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  • Agrim Joshi

America’s undermining its international ambitions in its own backyard

Agrim Joshi is a first year student studying History, Politics and Economics at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London. 

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.


Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (left) speaks with Brazilian Foreign Minister Vieria in April 2023. Courtesy: AP Photo, Eraldo Peres

Perennial calls within the U.S. foreign policy establishment for a renewed, comprehensive Latin American strategy have consistently slipped through the cracks — overshadowed by a perpetual list of novel crises and conflicts deemed more urgent and important to U.S. interests. Today, as the Biden Administration tackles its three largest foreign policy challenges: fierce competition with China, war in Ukraine, and turmoil in the Middle East; it seems that it once again isn’t the ‘right’ time to bring Latin America out from the backdrop of U.S. foreign policy. In truth, the ‘right’ time is long overdue. And, the longer the U.S. waits to substantively engage, the more the U.S. will undermine its strategic position in the very foreign policy challenges it prioritises above Latin America. 


Central to the U.S.’ international ambitions is its ongoing duel with China for greater global influence. As a part of this competition, China employs its trademark ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ to invest in infrastructure projects across the developing world and buy goodwill along the way. As of August 2023, 155 of 193 total U.N. member states have participated in China’s scheme, while the U.S. “has struggled to offer a competing vision,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to traditional infrastructure projects, China also has widened its portfolio in Latin America to include telecommunications, fintech, green energy, and critical mineral industries – totaling billions in foreign direct investment across the continent. Today, Asia is the only continent in the world that receives more direct investment from China than South America. In a way, the success of the Chinese model of securing regional influence in Asia before expanding its horizons abroad shows precisely where the U.S. is falling short in its own policy. China has now surpassed the U.S. in trade with the four largest economies in South America, and as such, has positioned itself as a more indispensable strategic partner. 


With China’s growing economic power also comes greater political influence. Since 2017, for example, five Latin American countries severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan amidst growing partnership with China. Clearly, waning soft power in Latin America has infected other domains of U.S. foreign policy and undermined the U.S.’ global interests and ambitions. 

 

In addition to China, Russia is also making a play in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to the continent in April 2023 included meetings with several powerful regional actors, including Brazil and Venezuela.


And so far, considering that the South American response to the Russo-Ukrainian War has frustrated Western leaders, his visit seems to be paying dividends. For example, countries like Brazil, Chile, and Peru have refused to send armaments to Ukraine despite U.S. pressure to do so. Moreover, during a July 2023 summit between leaders from the European Union (EU) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), CELAC countries demanded a statement “strongly condemning” Russia’s invasion be watered down to merely “express concern” about the war while removing any mention of Russia as the aggressor in the conflict. A sentiment that to date, the U.S. has been unable to reform. Indeed, contributing to the U.S.’ lack of agency are Russian efforts to sow anti-U.S. sentiment into Latin American institutions and pressure them to adopt Russian-favourable policies.


The U.S., as well as the international community at large, have a keen interest in ensuring that turmoil in the Middle East remains contained to the region. In other words, that violence and disorder in one area doesn’t spread and cause instability worldwide. However, given its substantial Jewish population and the presence of terror organisations like Hezbollah, Latin America would be a prime forum for a destabilising event to occur. In fact, in the 1990s, Iran and Hezbollah carried out two major terror attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural centre respectively, that until 9/11 were the worst terror attacks recorded in the western hemisphere. More recently, shortly after the start of the Israel-Hamas War, the Brazilian Federal Police uncovered a terror plot to attack a number of Jewish targets within the country. Yet, as Professor Celina Realuyo of the National Defense University analysed, because “U.S. national security remains tilted toward great power competition with China and Russia,” the ability of Latin American law enforcement and intelligence services to effectively address the threats terror networks pose without increased U.S. support is unclear. 


Determining where to focus energy and attention in U.S. foreign policy is no easy task, especially given the constraints of human and financial resources which have only been exacerbated in recent times. Further complicating U.S. involvement in Latin America is the history of U.S. interventionism that colours even good-faith attempts on the part of the U.S. to further regional integration and cooperation. Yet the fact remains: it has been over five years since a U.S. president has even stepped foot on South American soil. For the U.S. to be successful in advancing its interests and values globally, it is evident its soft power in Latin America must grow – a notion the longer the U.S. fails to recognize, the harder it becomes to achieve. 



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