Since leaving government in January 2013, I’ve had time to reflect and speak with colleagues about our experience in government, particularly as it relates to the process and outcomes of Latin American policymaking during the first term of the Obama administration. Much has been analyzed by scholars and journalists about the outcomes (or the “what”) of U.S. policy toward the Americas, but little to no attention has been devoted to the sausage-making (or the “how”) of U.S. policy toward the region. This is unfortunate as it limits our overall understanding of policy outcomes.
Based on my experiences in government, I’ve come to believe that analysts continue to underestimate the degree to which the decision-making process and the specific individuals engaged in it shape policy outcomes. More to the point, the weight of policymakers’ preferences and different levels of power based on personality, skills of persuasion and personal ties has a significant effect on the shape of foreign policy outcomes. The policymakers’ effectiveness is not due to intelligence or even a clear understanding of national interests and objectives but to their adeptness at developing and presenting arguments and ability at persuading—both colleagues and superiors—through personal relationships and the strength of personality.
Since the 1960s, scholars such as Richard Neustadt, Thomas Schelling and Graham Allison have sought to describe how individual preferences, personal interactions and politicking influence decision-making. Allison’s classic work, Essence of Decision, suggests that decision-making by an organization is more complex than the standard rationalist model that focuses narrowly on maximizing goals and objectives. His “Governmental Politics” model underscores the importance not of the state or organization but of the individual. This is not to suggest that national interest considerations and bureaucratic preferences are inconsequential; it is just that academics and pundits, in their analysis, especially of U.S.-Latin America and Caribbean foreign policymaking, tend to disregard the weight of process and, particularly, the role of personality and personal preferences and interactions in determining policy outcomes.
As a participant or back-bencher in senior formal and informal inter-agency policymaking meetings, I often observed how personalities and interactions among key individuals shaped not only the discussion but also the policy direction and recommendations made. Although I believe this dynamic to be true regardless of the region or issue, as I found talking to colleagues working in other areas, I believe it is particularly the case in U.S.-LAC policymaking. Why?
Foreign policy principals’ expertise and attention devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean simply does not reach the same level as other higher priority areas or issues, such as the Middle East, China and terrorism. It is not that senior foreign policymakers are indifferent or disengaged from Latin America; it is just that the region does not represent the same challenges of other regions. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean is viewed as a region of partnership and opportunity.
With so many challenges and demands placed on the principals’ time and attention, the day-to-day issues of Latin America and the Caribbean are largely delegated to where the real depth of knowledge and experience on LAC issues exist—at the assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary levels. If those officials have the confidence of the principals and are, as a result, given substantial leeway to develop and recommend policies to their superiors, then that level of government (assistant and deputy assistant secretaries) has a significant degree of influence and responsibility in the development of policy.
First, it is important to note that the basic foreign policy decision-making structure is inter-agency. That is, analysis and recommendations are made by representatives of the different departments and agencies overseen, at least in the Obama administration, by the National Security Council (NSC) staff; in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, this is the Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the NSC. The inter-agency group meets regularly on urgent or more strategic policy issues. Analysis and recommendations at the assistant and deputy assistant secretary level then often flows up to the deputies (deputy and under-secretary level) and then on to the principals (cabinet members) for approval or decision by the President.
I had the privilege to be part of this core group and to be involved in a number of inter-agency meetings that led to important tactical and strategic decisions that, in many cases, were approved by our principals, specifically the cabinet-level members of the NSC.
During the course of dozens of meetings on some complex and mundane issues dealing with Plan Merida, Plan Colombia, Central America and a host of other countries and diplomatic, security and economic issues, I could not help but notice how often the dynamic of personal interactions and individual preferences and personal insecurity dominated the discussion and, to a certain extent, policy outcomes.
In one instance, for example, during a discussion of a controversial topic, one senior government official suddenly stood up and left the room seemingly offended by either the discussion or by the presence of others in the meeting. Neither the meeting, nor the decision-making process, however, stopped with their departure, only that individual’s power to shape the policy’s outcome. For me, that one moment crystalized the importance of individuals and their interactions to policy formulation.
This raises a number of important questions that need further reflection and study. For example, how does this deference and space given to mid-ranking policymakers change or influence outcomes? My personal opinion is that policy is much better informed as a result of the deference; the question is whether these mid-ranking government officials have the influence or weight to recommend more dramatic new policy initiatives or shifts in existing policy. Also, does this mean that Latin America and the Caribbean is destined to be of lower priority because most of the day-to-day work of mid-ranking policymakers does not come to the attention of their superiors? I do not believe so. Priority is not determined by process. But these are nonetheless, important questions worthy of further discussion, especially in comparison to other regions.
Fear not. All these questions—and more!!—will be answered at the upcoming Latin American Studies Conference held at the Midtown Hilton Hotel in New York City. I will be joined for a panel discussion on the topic on Saturday, May 28 (12:45-2:25) by Dan Restrepo (former Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the NSC) and Julissa Reynoso (former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to Uruguay). Chris Sabatini will lead the discussion as moderator and discussant of the panel.