OK, Plan B. What if instead of proceeding with its “Summit of the Americas” in Los Angeles in three weeks, the Biden administration instead expands the gathering beyond just heads of state from this hemisphere, by also inviting European allies to a grand “Summit of the West.”?
It’s not happening, of course, but it must be tempting. Why throw a party if you can’t invite your real friends? Or, even more direly, why throw a party if no one might come?
It is three weeks till D-Day, literally, which is when the Summit kicks off, and the leaders of Brazil and Mexico, the two largest nations in the hemisphere after the United States, are saying they aren’t coming. Others may follow their lead, and in some cases the reason cited for their absence is the White House’s refusal to invite the dictatorships of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. So, there should be plenty of places at the head table.
President Biden came into office determined to make multilateralism great again, and as I wrote recently on this site, Vladimir Putin has been working hard this year to assist Biden’s quest to revive a sense of common purpose and an appreciation for shared values across the transatlantic alliance and much of Europe. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has reversed all the damage his admirer Donald Trump had inflicted on the alliance’s cohesion and solidarity.
The contrast with the Americas is distressing. There is nothing Putin or anyone else can seemingly do to revive a sense of common purpose and an appreciation for shared values throughout the Americas, in part because they were never very alive to begin with. Many in Latin America might not have liked Donald Trump’s stance vis-à-vis Venezuela and Cuba, but overall, most leaders in this hemisphere –certainly those in Mexico City and Brasilia – preferred the former president’s “let’s all mind our own business and put our own country first” agenda to the Biden call to engage in a common democracy-building project.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Biden. He means well, even if his administration’s outreach to Latin America has been vague on specifics. Too often, US leaders treat the region as we all might treat cousins we really like but haven’t seen in a couple of years. We keep meaning to call them to see how they’re doing, but things keep coming up, getting in the way. Wars in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, for instance.
But now, as Biden has committed to going to Los Angeles to see the cousins, it’s understandable that the ongoing global reset to Cold War dynamics by Putin’s actions aren’t enhancing hemispheric solidarity in the same way they are doing so for the transatlantic alliance. I wish Mexico and some of South America’s larger countries would impose significant sanctions on Russia, but I don’t share some of my American friends’ shock that this hasn’t happened.
The United States and NATO, after all, are vulnerable on their southern flank to accusations of hypocrisy. Washington’s professed belief throughout the Ukrainian crisis that every sovereign nation has the right to determine its own destiny, including its own alliances, and its rejection of any notion that regional powers are owed deference within their spheres of interest may stir the hearts of Poles and Czechs, but elicit head-shaking chuckles south of the border.
Because, you know, history.
When it comes to its pro-democracy agenda, the United States is also vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy since it has historically applied that criterion for membership in the inter-American club rather selectively. Now, the U.S. has even less moral authority to award good democratic housekeeping seals of approval, given the state of its own democracy. Our former president left office in what he – along with much of his party and its media cheerleaders – claims was a stolen election, whose results his thuggish supporters tried reversing by storming our legislative palace as votes were being counted. All of which elicited its own round of head-shaking chuckles in some quarters south of the border.
The tragedy of course is that democracy still suffers from being a Biden agenda, not a hemispheric one. Latin American leaders can resent and mock Washington’s desire to bolster democracy in the region all they want, but it is their cowardly indifference to the subject that is the cancer eating away at the fabric of civil liberties and civic life in too many of their countries. Biden is trying to overcome a lot of complicated history, but leaders like Andrés Manuel López Obrador would rather revel in it than move forward.
So the problem bedeviling all pan-American efforts, this Summit included, remains the absence of a compelling, shared vision for the hemisphere. The first Summit of the Americas in 1994 suffered from many of the same challenges, but at least then, and for a few years thereafter, the neoliberal economic project of integration and expanding markets resonated with a decent quorum of countries on the continent. But that proved a transitory agenda, one that even Biden has abandoned, and no substitute for a permanent shared vision built upon a foundation of shared values.
In terms of acrimony-inducing history between its member states, Europe is far richer than the Americas. Indeed, it is because that history destroyed the continent over two world wars that a shared continental vision that transcended any momentary disagreements or crises became an existential necessity.
We don’t have that in the Americas. The interdependence is real – certainly between the United States and Mexico it is as real as it is between any two European nations – but not its acknowledgment. History still provides more grievance than cautionary tale and pan-American cohesion lacks the binding external threat that Russia provides Europe.
Even the terrain here is a bit uncertain. Europeans have a shared identity, but do we “Americans” have one? What are “the Americas”? I read in Edward Shawcross’ engaging biography of Maximilian, The Last Emperor of Mexico, that the term “Latin America” was first popularized in mid-19th Century France to define a cultural region larger than just South America or Spanish-speaking America that excluded, and stood in opposition to, the United States (and thus presumably susceptible to Catholic France’s influence). The French-backed Maximilian adventure was a hopeless failure, but the underlying semantic stratagem worked wonders.
Of all the overlapping, loosely felt identities that might transcend nationality in the hemisphere, “Latin American” is among the stickiest. Even in Mexico, so tied to the United States, people are far more likely to consider themselves “Latin American” than “North American.”
The Mexican government seems intent on sabotaging Biden’s Summit, but in terms of a missed opportunity, Mexico stands to lose the most from the failure. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but Mexico needs the United States more than the United States needs Mexico. And Mexico, if it didn’t have a president who prefers to stay at home talking to himself every morning, could gain tremendously by leveraging its interlocutor status, bridging North America and the rest of the hemisphere.
Cuba is just a pretext for AMLO to avoid a summit he was always going to try to avoid. Not meeting Biden because of Cuba or Nicaragua is as absurd as if France’s Macron decided not to meet with his German counterpart over some disagreement involving Cyprus or Macedonia. Disagreements are all the more reason to come together, to hash them out. Much like the French-German axis at the heart of Europe, the U.S.-Mexico relationship isn’t an optional one – our two countries are inextricably linked in a close relationship that must be managed, and hopefully maximized, for the benefit of each nation.
And of all the Americas.