U.S.-Venezuela Relations since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats

Article excerpt

U.S.-Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats

Javier Corrales and Carlos A. Romero

Routledge, 2013, Softcover, 228 pages

Diplomacy," Winston Churchill once said, "is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions." Judging by this definition, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is not a natural diplomat. His foreign policy is blunt and acerbic: if he dislikes you, he tells you plain and simple, frequently in public. Chávez' "diplomacy" toward the U.S., his nemesis and-paradoxically-main trading partner, is a toxic mix of rhetoric with occasional pragmatism. This poses a complicated challenge for U.S. diplom ats.

What are the forces driving the evolution of recent relations between the two countries? Can we analyze them using established theories of international relations (IR)? These questions are addressed in U.S.-Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats, a new book by political scientists Javier Corrales and Carlos A. Romero.

Corrales and Romero, professors, respectively, at Amherst College and the Universidad Central de Venezuela, conclude that only a combination of IR theories can explain this relationship. Their comprehensive analysis of the facts and factors that drive it should interest students of Venezuela, as well as those specializing in international relations.

The book begins by correctly observing that U.S policy toward Venezuela after Chávez was inaugurated in 1999 and was open-minded-not friendly, but not yet fully hostile.

This changed in the first five years of George W. Bush's presidency. Two events in 2001 precipitated a heightening of tensions: the increase in internal opposition to Chávez, and Venezuela's condemnation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Washington reacted sharply to the latter by withdrawing its ambassador and publicly criticizing Chávez in an effort to rally support in the hemisphere against him, buoyed by a perception that Chávez was internally weak.

The policy of direct confrontation was unproductive for the U.S., so a more moderate approach was instituted with the appointment of Thomas Shannon to the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs post. Shannon initiated a "talk softly, sanction softly" policy, which meant maintaining trade ties, ignoring the many outrageous declarations coming from Caracas, and targeting specific individuals and institutions inside the Chávez government with midlevel sanctions. "At the core of Shannon's doctrine," the authors point out, "was a fusion of commercial liberalism and prudent realism."

This shiftin policy sparks the authors' academic curiosity. The U.S. is more important to Venezuela than vice versa, so one would expect the relationship to evolve toward a toughening stance from Washington and a more conciliatory approach from Caracas. Yet with the Shannon doctrine, the opposite has occurred. They wonder, can existing IR theories explain this counter-intuitive development?

To answer the question, the authors employ several strands of IR thinking. They first cite structural realism, which broadly posits that when two nations feel threatened by each other, conflict ensues. Under this theory, economic interdependence serves to constrain this tendency, effectively putting the brakes on harsh measures.

The authors believe structural realism on its own does not fully explain the incensed rhetoric. They argue that constructivism-which grounds international relations in ideological concerns-can assist in accounting for Venezuela's sustained anti-American stance. …