a real threat exists or is likely to develop. This is perhaps the most disabling aspect of his analysis, and one might like to query the author as to why he headed down this seeming dry gulch when Latin America, as a new zone of fast-growing autonomous behavior, provided such rich grounds for informed speculation.

No Easy Path to One’s Destiny
Smith additionally urges the region to turn to a strategy of collective solidarity in order to obtain bargaining power that will offset U.S. influence in the region. He suggests that “the more unified the countries of the region, the greater their overall bargaining power with the United States” (414). Yet, his emphasis on “continental unity” and the “Bolivarian ideal of solidarity” conflicts with an apparent hemispheric trend toward greater transnational economic, migratory, and cultural flows (414). Smith emphasizes long-term trends and transitions affecting U.S.-Latin American affairs, analyzing the dynamics for continuity and change in the hemisphere. Here, a more solid analysis of future strategy options for Latin America would have served Talons of the Eagle well.

Despite its flaws, Talons of the Eagle nevertheless warrants a major place on the bookshelves of university students genuinely interested in hemispheric affairs. It offers a comprehensive examination of the history of regional relations, and Latin Americanists will find Talons of the Eagle an indispensable tool for discussing the fundamental characteristics of the inter-American relationship. The depth of analysis Smith provides to explain the underlying dynamics of U.S.-Latin American affairs is impressive and reveals an ability to weave scholarship with gentle advocacy. He offers unique insight into the relationship between the U.S. and the hemisphere through the integration of Latin American viewpoints on key topics of interest. The newest edition of Talons of the Eagle introduces a new generation of students to recent issues that confront Latin American politics and society, and analyzes the realities of inter-American affairs as shaped by the global War on Terror. Smith includes photos, maps, political cartoons, diagrams, commentaries, and questions for further discussion to guide and inform the committed reader. The index offers an extensive list of worthy suggestions for further study.

Smith focuses on power distributions within the international system and the role of national interests in crafting foreign policy to reveal trends in U.S.-Latin American relations. He successfully argues that the U.S. always has sought to ensure its political, economic, and ideological dominance in the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. historically may have altered its methods of involvement in Latin America, but its fundamental foreign policy objectives have not changed with time. The author anticipates that the U.S. will continue to utilize its hegemonic influence to secure the perpetuation of its regional dominance and the maintenance of its narrowly defined national interests. Though Smith tends to rely heavily on a realist interpretation of the international system to inform his political claims, there is little reason to believe that his assertions concerning U.S. influence in Latin America are fundamentally incorrect. Talons of the Eagle seeks to “focus on the character of the international systems, on the distribution of power, on the perception and pursuit of national interests, and on the resulting interaction between Latin America and the United States” (8). That Smith ultimately achieves most of his objectives cannot be gainsaid.

One thought on “Professor Smith on Latin America: The Latest Edition of a Compelling Story

  • November 13, 2008 at 11:30 pm
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    You write regarding Smith’s analysis of the War on Terror: “He warns that continued U.S. neglect of Latin America could result in a proliferation of terrorist activity throughout the Western Hemisphere, but he is unconvincing in his claim that a real threat exists or is likely to develop. This is perhaps the most disabling aspect of his analysis, and one might like to query the author as to why he headed down this seeming dry gulch when Latin America, as a new zone of fast-growing autonomous behavior, provided such rich grounds for informed speculation.”

    What of the U.S.’s unremitting war OF terror on Latin America for so much of the history of US-Latin American relations? Death squads, counterinsurgency wars, support and training for torturers and murderers … we’ve just been reading in the news about the Colombian army’s “body counts” in which innocent civilians as disguised as guerrillas in order to fill quotas set by army commanders via a scheme of utterly “perverse incentives” as the economists would describe. Not coincidentally, as anyone with familiarity with the history of US military training programs at the School of the Americas, nearly half of the Colombian army units that committed these crimes were US-trained according to an analysis by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Is this a way to critique Smith for his concern that terrorist threats in Latin America may increase if the US continues to “neglect” the region? Goodness, if paying more attention to the region means more US-sponsored or abetted wars of terror, then let’s hope for a lot more neglect by the incoming Obama administration, or else a relationship of terror-free, mutual respect on both sides. Also, if I am not mistaken, the only Latin American act of terror in the U.S. was by Pinochet’s secret service in Washington, D.C. when he had the ambassador blown to bits in his car in 1976. So let’s rethink this use of war on terror, please.

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