Cornell alumni and members of the Cornell community filled Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall on Friday, June 8, 2012 to attend a roundtable entitled "America and the World". Fredrik Logevall, John S. Knight Professor of International Studies and Director of the Einaudi Center, moderated the discussion. Peter Katzenstein (Walter S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of International Studies), and Gustavo Flores-Macías (Assistant Professor of Government) gave their impressions of America's evolving economic and political relations with the world and identified the critical challenges facing President Obama during election year.
After a brief introduction from Logevall, Flores-Macías began his remarks by posing the rhetorical question, "Why should we care about Latin America?" With a population of 900 million people comprising 12 percent of the total global population, a combined economy of 6 trillion dollars that put the region on par with China, the fastest regional growth rate in the past 15 years of 13 percent, Latin America has more importance in the global economy than is generally recognized in the United States, he said. Latin America has experienced a 100% increase in trade with Europe and Asia, he continued, and is also the largest foreign supplier of petroleum products to the United States, supplying 30 percent of our domestic consumption in comparison to the 20 percent supplied by the Middle East.
Flores-Macías next discussed what the current administration has done to build ties with Latin America. "Generally speaking, the Obama administration has followed a policy of benign neglect. This is not a new approach to the region, " said Flores-Macías. The primary policy emphasis has been placed on opening new markets as evidenced in trade agreements with Peru in 2002, with Chile in 2004, with the Dominican Republic in 2006, as well as in new accords with Colombia and Panama this year. Domestic farm subsidies, he cautioned, are a roadblock to improved ties with producers like Brazil.
A second emphasis in relations with Latin America has been in what Flores-Macías described as "democracy promotion." He provided the static policy towards Cuba as one example. Although an increase in people-to people exchanges under the Obama administration has created space for increased dialogue, Flores-Macías believes that any improvement in relations will be at the margins and via third party states until the existing congressional restrictions are removed. He offered the various U.S. responses to recent military coups in the region as another example. The Bush administration didn't condemn the 2002 coup in Venezuela because of its policy towards the government of Hugo Chavez, Flores-Macías said, but in 2009 the Obama administration was "much less tentative" in Honduras.
A third emphasis in U.S. relations with Latin America has been on combatting illegal drugs, where policy is focused on interdiction and eradication rather than prevention. Since 2001 the U.S. has spent $8 billion on "Plan Colombia", and since 2008 the U.S. has spent $1.5 billion on "Plan Mexico". The effort in Central America has been increasingly militarized, with drones and support flights now operating from the same bases the U.S. used to support Contra activities in the Reagan years.
As the third and final part of his analysis of U.S. relations with Latin America, Flores-Macías addressed the consequences of this policy of "benign neglect", which he contends has led to dwindling U.S. influence in the region and has encouraged the growth of relevant political and economic forums outside the influence of the U.S. Regional ties with China and India have grown, and countries such as Brazil and Mexico have become stakeholders in the G20. Trade agreements with the E.U. and China are on the rise, and many of the member states participating in the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Medellin signaled that this would be the last time they would participate in the forum without a delegation from Cuba.
Flores-Macías concluded with statistics from the latest round of public opinion polls in Latin America. Whereas in 2002 the majority of Latin Americans had a favorable opinion of the United States, by 2012 this figure has shrunk to 29 percent. "Benign neglect is not the only reason for a decline in U.S. influence, but it has definitely contributed to it," he said.
Next to speak was Katzenstein, who opened his remarks by saying, "What Gustavo has said about Latin America is also true for the Middle East, Europe, and China." He continued that there were 2 current schools of thought in regards to the role of the U.S. in the world, one that the U.S. is declining, but that American order continues to dominate in a sort of "long afterglow", and the other that we are at a global turning point to multi-polarity that could be characterized as "no-one's world".
Katzenstein continued that the United States is preoccupied with extracting itself from two wars and that the Arab Spring had demonstrated that the U.S. is reacting to events in the Middle East rather than orchestrating them. As for the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, he said, "This is a continuation of our crisis, and this crisis will come back home." He went on to explain that it was unclear whether or not Europe would bail out its weaker members with Euro-bonds, and that although the E.U. had always muddled through crises in the past, it never "gets its act together" as an outgrowth of the pooling of sovereignty with no clear leadership or political mandate.
Next, Katzenstein spoke of the dynamic between the U.S. and China, who had managed several joint foreign relations crises in recent months. Obama is "pivoting" towards China both economically and militarily, and acknowledging the importance of the $700-800 billion trade deficit with China between 2002 and 2009. To continue their development, he explained, China needs to build internal demand and consumption for the same products they are exporting so successfully. However, cautioned Katzenstein, most new development is being re-directed to serve the export market.
To conclude his remarks, Katzenstein said that the U.S. is still in a position of strength because we are still the only power to be a major player in all of the regions. He envisioned a, "...regional world with the United States playing a major role in each region but not dominating any of them but Latin America."
The panelists then responded to questions from the floor. One audience member pointed out that although we are in a global economy with most development being oriented towards the South and East, most political rhetoric still centers on our own national interest. He asked, "Is flag waving obsolete? Do we need to re-frame our perspective?" Katzenstein answered that the rise of multinational corporations is not new, but the state is still not obsolete. A new bargain is being fashioned as a part of this process, but the "sovereignty principle" is still embedded. Flores-Macías added that, "All politics is local," and explained that the sentiments related to national interest are still relevant to job loss and other economic issues that are experienced locally.
Another audience member asked whether or not the United States was viewed by those abroad as a stabilizing influence. Flores-Macías answered that in the Latin American shift towards the political left, "There is a tendency to blame the U.S. for what it does, and also for what it doesn't do." Katzenstein continued that the response varies from region to region, and depends if respondents are asked for their opinion about the "U.S." or "Americans".
Logevall then exercised his moderator's privilege to pose a question to Flores-Macías, who he asked to discuss the U.S. policy towards Cuba and whether it could be explained by 25 Electoral College votes from Florida or other domestic political imperatives. Flores-Macías replied that the policy was hard to rationalize, but that domestic political imperatives were most of the explanation. He also pointed to a "rhetorical status quo" in how we talk about "Castro's Cuba", and said that the language of democracy promotion makes it impossible for many in the U.S. to see past the current regime.
A final audience member asked, "Are the future of Latin America and China materially different, and what are the implications?" Katzenstein answered that China has used an entirely new "compressed" development model. He went on to explain that China's economic rise has come out of the profits of U.S. and European tech companies, and the biggest question China faces is how to adapt that approach to their domestic markets. Flores-Macías countered that Latin America was moving somewhat in the direction of the new development model in Brazil. Countries that have adhered to the "Washington Consensus", he said, have fared the worst during the current financial crisis.
The Einaudi Center sponsors its annual Current Events Roundtable as part of Cornell Alumni Reunion. This event provides alumni with the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with prominent Cornell professors about topics of current international interest.