A Latin American Pivot?



In recent months, there has been much talk of the United States’ “strategic pivot” toward East Asia and the Pacific. With the expansion of our military presence in the region and the withdrawal of troops from our now unnecessary bases in Europe, the United States is positioning itself to be ready for the problems of the 21st century: i.e. possible Chinese encroachment in Southeast Asia or a potential conflict between China and India. Most analysts agree that this is one of the most important foreign policy hallmarks of the first four years of the Obama administration. To be sure, this strategy repositioning was farsighted and necessary; China’s exploits are at the forefront of policymakers’ minds and have caught the public’s attention. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans believed that the Chinese economy was the largest in the world; clearly, domestic sentiment supports such a reorientation. But are we putting too many of our foreign policy eggs in one basket? Certainly, China represents one of the biggest ‘x’ factors in geopolitics today. But are we focusing all of our attention on offense and ignoring our defense? Are we doing enough to cultivate our friendships abroad, including those much closer to home?

In short, when will we have a Latin American pivot?

The cliché is often stated: by 2050, half of Americans will speak Spanish. I myself come from one of two states that the 2010 Census found had a population over 40 percent Hispanic. The interests of the United States and the interests of greater Latin America are increasingly aligned because their peoples are increasingly the same. Generally speaking, Latin America and the US have revolutionary traditions based in democratic ideals; they are Christian nations, and represent a blending of multiple cultures and races (due to centuries of mixed immigration). But the Latin America-US relationship is one that we have taken for granted. These nations feel snubbed by their larger, more muscular neighbor, and are increasingly seeking to chart their own course in international politics.

This is a wasted opportunity.

While looking to shore up a support for Western action abroad, we often neglect to look to those countries that are closest to us. Mexico, whose diaspora accounts for some 90 percent of the Hispanic population in this country, is a natural ally. A friend to the US with a growing economy, the promulgation of NAFTA seemed to spell a new chapter in the US-Mexican relationship. But mutual distrust over the effects of that trade agreement and immigration politics have derailed a potentially fruitful friendship. This situation has not been helped by the policy of neglect that has been adopted by the last two American administrations. Mexico has seen few official overtures since an unfulfilling presidential summit in 2001. Immigration has proven to be a ‘third-rail’ of late, and President Obama is unlikely willing to take up such a sensitive topic so close to a presidential contest.

Another rising power we don’t seem to hear enough about is Brazil. To the outside eye, Brazil and the United States seem to be made for each other. Comparable in size and mineral wealth to the US, Brazil, which has a staggering variety of peoples contributing to its national identity, is also the only country that could perhaps vie with it for the title of the "world’s melting pot." It boasts the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan, in addition to sizeable Lebanese, Italian, and German communities. Brazil has only voted against the United States once at the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, Obama is widely popular: the idea of a black man as president is extremely appealing in a black-majority country that has never had a non-white executive. Yet again, Brazil feels snubbed by our lack of endorsement of their bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council, one of the principal foreign policy goals of President Dilma Rousseff.

The Latin American pivot is a domestic issue as well. The quest for the "Hispanic vote" is something that we often hear about in the media. However, overtures towards this vital community recently seem to be restricted to Cubans in Florida, who are generally more likely to vote. The most visible (and powerful) Hispanic politicians today, Senator Marco Rubio and House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, are both Floridians of Cuban descent. Politicians need to engage a wider swath of the Hispanic vote, putting electoral vote-rich states like California and Texas in play. The Hispanic vote could be the key to achieving this.

I’m not asking for a repositioning of "hard-power" like we are seeing in the far Pacific. I’m just asking for the same thing our southern neighbors have long begged for: a little more attention, please?