Did Latin America just get upgraded? At his marathon press conference last Thursday, President Joe Biden said Americans have been wrongly referring to the region as “America’s backyard” (which he said people were doing even back when he was in college). “It’s not America’s backyard,” he explained, “Everything south of the Mexican border is America’s front yard.”
America’s foreign policy agenda, and Washington’s global heat map, sure has changed in the last few years. The president’s two-hour press conference included zero mentions – either in questions or in the president’s musings – of Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq. Maybe Lebanon, or Gaza or the West Bank? Nope, nada. Iran barely scored one mention in response to a question about the nuclear deal. Afghanistan was mentioned an impressive six times, but all in the context of the final pullout – it was the postmortem of a painful breakup.
Could it be? The much-anticipated, long-overdue, strategically wise pivot away from the Middle East seems to be happening.
That is the good news. The bad news is that Washington isn’t necessarily pivoting for the right reasons, or towards the right new focus.
When President Obama used to talk about pivoting to Asia, and moving on from Washington’s Mideast tunnel vision, the implication was that we needed to start addressing the future, stop being so mired down by the claims of the seemingly urgent to tend to what was truly important. The pivot was advertised as being towards Asia, but many of us harbored hopes that a more balanced economic, diplomatic, and security approach to its global interests would also force the United States to pay closer attention to its own hemisphere, especially to our neglected North American partnership with Mexico and Canada.
But alas, the U.S. foreign policy pivot seems to be taking us not into the future, but further into the past: back to the Cold War. In President Biden’s press conference, Ukraine was mentioned 23 times; Russia 33. I wouldn’t say they are giddy, but Washington’s foreign and national security policy elites are at the very least relieved to trade in the endless quagmire of asymmetrical Middle Eastern civilizational clashes of the 9/11 era for a return to the tidiness of playing geopolitical chess against other rational great powers. Terms like “containment” have been lovingly dusted off and recirculated, like old LP albums from our adolescence.
Don’t get me wrong. Vladimir Putin’s saber-rattling is a serious threat to the international order, and the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine certainly qualifies as both an urgent and important matter requiring serious attention in Washington, and everywhere else. What is frustrating about the crisis, however, is how avoidable it was; how domestic US politics, foreign lobbying, and Cold War osmosis and nostalgia brought us to this point.
The administration is reportedly considering sending US troops to the Baltics and other Eastern European countries, and there has been talk that beyond sanctions to Russia, Washington would support any post-invasion resistance movements in Ukraine. These are laudable impulses, but also dangerous and undisciplined ones. Donald Trump’s disdain for historical alliances and his bizarre infatuation with Putin damaged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but so would a failure to distinguish between threats to a former Soviet republic like Ukraine and threats to actual NATO members like Belgium. Nothing dilutes credibility and breeds insecurity like the drawing of unrealistic, unenforceable lines.
It is tempting and satisfyingly self-righteous to maintain that any sovereign country has the right to enter an alliance with any other sovereign country, but it’s also a bit naïve and hypocritical to advance such an absolutist stance with no regard for history or geopolitical reality. As my friend Peter Beinart wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, a simple thought experiment helps underscore Washington’s hypocrisy in this crisis: Just imagine how a US administration would react if Mexico wanted to join a military alliance with Russia.
It didn’t have to come to this, of course. When Mikhail Gorbachev pulled out of Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe to end the Cold War, there was an opportunity to create a new European security system. The Russians believed they received assurances that in exchange for accepting German reunification, the West would not move military assets into the former Soviet sphere. Fast-forward three decades and not only are many of those former Warsaw Pact in NATO, so too are some former Soviet republics, and we face a possible war because we refuse to stop flirting with the possibility that Ukraine might someday join too.
Regardless of whether the West had the moral or legal right to make these moves, it was always clear they would backfire, fueling a Russian sense of grievance and mistrust, which ultimately fueled the rise of Putin. The dictator’s true appeasers aren’t those who warned that encircling Russia after the Cold War with the “Atlantic” military alliance created to contain it would backfire, but rather the architects of those policies of triumphalist disregard for history. They were Putin’s Dr. Frankenstein, and it is their ill-advised policies that have jeopardized the security of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, US relations with its other great rival, China, have also acquired a Cold War-ish hue. The Biden Administration’s responses to an increasingly emboldened President Xi Jiping default to a zero-sum confrontational attitude in the absence of an ambitious economic agenda. The Biden administration is still operating in the same post-liberal Trumpian void: Both Republicans and Democrats have abandoned their bipartisan support of a globalist foreign policy that extols free-trade and economic integration. Trump replaced the longstanding American advancement of postwar multilateralism with a bombastic “America first” unilateralism, and so far, the Democratic administration has changed the tone without restoring the previous course.
The return of a Cold War thinking and urgency to Washington, coupled with the abandonment of a global geo-economic strategy that might elevate Mexico and North American competitiveness onto the chessboard, does not bode well for this superpower’s back, or front, yard. In addition to the “Mexican border” quote mentioned above, Mexico got only one passing presidential mention in last week’s press conference in response to a question on immigration, to the effect that Guatemalans aren’t all eager to cross Mexico to get to the United States.
Cold War impulses and habits might soon overwhelm the Biden administration’s hazy pro-democracy agenda too, taking us back to a time when the U.S. judged the health of another country’s democracy by which side it took in the standoff between superpowers. Don’t expect the United States to devote much time or energy anytime soon to maximizing the potential of its hugely important relationship with Mexico, or to be concerned about whether Mexico’s government is advancing or reversing the rule of law and economic development in the country.
President Biden might have upgraded Mexico and Latin America from backyard to front yard, but that just means the neglect is more out in the open, for all to see.