Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, told the audience of the 4th Annual Hemispheric Security Conference at Florida International University that Southern Command’s strategy could be summed up in just one word: partnership. This collaborative vision of U.S.-Latin American Relations lines up nicely with other strategy documents produced by the Trump administration, including the administration’s National Security Strategy and comments made by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, although many within the Trump administration have made overtures towards collaboration within the Americas, many of the policies implemented by the administration hinder efforts at Hemispheric partnership and solidarity. This contradictory approach to foreign policy in the region undermines the administration’s policies and weakens U.S. national interests in the region.
From the official documents and speeches, the Trump administration has laid out its interests in Latin America as following a few key objectives: 1) Return democracy to the so-called “Troika of Tyranny,” 2) Halt the expansion of and reduce Chinese and Russian influence in the Americas, 3) Halt illegal immigration into the Americas, 4) Promote better trade deals for the United States, and 5) Combat transnational crime in the region. None of these objectives can be achieved unilaterally by the United States. As such, many U.S. policy planners have highlighted the need for partnerships with the other American republics.
Rather than seeking to strengthen Hemispheric partnerships as laid out in the administration’s own strategy documents, the actions taken by the White House have undermined these efforts. The undermining of these efforts began the very day that Donald J. Trump announced his intention to run for President of the United States. Rather than laying out a way to work with the United States’ Southern neighbors, Trump referred to “Mexican” immigrants as rapists and thieves. While Trump may have been speaking to a domestic political audience, these insults were heard across the region and not taken to be aimed solely at immigrants nor solely about Mexico, a country that was not even the largest sender of immigrants at the time. These types of insults help to explain President Trump’s low public perception across the region.
Upon taking office, the Trump administration has done further harm to efforts to develop partnerships in the Americas. Although former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about partnership on his visit to Latin America, he also scolded Latin America for taking aid from China and invoked the much-hated Monroe Doctrine on the eve of his trip. Exacerbating this scolding, the Trump administration did not even offer increased foreign aid to the region to compete with Chinese offers of foreign aid and development finance. Instead, the Trump administration has consistently cut foreign aid to the region. To make matters worse, President Trump continues demands for a wall between Mexico and the United States and, rather than seeking to boost trade between the United States and its southern neighbor, has pushed a hardline on trade. This in turn has opened the door for an increased role for China in Mexico and Central America despite the official U.S. objective of reducing Chinese influence in the Americas.
Furthermore, despite the poor reception of Tillerson’s remarks regarding the Monroe Doctrine, Trump administration officials have doubled down on the Monroe Doctrine, with Elliott Abrams, the administration’s Special Envoy on Venezuela, saying that the administration is “not afraid to use the word Monroe Doctrine.” To further stoke fears of a return of U.S. interventionism in the region, the Trump administration has stated multiple times that it has not ruled out the use of force to resolve the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. This position and the continued discussion of the Monroe Doctrine may make Latin American leaders weary of partnering with the United States.
These unilateral actions on the part of the Trump administration fly in the face of the stated objectives of establishing partnerships in the Americas. One of the opportunities that the Trump administration had to establish closer relations with the other American republics was at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru – an event that Donald Trump did not attend, making him the first U.S. President to skip one of the Summits of the Americas since its inception in 1994.
The White House needs to listen to and follow the advice of the professionals that are developing its strategic documents. The problems that face the Americas are too complex to be addressed by any single nation. The insults, finger wagging, and threats made by the White House and its closest allies undermine the ability of the United States to strengthen these partnerships. The region has banded together in the past to address common problems and promote the prosperity of all nations in the Americas. However, to do so has always required respect for the nations of the Americas and the forging of partnerships to address critical problems. Rather than focusing on garnering domestic political victories, the Trump administration needs to do what is best for the national interest and for the citizens of the Americas.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Florida International University (FIU). Prior to coming to FIU, he conducted research on Latin American public and foreign policy for a number of groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies.