Benign Neglect: Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere. (Perspectives on the United States)

By Haluani, Makram | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Benign Neglect: Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere. (Perspectives on the United States)


Haluani, Makram, Harvard International Review


Governments around the world base foreign policy strategies on their interpretations of US attitudes. They look for both consistencies and changes in the speeches, press conferences, and remarks of senior US officials. The course of international events depends on these attitudes, and the rest of the world knows it. This practice is especially true of Latin American countries, whose governments have followed recent trends in US presidential discourse with some concern.

On August 25, 2000, Republican presidential candidate George Bush proclaimed, "Should I become president, I'll look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment." He assured his audience that he would be the "mejor amigo" of Latin America. Indeed, as president, Bush's first visit abroad was to Mexico and not to Canada, a significant departure from tradition. According to Bush, Latin America holds a central place in US foreign policy. He even rejoiced in the "new century of the Americas" when he received Mexican President Vicente Fox at the White House in early September 2001. During that particular state visit, just days before the September 11 attacks, Bush described US ties to Mexico as "our most important relationship."

But, as US Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked on the flight from Lima, Peru, to Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001, "This changes everything. Everything we do is going to be different." Powell cancelled his three-day Peruvian visit, originally planned to bolster support for the war on drugs. This action probably represented the cancellation not just of that official visit, but also of a whole range of hopes and dreams for a long "benignly neglected" continent.

An Indispensable Nation

It is not difficult to understand the worldwide dimensions of US power in economic and military terms. The US population is only 4.7 percent of the global population of over six billion, yet it consumes up to 25 percent of all the energy produced. Of the approximately US$31.4 trillion of annual global economic output, 31.2 percent is produced by the United States alone. The United States is responsible for 36.3 percent of the annual US$811.5 billion spent on global defense. The US share of global expenditures on research and development is a towering 40.6 percent.

That the United States is powerful is not the problem for Latin American or other countries; instead, the problem is how the United States throws its weight around. According to Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, US "soft power" is much more desirable than "raw power." The distinction between "raw" and "soft" is not to be understood solely in terms of the selective use of military hardware, but also in the discriminate choice of political targets. Soft power therefore implies knowing when and on whom to apply what kind of raw pressure.

US military power is a major factor m contemporary world politics, and the international community has its misgivings about Bush's foreign policy. He has carried out unilateral bombing of Iraq, ignored unpaid dues to the United Nations, opposed the international antilandmine treaty, labeled countries "rogue states" and "terrorist nations," unsigned the International Criminal Court treaty, displayed an indifferent attitude toward the effects of global warming, and withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Yet we must keep in mind that the humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo were accomplished under firm US leadership. The liberation of Kuwait in 1991 drew the world's admiration for US willingness to do something at a time when most other countries shied away from decisive military action. On the other hand, the tragic 1994 Rwandan crisis was permitted to "solve itself," leaving a lasting stain on the humanitarian record not only of the United States, but also of all nations capable of interventon.

Present-day practices of international peacekeeping hint at the cost of maintaining US hegemonic power. …

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