The Bush White House, Condoleezza Rice, and Latin America: “Transformational Diplomacy” and Other Fancy Talk
Through implementation of her “Transformational Diplomacy” initiative, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has aimed to reinvigorate the State Department, lifting it from the defunct Cold War-style diplomacy of the post-World War II era to a fresh 21st century and globally-oriented policy machine. Rice’s efforts in this endeavor have included greater concentration on an extended array of geographic hot spots previously ignored or neglected by U.S. diplomacy –shifting personnel and positions to areas of mounting importance. For instance, she has relocated or simply closed down a disproportionately large number of cushy posts in Europe to service other areas of the world where a greater U.S. presence is needed to contend with future challenges. These posts have included such emerging international powerhouses as Brazil, India, South Africa and China. Unfortunately for other Latin American nations, only Brazil was classified as possessing strategic importance in the region.
While Rice’s willingness to substantially revise the State Department postings are to be praised, the actual execution of this program has been quite lackluster, mainly due to the diplomatic shortcomings and parochial attitude lying behind President George W. Bush’s foreign policy doctrines. The President’s notorious preference for militarization over diplomacy in making his sorties, has led to a stagnant State Department, which thus far has not been utilized as effectively as could have been the case in advancing authentic U.S. national interests abroad. This circumstance can be blamed on the money-absorbing and attention-grabbing 800-pound gorilla of Iraq which has consumed all of the Bush Administration’s energy — leaving much to be desired in the area of diplomacy in other regions of the world, including Latin America, which may now be unraveling. Consequently, the Middle East has diverted too much of Secretary Rice’s attention from pressing Western Hemisphere matters, leaving a region adrift from its traditional Washington mooring, and a State Department bereft of its almost folkloric influence over issues transpiring in the rest of the hemisphere.
What is “Transformational Diplomacy?”
An exceedingly intelligent woman and acute foreign policymaker, Rice has been highly lauded during her tenure as Secretary of State for her push to reinvigorate and modernize the State Department, even though the results largely remain to be seen, and the rhetoric that she falls back upon as being almost stygian in its obscurity. She has been especially acclaimed for her ambitious project of “Transformational Diplomacy” whose objectives, as described in Rice’s own words, are to: “work with our many partners around the world to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.” Rice further claims that “This is a strategy rooted in partnership, not paternalism – in doing things with other people, not for them. We will use America’s diplomatic power and our foreign assistance to help foreign citizens better their own lives, build their own nations, transform their own futures, and work with us to combat threats to our common security, including the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”
Upon a closer reading between the lines, this initiative sounds suspiciously like the ill-fated mission in Iraq propagated by the Bush White House. In this way, Rice’s “Transformational Diplomacy” initiative mainly comes down to serving the Bush Doctrine, and leaves out a number of other areas of crucial strategic importance to long-term U.S. national interests. Despite this imbalance, some of Rice’s admirers applaud her willingness to assess critical flaws in current U.S. foreign policy. However, the actions she has taken in this regard have had little to no impact on the Western Hemisphere, since her attention has been narrowly-focused primarily on only one region of the world (the Middle East, where she currently is visiting), at the expense of most of the others (especially Latin America).
Has “Transformational Diplomacy” Transformed Latin America?
The Middle East — and Iraq specifically — is notorious for its domination of the U.S. political agenda. So why has Condoleezza Rice done so little in the Western Hemisphere? The answer may be Rice’s undeniable devotion to President Bush, and her dedication to pursuing the President’s personal agenda (even as it grows increasingly unpopular with the U.S. public) that is largely dominated by the Middle East and the maintenance of control over energy sources in a region of enormous strategic significance to this country.
Meanwhile, the few initiatives that the U.S. has directed toward Latin America under the Bush Administration have been rooted in expanded economic relations and the so-called promotion of democratic governance, which turned out to be hard right-ring gruel served up by such arch right-wingers as Assistant Secretaries Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. Both topics were stressed at the White House Conference on the Americas, a characteristically low-key regional gathering held July 9. But even this act of belated catch-up ball came across in a half-hearted and unconvincing way to its Latin American audience. U.S. policy toward the region historically has focused on political and economic matters centered on stability, but U.S. policies have, more often than not, managed to make the situation worse. Ever since the Eisenhower Presidency, U.S. administrations have made their lamentable mark by propping up authoritarian and corrupt dictatorships and touting neo-liberal type economic policies that have ended up wreaking havoc on Latin American societies, while leaving the region with the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world. Therefore, Washington’s policies have ended up alienating much of Latin America. Under the Bush White House, with Rice at the foreign policy helm, it is more than likely that even more drastic consequences will be witnessed, if such irresponsible behavior continues to magnify.
The Push for Democracy and Free Trade — U.S. Style
Today, the Bush Administration continues to focus on securing trade agreements and implementing other neo-liberal economic reforms in the region that demonstrably serves U.S. interests more than it does those of Latin America. During this period, Bush and Rice have concentrated on building a façade of concern for Latin American affairs, rather than the real thing, with the culprit being the distraction guaranteed by the Iraqi conflict. As demonstrated in the White House’s latest spectacle (its “Conference on the Americas”), Washington seems to be even more preoccupied with maintaining U.S. hegemony in the region through its reliable Bush-led charges against Cuba and Venezuela, rather than its professed desiderata — to encourage development and economic growth throughout the region.
In order to improve the region’s economic prospects, and remain influential in Latin American affairs, the Bush administration has aggressively pursued bilateral trade pacts, most recently pushing for free trade agreements with Peru, Panama, and Colombia. President Bush reiterated these economic initiatives as his priority for the region, by emphasizing at the conference the connection between trade and commerce as tools to advance social justice throughout the region. However, the Democrat-controlled Congress has challenged some of these initiatives, and any hopes President Bush may have had of modestly improving trade relations with a handful of Latin American states (like Colombia and its Andean partners), were dashed with the tabling of these measures. The prospects for free trade agreements and the controversial and debate-laden proposed immigration reforms were the only Latin American-related issues that seemed to be on President Bush’s scant horizon in recent months, and not even these managed to survive.
However, a renewed interest in the region may be required soon enough. This is especially apparent as Latinos have begun to comprise the largest minority group in the U.S. Bush and Rice may want to reassess their approach to Latin American policy, as the changing demographics of where the nation’s immigrants come from will demand more of their quality time if the Bush administration and its Secretary of State are to walk out of the White House rather than to be dragged from it. If Washington wants to be relevant regarding its future ties to the region, it must reflect the concerns of an increasingly large percentage of its constituents.
The stated political angle of U.S./Latin American policy under the Bush Administration has been the promotion of democratic and transparent governments and institutions to ensure regional stability. Populist figures, such as Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, are rattling previously enacted U.S.-led democratic institution building and market-based reforms, with their own political and economic agendas. But, up to now, the U.S. has sat frozen, as the region’s new generation of leaders are increasingly being seen as unwilling to thump Washington’s sagging drum any more.
One-Day Conference Cannot Compensate for 7 Years of Inattention
In what some perceived as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to improve relations with its Western Hemisphere neighbors, and convince domestic and foreign audiences of its active involvement and concern for the region, Washington hosted the White House Conference on the Americas on July 9. In a rather pathetic nod to the professed cries of populist Latin American regional figures who have gained increasing regional political clout, the Bush Administration designated the theme of the conference as “Advancing the Cause of Social Justice in the Hemisphere.” During his typically fuzzy speech in which clear articulation was sacrificed to the administration’s traditional boiler plate, President Bush professed initiatives crafted by his administration in “meeting basic healthcare needs, expanding economic opportunity, and investing in education.” However, the examples given were quite tepid, given the scale of Latin America’s plight. Unfortunately, the U.S. president, by briefly borrowing from the lexicon of populism and lavishing the region with rhetoric over a one-day gathering involving 250 regional civil society organizations, was not able to generate any more credibility in the hemisphere than he had before, because it was a debate of the mute.
As for Condoleezza Rice, she too was unable to make a genuine connection with the Latin American representatives in attendance, as she did little more than utter rhetorical arabesques of commitment in her remarks at the conference, which just didn’t catch on. This was the case even during the more intimate roundtable discussion phase where she did touch upon more specific issues, like the failure of the president’s proposed immigration bill, U.S.-Mexico border security issues, gang violence and drug crimes, possible ethanol agreements with Brazil, general democracy and human rights promotion within the region, and proposed free trade agreements with Colombia, Peru and Panama. Yet the “red elephant” looming over, but not actually in the room, Hugo Chávez, was scarcely mentioned, even when audience members posed specific questions about his relations with nations within and outside of the hemisphere.
At one point in the roundtable discussion, Rice stated that with this conference, “the point that we want to make is that the President and this administration are very devoted to a Latin America that is free and democratic, that is prosperous and has open economies, but their people are benefiting from economic growth and from free trade.” However, the real sentiment behind this staged event may be another matter, considering the White House’s past inaction within the region and its reigning spirit of benign neglect when it comes to inter-American matters. At the White House conference, Rice attempted to refute an earlier claim made by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that “the Bush Administration lost Latin America,” but it seems to many, after this latest, entirely contrived effort at improving regional relations, that the current president relies upon calculated showmanship rather than substance and earnest planning, when dealing with the region. The fact of life is that U.S. influence in the region is waning — and Bush Administration policies, or the lack of them, are to blame.
Bush Still Has Not Learned His Foreign Policy Lesson
While reminiscing on his futile “Spring Break” trip to Central and South America last March, Bush declared in his conference speech to the Americas, that it reminded him of “the importance of having a peaceful and prosperous neighborhood. It’s in our interests, in the interests of the United States . . . And so this conference is an attempt to . . . discuss how we can work together to promote social justice, to help people realize a better life through good education and good health care.” Clearly, the lesson learned by Bush seemed to be that perpetuating U.S. regional hegemony was all-important to fulfilling his duty to protect U.S. economic interests. But one act of unfettered verbiage by the U.S. disguised as benevolent enlightenment is not likely to seal the deal.
The Bush Administration still has not learned that it will be impossible to regain the Western Hemisphere’s trust and respect if Washington continues to act upon deceptively selfish motives. Effective social, political, and economic development requires more than stylized compassion, it needs follow-through. If Rice continues to half-heartedly confront Latin America’s diverse problems, she may as well delegate hemispheric responsibilities to some other figure who can devote sufficient time and energy to what may turn out to be a long-term project — surely, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his anti-imperialist project would readily take up the baton from the U.S. in order to perfect his leadership style and carry on his grand vision of wedding a socialist economic system to a parliamentary constitutional democracy.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
After the one-day diversion on Latin American subject matter, President Bush presumably has turned his attention back to his Iraqi quagmire. Perhaps, his administration could improve its image throughout the Western Hemisphere if it followed through on its proposed diplomatic, military, political and economic outreaches to the region. Just one day before the White House Conference on the Americas was to commence, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled his scheduled Latin American visit to El Salvador, Colombia, Peru and Chile — in order to help the White House draft a report on the situation in Iraq scheduled to be delivered to Congress on July 15. This was further evidence of the Bush Administration’s failure to understand the importance of maintaining good diplomatic relations (such as by means of Gates’ proposed goodwill visit) with Latin American leaders, and its overall inability to multi-task politically, instead of just focusing on one nation for the betterment of long-term U.S. foreign policy.
In another questionable move, Rice announced on June 18 that all diplomatic posts in Iraq must be filled first before Foreign Service Officers are allowed to bid for remaining openings in Washington or abroad. This new (hopefully short-term) policy was enacted in response to pleas by Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, for more Foreign Service Officers to be dispatched to Baghdad. While it may be a practical method to fulfill the U.S. mission’s needs there right now in light of waning volunteers for such postings, it may be a very faulty plan to sustain for the long-term. The effects of robbing other areas of a much-needed U.S. diplomatic presence — especially as anti-Americanism (specifically anti-Bush Administration policies) continues to spread at a debilitating rate — could prove perilous to U.S. policy norms. This is yet another example of Rice’s neglect of Latin America (as well as possibly other regions of the world, except for the Fertile Crescent) which does not make much sense when viewed from a grand strategy perspective. Rice’s policy of allotting absolute primacy to filling diplomatic positions in Baghdad before considering other State Department openings may be well-intentioned, but could prove to have an erosive impact on other sensitive areas of the world, like Latin America, that already are suffering from neglect. Failing to increase U.S. diplomatic presence in this hemisphere due to heightened attention elsewhere, is the making of a flawed policy.
As the 2007 Foreign Affairs Council assessment on the management of the State Department found, Rice’s emphasis on the Middle East is necessary but insufficient. It is still of vital importance to long-term U.S foreign policy strategy to actively engage countries whose collaboration is being sought — for example, those in Washington’s backyard. These very same nations have become increasingly anti-U.S. in their foreign policy orientation and have elected leaders who, in many cases, reflect their own left-leaning proclivities. Clearly, Rice’s current diplomat staffing policy will not suffice, and may even encourage greater impediments to this country’s optimal regional relations.
Latin America Starts Hunting Down New Directions
While the U.S. has turned its back away from the nations of the South, and is now transfixed on the Middle East, some Latin American nations have walked through an open door to increased political and economic collaboration with U.S. commercial competitors (such as China, India and Taiwan). The Andean nations of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile have begun negotiating free trade agreements with the Asia-Pacific region as part of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) economic trade bloc. There is also evidence that Latin America is further organizing itself into an entity that can contest U.S. interests. The possible creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), could turn out to be an economic organization akin to the European Union, which could bypass restrictive U.S. trade and establish networks with some of its major rivals.
Additionally, several Caribbean and Central American nations have engaged in increased diplomacy with China in order to secure foreign investment and other forms of financial assistance through possible trade agreements. This was evidenced by Costa Rica’s June 6 decision to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognize China, so as to gain much-needed financial assistance from Beijing, as well as setting itself up for a greater likelihood of obtaining a free trade agreement with that nation. However, the small island nation of St. Lucia renewed its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in May for some of the very same self-serving reasons. The trend of Latin American-Asian ties continues with Japan, who also has recently spawned some possibly meretricious new partnerships with Caribbean nations such as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and Dominica. Some conservative Washington commentators are convinced that such alliances will only hurt U.S. interests in the area in the near future.
Moreover, individual countries are taking their own measures in the political realm as well. Some Latin American nations, specifically Venezuela and Nicaragua, have become friendly with several downright foes of the U.S. (including Iran, Russia and Belarus). Of particular interest to the U.S., is that Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have recently visited with their Iranian counterparts and are working on energy-related and other deals in exchange for development assistance and growing solidarity against U.S. hegemony.
In the future, the U.S. would be wise to cock its head and look over its shoulder once in a while, so that it can keep a readied eye on its vital interests in other key regions of the world. Otherwise, the past two decades of work towards encouraging democracy and political stability, while guarding U.S. economic interests in the region and promoting regional security, which Rice just recently has extolled in her speech at the White House Conference on the Americas, will all be, and perhaps should be, to no avail. If the U.S. wants to maintain influence over Latin America, it would be prudent for Washington policymakers to vigilantly monitor the region, while trying to advance its relations with both U.S. competitors and partners, friends and enemies. In other words, Rice better be on guard or she will be remembered as being all too prepared to harmonize with President Bush’s readiness to mix ideology with other components, that didn’t readily blend with them.