Clinton’s Lack of Respect for Latin America

"A great nation must command the respect of others," writes Hillary Clinton in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. But what about showing a little respect? In her infatuation with U.S. power and the transcendent "American idea," she forgets that international cooperation is not just about winning respect, it's also about respecting other nations.

March 13, 2008

"A great nation must command the respect of others," writes Hillary Clinton in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. But what about showing a little respect? In her infatuation with U.S. power and the transcendent "American idea," she forgets that international cooperation is not just about winning respect, it's also about respecting other nations.

In her outline of her foreign policy agenda, titled "Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century," Clinton laments that the Bush administration "has squandered the respect, trust, and confidence of even our closest allies and friends." As president, Clinton promises to introduce the U.S. to the world, and to demonstrate that the "United States is committed to building a world we want, rather than simply defending against a world we fear." That world, says Clinton, will be "a world of security and opportunity."

But Clinton's cursory review of Latin America policy won't win much respect in Latin America. In the one paragraph devoted to Latin America in her 18-page essay, Clinton focused more on U.S. fear of new political developments in the region than on ways to increase human security and opportunity.

According to Clinton, the Bush administration neglected "at our peril" the new political developments in Latin America. Without naming names, Clinton asserts, "We have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America."

Rather than applauding the new willingness of an increasing number of elected governments to tackle the structural obstacles that have marginalized the poor and indigenous populations, Clinton evokes a picture of a region threatened by retrograde forces. Blaming the Bush administration for its negligence, Clinton implies that a more engaged U.S. policy could have obstructed the rise of democratically elected left-center governments, such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

"We must return to a policy of vigorous engagement: this is too critical a region for the United States to stand idly by," asserts Clinton.

But what kind of "vigorous engagement" is she talking about? Past forms have included intervention in national elections, financial and military support for illegal opposition movements, propaganda campaigns to carry the message of pro-U.S. forces and vilify others. Any "return" to policies like these is not likely to be regarded kindly in Latin America. With few positive examples to cite recently, U.S. engagement to protect "critical" U.S. geopolitical and economic interests has too often been synonymous with intervention.

Priorities in the region, according to Clinton, include supporting the "largest developing democracies in the region, Brazil and Mexico"; deepening "economic and strategic cooperation with Argentina and Chile"; and combating "the interconnected threats of drug trafficking, crime, and insurgency" in Colombia, Central America, and the Caribbean.

After establishing this aggressive agenda for U.S. involvement in security issues she concludes, "We must work with our allies to provide sustainable-development programs that promote economic opportunity and reduce inequality for the citizens of Latin America."

In short as president, Hillary Clinton's Latin American policy would likely be very similar to that of the Bush I, Clinton I, and Bush II administrations before her—with the only notable difference being that her administration may take stronger measures to counter governments that dare to determine their own trade, development, and foreign policies.

In laying out her policy, she fails to mention the need to overhaul the monumentally flawed Cuba policy, and in fact has said elsewhere that she wouldn't lift the trade embargo until there is a "democratic transition." Apparently she has no intention of modifying the strategy of the failed drug wars either, even though U.S. policies of drug interdiction, drug eradication, and counterinsurgency have not slowed the flow of illegal drugs and have caused enormous problems of displacement and environmental destruction.

Candidate Clinton offers a U.S. policy that promotes economic opportunity to reduce inequality. But her solutions—economic "openness" and foreign aid—are the standard formulas that have increased inequality and prompted the search for alternatives among the nations she criticizes for "rolling back economic openness" in an effort to provide basic needs to their citizens.

While the Washington political establishment is stuck within a narrow band of policy options, Latin American nations, particularly in South America, are experimenting with new policies aimed at setting their nations on sustainable development paths. Establishing national control over energy resources, sponsoring agrarian reforms, and breaking free of the economic reforms imposed by the international financial institutions are among the policies that have antagonized the Bush administration.

To win the respect of Latin Americans, Clinton doesn't need to endorse these policy alternatives. But she does need to respect the right of Latin Americans to set their own directions.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt set out to build cooperative relations in Latin America after three decades of imperial interventions and occupations, he promised that his "policy of the good neighbor" would be founded on "mutual respect" and self-determination. While the FDR administration did not always follow its own good neighbor principles, it did go a long way to building respect for the United States and a culture of cooperation in the Americas.

Clinton asserts that respect can be won by a leadership that "draws on all the dimensions of American power" and reestablishes the authority of the "American idea." But to regain respect for U.S. leadership, whether in Latin America or elsewhere, the United States will need to return to basic good neighbor principles. Rather than relying on its power and ideas that have largely lost credibility in the hemisphere, she needs to let Latin Americans set their own policy agendas. Some new thinking is long overdue, but Hillary Clinton isn't offering it.

Clinton fails to recognize that the United States must acknowledge that U.S.-Latin America relations are imperiled much more by U.S. arrogance and its misdirected "engagement" than by negligence or inaction in the face of imagined threats to U.S. interests. Moving forward, the foundation of improved relations and sustainable development in the Americas must be "mutual respect."

If Clinton wants respect for U.S. foreign policy, then she will need to show more respect for our southern neighbors. As a start, Clinton should tell Latin Americans that she respects their right to decide for themselves what is needed to ensure "security and opportunity."

Tom Barry is a senior analyst with the Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy, where this article was first published.

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