One of the legacies President Barack Obama will leave to his successor is increased foreign policy leverage in Latin America. Nowhere is this more evident than in U.S. policy toward Cuba and Venezuela—and because of those two countries, with the rest of the hemisphere.
Leverage in foreign policy “involves using resources and/or relationships in a creative way to bring about certain effects in the world.” In bilateral relations, it involves creating positive incentives for other governments to behave in ways that are favorable to your own policy goals. Leverage is useful to countries because it reduces the need to use hard power, which can often backfire.
Hard power entails using force (most prominently military or economic) or the threat of such force to compel certain policy decisions by another country. This kind of power had been the norm in regional relations. In the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, this has included invasion, covert action, sanctions, cut-off of economic or military aid, and threats of countless kinds. The accumulation of such experience has tended to make Latin American governments wary of U.S. hard power and of action by the U.S. in the region in general. That, in turn, has made it even more difficult for the United States to achieve its policy goals in the region. Those difficulties were particularly pronounced during the George W. Bush administration, which maintained a strong focus on hard power in the region and a hard line on Cuba and Venezuela.
By contrast, soft power fosters leverage by increasing mutual trust and creating space for dialogue, especially with states that may otherwise be resistant to your policy goals. Leverage generated by soft power creates an environment that tends to encourage other states to follow the policy lead because they agree it will lead to a mutually beneficial outcome. It is carrot more than stick.
This is why the ongoing Cuban negotiations are important. By the first decade of the 21st century, the United States had no leverage at all with regard to Cuba. The U.S. embargo had rendered the Colossus to the North with no levers that it could pull to incentivize desired action on a particular policy interest. Cuban leaders were able to ignore demands from U.S. policymakers because there was no way to punish the country further without using armed force. Without a carrot there was only stick, and the stick was worn out. Advances in immigration and human rights, which are two issues of primary most importance to the United States in Cuba, were permanently stymied.
The Obama administration also has more leverage in Venezuela, where it has creatively combined the carrot and the stick. The administration used its uber-diplomat Thomas Shannon, who originally served as Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Bush and had served in Venezuela—but is widely seen as a moderate, pragmatic statesman.
The Obama administration—following on a course correction in the latter half of the Bush administration largely steered by Shannon—built on the notion that pragmatism promised greater policy success than strict adherence to ideology. This shift was clear from the beginning of the Obama administration, but became particularly useful during 2015 when Shannon met several times with Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and other top government officials. Those meetings helped to defuse the tensions—not just in Venezuela but across the region—created by the imposition of sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. Part of the language in the sanctions announcement had involved a declaration that Venezuela was a national security threat to the United States. Discussions with Venezuela involved the Obama administration publicly announcing that it did not consider Venezuela truly to be such a threat and that the declaration had only been unfortunate bureaucratic boilerplate language. The implicit apology helped tamp down Venezuela’s typical, antagonistic anti-yanqui reaction to the sanctions and softened the criticism from the region.
Rather than provoke an unnecessary conflict with Maduro, the Obama administration’s policy goals in Venezuela were focused on a longer-term, more constructive goal: ensuring that free and fair legislative elections took place as scheduled in December 2015, and avoiding a political implosion that would shake the entire region and affect oil prices. At the very least, a U.S. policy based on flexibility and pragmatism rather than strict ideology helped convince Maduro that accepting elections was his best option.
Foreign policy creativity and the use of soft power with regard to Latin America is not the norm in U.S.-Latin American relations. There is always a stubborn insistence that sticks are preferable to carrots. What we’ve seen in recent years in both Cuba and Venezuela are small but important steps. The next President of the United States has the choice either to maintain this leverage and move forward in achieving policy goals, or to lose it and slip back to the failures of the Bush era. Avoiding the siren song of ideology and instead using creative policy tactics is essential to doing so.