The Colombian press has breathlessly published article after article on the visit of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and comments from new U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley about a “High-level Partnership Dialogue” between the two countries. Of course, having such brilliant traditional journalists, the media continues to focus on Plan Colombia and the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, even though the journalists themselves report that cooperation between the two countries is set to broaden, and that funds for military aid will be reduced in favor of other priorities.
As it has been reported, and Steinberg himself said today in his speech at Universidad EAFIT, the dialogue between the countries will focus on:
- Human rights and good governance
- Energy cooperation
- Scientific innovation and technology transfer
Steinberg argues that, since Colombia has done such a good job regarding its security issues, it’s time to further a broader agenda, a “21st century partnership” based on common interests, shared values and mutual respect. Interesting choice of words: the term “shared values”, in U.S. rhetoric, usually refers to Christian values and Western-style democracy. In fact, when speaking about defeating the hemispheric groups that undermine peace and democracy, Steinberg talked about “the forces of darkness.” Quite reminiscent of the Bush administration.
The timing of negotiations and the choosing of the two strategic partners in Latin America for Steinberg’s visits (Mexico and Colombia) is also reminiscent of something else: The Monroe Doctrine.
Back in 1823, U.S. President James Monroe, in an address to his country’s Congress, argued that the Americas should be free of European intervention, and that if a European power should try to interfere in or further colonize states in the Western hemisphere, then the U.S. would have no choice but to intervene. This sealed U.S. hegemony over the continent and marked an isolation from European affairs (or problems, as they were mainly seen).
The Monroe Doctrine continued to dominate the U.S. vision throughout the Cold War, as it couldn’t risk losing its hegemony, let alone having socialist uprisings in its “backyard.” Scholars argue that the Monroe Doctrine is no more, as the post-Cold War era, without a “red scare,” doesn’t require intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, U.S. attention has shifted almost completely to the Middle East and the fight against terrorism, reinforcing Michael Reid’s term “the forgotten continent”: Latin America and the Caribbean now holds nothing of particular interest.
The shift in attention towards the Middle East and away from the Americas was very evident with George W. Bush, and it created a power void within the region. As leftist regimes (populist in some cases) started to emerge as a response to disenchantment with neoliberalism, they also struggled for regional power and furthered their seemingly anti-U.S. agendas, Chavez being the most representative of these. Then came Lula in Brazil, a man with a moderate position but with great ambition and, some say, enough power to achieve it.
In addition, new powers came to play, as the Asian states started to negotiate with Latin American countries and built economic relationships. They were very keen to get their hands on Latin American commodities to keep fueling their economic boom. China in particular was very active and is now one of the main trade partners of the region (in some cases stepping on the toes of the U.S. as the major trading partner, if not surpassing it), which, some argue, to some extent explains why the global financial and economic crisis didn’t hit Latin America as hard as it could have.
When Obama succeeded Bush, alarms were set off in the White House: Somebody is menacing the hegemony over the continent. But how to respond if Asia is doing so legally? Even worse, it’s doing so by capitalist means. That can’t be a reason for intervening by force, can it? Enter soft power (hard power being coercion).
Obama’s rhetoric of new partnerships between equals, besides distancing him from the past administration, sets the stage for cooperation focused on development. The objective? Bringing Latin America and the Caribbean closer and closer to the continent’s “natural leader.” By tying the region’s development to its economy, the U.S. will try to make barriers around the Americas, keeping competitors at bay and re-instituting Monroe’s famous saying, “America for the Americans.” This is much more crucial when we look at what’s at stake: commodities and energetic resources.
Climate change, oil prices and rapidly increasing energy consumption have the industrialized world in trouble: New energy sources must be developed and current energy resources must be secured to keep the economy going. No wonder a very important topic on Steinberg’s agenda is energy cooperation “for the wellbeing of both.” Again, interesting choice of words.
So, the task is to recover total hegemony, only this time there’d be no force involved, just “good will.” But why Mexico and Colombia? They are traditionally the U.S.’s main allies in the region. The first one’s economy is completely tied to its northern neighbor, the latter has always been an ally for the region’s stability, which is “in the interest of us all,” according to Steinberg, and a (geopolitically) necessary ally for the defense of the Panama Canal: Colombia can’t fall into the wrong hands or else the mobility between oceans will be in jeopardy.
In fact, Steinberg said that President Juan Manuel Santos has become an indispensable partner, that Colombia is a key economic partner of the U.S. (which is why they are working on expanding trade and investment, regardless of the FTA approval) and that the country will play a central role in the new U.S.-Latin America relations. Remember what was said at the beginning: shared values. Exchange this phrase for “ideology” and the message remains practically the same.
A new Monroe Doctrine is cooking: The Obama Doctrine. As the economic hegemony continues moving west from North America to East Asia, leadership in the continent is becoming a top priority, as Latin America’s resources are key for the U.S. to continue its development and remain a global leader despite Asia’s success.
Author Santiago Sosa studies International Business at Universidad EAFIT in Medellin