Wednesday, March 17, 2010
It is often said that great things are expected of great states, and much should be expected from the unusually blessed. The United States of America may be said to be unusually blessed. Few countries have acquired such extensive natural resources at such modest cost. A few intrepid settlers landed along the coast, destroyed the indigenous population and established themselves as lords of the land between the 17th and 18th centuries. They expanded their settlements by relentless local wars and astute purchases. Manhattan Island was an incredible bargain. The Louisiana and Gadsden Purchases were almost tantamount to real estate theft as the government expanded the territory of the USA from the Great Lakes to the banks of the Rio Grande and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. By the middle of the 20th century the USA was a powerful, highly respected and prosperous nation imposing its will globally.
The USA remains a nation of generous people rushing to help anyone wherever disaster strikes. The American way of life is widely copied around the globe, and until recently American know-how was taken for granted. In the 18th century, Americans had new ideas. In the 19th century they showed unusual industry. In the 20th century they projected leadership in a world challenged by incompatible ideologies. The USA could be good. But a nagging question concerned its greatness.
For one brief moment an opportunity presented itself. With the unexpected and sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it seemed that the single remaining superpower in the world would make a significant change in its international policies. One expectation was that instead of spending vast amounts of resources on preparing for war or waging it, there would be an enormous peace dividend that could be invested in human resources to help make the world a better place. Peace investments at home and overseas would be good for America and good for the world. Instead, the USA squandered the opportunity and irretrievably weakened itself at home and internationally.
Nowhere is the missed opportunity more manifest than across Latin America and the Caribbean. Their US policy has been so inconsistent and the attitudes so arrogant that one by one Latin American states are reducing their links with the USA. They can no longer trust the United States to be a good neighbour, an honest broker or a reliable trader. More and more repeated regional frustration reifies the assertion of Henry Kissinger that the United States does not have friends, only interests. Friends and interests are not incompatible; and good policies require consistent principles.
The election of Barack Obama electrified many throughout the region who took his promises seriously. He said at the Summit of the Americas in Port-of Spain in April 2009 that he wished to initiate a new era of mutual respect of regional cooperation and of multilateralism across the hemisphere. The 34 sophisticated political representatives from the region realised that history was not on their side and any new relationship with the USA could at any time be overtaken by events. Henry Kissinger might be crude but he was also correct. The president of the USA does not make policy single-handedly and Congress has never been respectful of Latin America and the Caribbean. In short, Obama could promise, but action was another matter entirely.
The litmus test of fundamental change revolves around US policy toward Cuba. For nearly 50 years the USA has been isolated on this issue, not only throughout the hemisphere but around the world. For nearly 50 years it has implemented a ludicrously ineffective trade embargo with the island. For 19 years the United Nations has voted overwhelmingly to deplore the inimical action. At the last vote in October 2009, despite some significant changes in the overall US policy to Cuba, the result was 187 to three with two abstentions. Israel and Palau supported the USA while Micronesia and the Marshall islands abstained.
That the Obama administration could not remove the useless Cuban embargo indicates the complex obstructionism of domestic American politics. A small anti-Cuban bloc in Congress can still impede important policy implementation by indefinitely delaying the appointment of officials or complicating the discussion not only of trade matters but also other issue of paramount importance to Latin America and the Caribbean such as immigration, foreign aid, and narcotics trafficking. Congress cannot take all the blame for further inaction on Cuba. The US spends millions of dollars actively subverting the Cuban government, presumably with administration support. Without any evidence it declares Cuba to be a terrorist state and loudly protested the recent self-imposed starvation death in jail of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.
The situation with many other Latin American and Caribbean states is rapidly deteriorating despite the periodical announcements in Washington of the imminence of a new era of good relations. The US has not shown sophistication, understanding or competent sensitivity to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and his Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). The Dudus Coke issue with Jamaica has been festering for more than a year, although this may not be a major issue for the USA. The failure to reverse the Honduran coup d'état against President Manuel Zelaya last year illustrated the impotency and isolation of the USA. The recent military agreement with Colombia has been widely criticised. Mexico is unhappy about immigration, trucking and violence across the border and is contemplating sanctions against US trade. Brazil, a major world player, has several urgent issues that could seriously impact future relations with the United States. These include trade, especially in autos, ethanol and sugar, climate change, international finance and nuclear non-proliferation.
Greatness lies in the ability to lead effectively and to combine brave words with good deeds. As Caribbean and Latin American countries go their own way and as China, Japan and the European Community increase their presence across the region, the United States loses prestige, influence and claims to greatness.