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Summit of the Americas: Biden’s leadership challenged in own backyard

Summit of the Americas: Biden’s leadership challenged in own backyard

Following on his administration’s leadership of opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Joe Biden recently turned his focus back to China’s challenge to the international order, traveling to Asia and participating in a summit of the Indo-Pacific “Quad” democracies.

The point the White House aimed to demonstrate: that the United States retains the capacity and the moral authority to lead the world.

Why We Wrote This

The run-up to this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles illustrates President Biden’s regional leadership challenges despite his success elsewhere, as his ability to inspire trust has been hampered by principles he has articulated for his presidency.

Yet the run-up to this week’s Summit of the Americas, which Mr. Biden is hosting, has demonstrated how far the U.S. has fallen as a regional leader and how the needs to inspire trust and articulate a principled vision can come into conflict.

His decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua was faulted as the U.S. slipping back to its unilateral ways of yore. But Mr. Biden, who has made the democracy-autocracy clash a central theme of his presidency, could hardly ignore autocracy’s creep in the Western Hemisphere, administration officials say.

Beneath it all is an abiding sense that Latin America simply is not a top American priority.

“There are certainly some very crucial issues the region needs to address together,” says Michael Shifter, at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But it’s hard to see how a summit formula based on unity that existed a couple of decades ago is the answer for tackling those issues when the region is so disappointingly fragmented.”

WASHINGTON

After the debacle of last summer’s Afghanistan withdrawal, President Joe Biden and his team surprised many – not least Russia’s Vladimir Putin – with their dogged and effective leadership of international opposition to the war in Ukraine.

More recently, Mr. Biden turned his focus to China and the challenge he sees it posing to the rules-based and values-inspired international order. He hosted a gathering of leaders from Southeast Asian countries, then traveled to rock-solid Asian allies Japan and South Korea and participated in a summit of the Indo-Pacific “Quad” democracies: the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.

The point the White House aimed to demonstrate: that the U.S. retains the capacity and the moral authority to lead the world.

Why We Wrote This

The run-up to this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles illustrates President Biden’s regional leadership challenges despite his success elsewhere, as his ability to inspire trust has been hampered by principles he has articulated for his presidency.

Yet the sense that U.S. global leadership is on a roll is now suffering an embarrassing setback – in America’s own backyard.

This week in Los Angeles, Mr. Biden is hosting the Summit of the Americas, which, since the inaugural summit in Miami in 1994, periodically gathers the Western Hemisphere’s democracies and free-market economies.

But if anything, the weeks leading up to the Los Angeles summit have demonstrated how far the U.S. has fallen as the leader and guide of a region stretching from Canada to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego.

The recent weeks have illustrated how important requirements of a leader – the abilities to inspire trust with sustained attention and articulate a principled vision and joint purpose – can come into conflict, degrading the leadership and undercutting unity.

Threats of boycotts by some countries and some declared leader no-shows – along with complaints from across the region of poor summit planning, lack of information, and a hazy agenda – have all underscored a wide lack of trust in U.S. intentions.

Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo and first lady Yazmin Colon arrive at Los Angeles International Airport to attend the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, June 6, 2022.

Mr. Biden’s decision not to invite the hemisphere’s three authoritarian regimes – Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – set off a regional row with leaders who fault the U.S. for slipping back to Uncle Sam’s unilateral, we-know-best ways of yore. But Mr. Biden, who has made the century’s democracy-autocracy clash a central theme of his presidency, could hardly ignore autocracy’s creep in the hemisphere, administration officials say.

Beneath it all is an abiding sense that a three-decade-old summit formula based on U.S. leadership no longer works in an era of diminished U.S. influence in the region – and that when it comes to America’s priorities, Latin America simply does not fall very high on the list.

“It reminds me of the old Paul Simon song ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ – that describes the U.S.-Latin America relationship today,” says Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“The run-up to the summit has revealed a severe credibility gap that has been building, frankly, over the past two decades,” he adds. “The old 1990s rhetoric” the administration has been using “rings hollow given today’s realities.”

Missing ambassadors

Clearly 2022 is not 1994, when then-President Bill Clinton could summon to Miami all 34 hemispheric leaders save Cuba’s communist Fidel Castro to talk democracy and lay the groundwork for a hemisphere-wide free trade area based on open market economies.

Today, instead of the envisioned U.S.-led hemispheric free trade area, China now reigns as many countries’ top trading partner. Chinese companies are dominating the infrastructure and commodities sectors where U.S. companies were once king.

Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters/File

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, a non-invitee to the Americas Summit in Los Angeles, looks on as Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (not pictured) speaks to the media at the Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela, April 29, 2022.

Moreover, the region can’t help but question U.S. leadership and interest when more than a half-dozen U.S. embassies operate without an ambassador, some regional experts say. There was high hope that the neglect would change with President Biden, they say – but those hopes have been dashed.

“After Trump there was a lot of expectation of President Biden, but the sense of mostly being ignored did not change from one [president] to the other,” says Dorotea López Giral, director of the University of Chile’s Institute of International Studies. “There are still seven countries without a U.S. ambassador, and Chile hasn’t had an ambassador in six years,” she adds. “What does that say to the region?”

Not all the regional disconnect can be laid at the feet of Washington, some analysts say, noting that few of the sub-hemispheric free trade and cooperation initiatives in Latin America, among them Mercosur, have flourished.

But add to the growing regional disunity the signs of a checked-out hemispheric leader and widespread confusion over summit goals, and it starts to make sense that some leaders might decide the gathering isn’t worth their time.

Noting that a month before the summit Chile’s diplomats still had “no idea what the themes would be,” Dr. López says, “You hear more people questioning, ‘What’s the point?’”

Courting left, and right

Just a few weeks ago, more than a dozen leaders were threatening not to even show up in Los Angeles. They included leaders of several Caribbean nations and the presidents of Brazil, Ecuador, and next-door neighbor Mexico.

The leftists in the group said they’d only come if all countries were invited – including the authoritarian leaders. On the other hand, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer of former President Donald Trump, said he hadn’t been convinced of any good reason for the summit and so would not attend.

The growing pile of regrets and prospects of numerous (and embarrassing) empty chairs threw the administration into emergency diplomatic mode – the White House even dispatching first lady Jill Biden to Ecuador and other countries.

The result is that a number of leaders have replaced their regrets with a positive RSVP – including Mr. Bolsonaro, who has now been awarded a one-on-one with Mr. Biden.

Adriano Machado/Reuters/File

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro reacts during a ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, May 4, 2022. Mr. Bolsonaro will meet personally with President Joe Biden at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles after first saying he would not attend.

But Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador remains a holdout. No Cuba, he insists, no Mexican president.

On a call with reporters last week, senior White House officials said they held out hope that a formula could be found – perhaps inviting a low-level Cuban official – to satisfy Mr. López Obrador and get him to Los Angeles. But when the invitation list was published Tuesday, Mr. López Obrador was not on it.

As White House Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez said on the call, Mr. Biden “very personally wants the president of Mexico there.”

Some regional officials and analysts say there’s a sense that Washington is “checking a box with the summit,” as one said, setting aside a week for the hemisphere as the administration has focused on Europe in the wake of the Ukraine war and then turned attention to Asia to signal that the China challenge is not forgotten.

Items on the agenda

But administration officials say the president is demonstrating his interest in the region not just by having the summit, but by having it focus on issues that matter to the entire hemisphere. Those include migration, “near-shoring” (bringing manufacturing and related jobs back from Asia to countries closer to the U.S.), corruption, and climate change.

On migration, Mr. Gonzalez says the summit will take a holistic approach to an issue that affects everyone in the region, from countries migrants leave from, the countries they pass through, and the destination countries like the U.S. The aim will be to demonstrate an understanding that “the migration challenge is not one that is at the U.S. border,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Calling this a “shared approach” to an issue that affects the entire hemisphere, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said at the briefing that such a vision of migration could open doors for discussing a range of issues including migrant documentation, standards of public services, ethical job recruitment, and creating pathways for legal migration.

But Mr. Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue remains skeptical that a few days in Los Angeles can reverse a decades-long slide in relations.

“The truth is that Latin America hasn’t been on Washington’s priority list for many years, and when Biden came into office emphasizing the Indo-Pacific region and then Ukraine, it was a sign that the big picture hadn’t changed,” Mr. Shifter says.

“There are certainly some very crucial issues the region needs to address together,” he adds. “But it’s hard to see how a summit formula based on unity that existed a couple of decades ago is the answer for tackling those issues when the region is so disappointingly fragmented.”

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