For some the legacy of the Cold War remains an enduring formative experience. On one side, there are those who continue to see any extra-hemispheric power’s statements and attention to the region as a threat, irrespective of its ability to actually project real power, of the changed ways in which states now exercise influence, or of its concrete national interest. These are people who still see Latin America as the U.S.’s backyard and any encroachment on that as a direct threat to the soft-underbelly of U.S. security.
We all know the type, right? A Russian submarine docking in Cuba, a visit by the odious former President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to one of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) countries (or even, sadly, Brazil) or a visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to the region sets the hair on fire of the BackYardistas who sound the alarm that U.S. security is at risk. The claims are made regardless of the actual act or immediate threat. The implication, of course, is that any intruder in the U.S.’s backyard is… well, an intruder in the U.S.’s backyard and therefore unwelcome.
Now, to be sure, during the Cold War communism and the Soviet Union’s desire to gain a foothold in the U.S. sphere of interest were real and a direct threat to U.S. security and interests and to the human rights of citizens across the hemisphere. And while this in no way justifies the bloodshed in Guatemala in 1954 and after, Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’etat and the bloodshed and repression that followed in Chile, the human rights abuses under military governments in Brazil and Argentina trying to stomp out communism in their societies, or the grisly civil wars that wracked Central America, communism and the Soviet influence were a threat. For all the opposition to Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s thesis in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” she was correct that totalitarian regimes were more enduring. After all the democratic transitions that swept the hemisphere in the 1970s and 1980s one autocratic regime remains: Cuba—though its survival has been helped by the isolation imposed by the 53-year U.S. embargo.
The problem now is two-fold: these new claims of incursion and insidious influence are often made irrespective of the actual power of the backyard interloper to exert its influence, and they ignore the reality of the more subtle and long-term ways aspiring powers in the world today assert power.
There’s a uniformity in the BackYardista alarmism that doesn’t square with modern reality. Take, for example, the expressions that Russia was out to shore up allies and extend military bases in the hemisphere when its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited the region in March 2015. A year earlier in Cuba commentators and an article in The Washington Times also implied that Russia was looking to reassert an intelligence asset when it was rumored that Russia was going to re-open a listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, a hundred or so miles off the coast of the United States. Similarly, analysts like Jaime Suchlicki saw in Russia’s forgiveness of $32 billion of Cuban debt last year as a plan to grease the skids for renewing the strategic, clientelistic relationship between the two countries.
There are three problems with those suspicions. The first is the obvious: in this day and age of hacking—in which the Chinese can infiltrate the U.S. government database and get the personnel records of 22.1 million people—and satellite intercepts, who needs a listening post off the coast of a country? Do they imagine a creaky giant bowl satellite dish pointed north toward the U.S. picking up secret military communications? So Cold War.
The second is that Russia had long ago written off those debts. For all their economic mismanagement and clearly misguided theories of economics, no one in Moscow could have really thought that Cuba was in a condition to pay back those loans. (Mexico had written them off just a year earlier.) Which brings me to the third: given Russia’s woeful economic situation—with a likely 3.4 percent decline in GDP this year and inflation around 12 percent—the weak bear of Mother Russia can’t afford a client state.
The same goes for China. The latest series of visits by the Chinese Premier this year to Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile and the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba occasioned similar Chicken Little forecasts. But all evidence suggests that the Middle Kingdom’s interest in Latin America is economic—primarily gaining secure access to the raw materials necessary to fuel its economic growth—not territorial conquest or a greater ideological struggle to win converts in the U.S.’s backyard.
(And don’t even mention the Iran scaremongering; the most extreme claims have been consistently and thoroughly disproven by the U.S. State Department and such notorious instruments of Hezbollah propaganda and interests like the centrist think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies—CSIS. But more on that in a few weeks.)
Now none of this is to say that these states are not risks to U.S. interests and even security. Quite the opposite. But they are not immediate security threats along the lines of Cold War intervention that the BackYardistas would have you believe.
Rather, these rival powers require a modern analysis and understanding of the subtle, long-term and indirect challenges that they represent, not just to U.S. interests (because they are in the U.S.’s backyard) but to the broader liberal world order. Here are a few ways the risks are different than those presented by the BackYardistas.
First, as R. Evan Ellis has objectively detailed in both the Russian and Chinese cases, Russian and Chinese arms sales have focused primarily on small-scale systems and neither country has become arms’ merchants in the region to equal the U.S. or Western Europe. Nevertheless, as Ellis argues, these arms sales have increased in a relatively short time and have become increasingly sophisticated. But the sales do not represent an immediate threat, and running around like your hair’s on fire screaming about Chinese creeping presence in the weapons market only distracts. What is necessary—as Ellis proposes—is a more measured global effort to give other U.S. allies an entré into Latin American and Caribbean arms markets and to ensure greater transparency in transactions.
Second, there are the medium and long-term economic challenges from China’s rise. Today, of course, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and, to a lesser extent, the rest of South America are suffering those pitfalls in their declining growth rates due to the cooling Chinese economy. In the boom years they came to depend on China’s demand for raw materials, while failing to diversify their economic bases. And there is also the long-term problem of the natural resources that Ecuador and Venezuela have mortgaged at cheap rates to China in exchange for loans.
In these cases, the extension of a U.S. economic opportunity—through the promise of greater trade and, in a limited form, assistance—can help wean some of these countries from their dependence on China. But their dependence on China is not the fault of some insidious Chinese grand design. Rather it’s just economic logic and policy laziness on the part of many Latin American governments.
The real economic threat is in China (and other’s) efforts to remake the global multilateral financial system.
And this raises the third and most important risk: the threat of these countries to the economic and political liberal order. Directly and indirectly the risk that China, Russia and Iran may bring isn’t in bilateral or state-to-state relations, it is in the effect they are having on the global normative system of governance.
On the economic/financial front, if China’s bilateral lending and investment practices are any indication, the plans to create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the BRICS banks threaten to roll back decades of multilateral lending practice in areas such as transparency, consultation with local populations and environmental safeguards.
The greater challenge, though, may be in the realm of democracy and human rights. The slippage in election observation standards and commitment to the inter-American system of human rights in the hemisphere is paralleled in other parts of the world. If you thought the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) or Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) were weak on (if not a threat to) human rights, then you should take a look at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The regional group founded in 2001 by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan “actively rejects the imposition of political and economic conditionalities by global-governance institutions.” At the same time, Chinese and Russian votes and vetoes in the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Council are finding new (and sometimes surprising) allies in the Global South on contentious votes of human rights, humanitarian intervention and supporting Chinese and Russian positions internationally. The net effect of these votes and positions has been the erosion of the normative liberal framework that has governed—albeit imperfectly—since World War II and particularly since the end of the Cold War.
These aren’t “backyard” issues nor are they immediate security threats of incursion or extra-hemispheric intervention. They are global issues, and they are long-term challenges to a broader liberal world order that cannot be properly measured or addressed by simply hiving off the region as if it were a U.S. security domain or through Manichean blinders of those who are with us or against us.
Rather, they require carefully rebuilding the consensus among the Global North with friends and even friendly rivals in the Global South to restore and renew the norms and standards that have sustained global peace for over 50 years. The cross-hemisphere Trans-Pacific Partnership (OMG with the communist government of Vietnam!!! They’ve gained a foothold in our hemisphere’s economy!!) is an excellent example of renegotiating and renewing the new international regime along liberal principles. The same needs to occur in the political and multilateral realm as well.
Denouncing every trip or exchange from every rival leader who sets foot in the hemisphere and claiming immediate threats just distracts… and ain’t gonna work.