The vague, oft-repeated argument (whine?) among Latin Americanists that the United States should pay more attention to the region has never made sense. For one, it’s never clear why a relatively stable, pro-U.S. region should rank of greater importance relative to countries or regions such as Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, or the former Soviet Union. Bureaucracies and administrations are crisis- threat-driven; that’s just a fact of government. Nor was it ever clear what that attention should consist of. More presidential visits? More public statements? More mea culpas by former President Barack Obama or tours by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield (God forbid). It’s not as if the region has been underfunded by the U.S. (until now, at least). And honestly, what a comprehensive policy toward an increasingly diverse region should be was never clear. Have advocates for other regions ever clamored for a comprehensive Asia policy? The thought is laughable—if not slightly offensive to Latin Americanists who know how different the region is.
But what we see now under the administration of President Donald J. Trump is something completely different: not the lack of attention of previous administrations, but a complete and utter vacuum of comprehensive diplomatic policy, not just toward the region as a whole (for the reason mentioned above) but within the region.
According to the State Department’s own website, seventeen ambassadorships in the region remain unfilled (though for some there are pending nominations). Instead, these critical positions are currently staffed by career foreign service officers in acting capacities. This includes U.S. embassies in Argentina, Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Paraguay, and Trinidad and Tobago among others. (I’m not including Bolivia and Venezuela because, frankly, that is through no fault of the administration’s inertia or disregard for the finer points of the diplomatic machinery.)
And of course the position of the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is also filled in a temporary, non-appointed capacity by Francisco (Paco) Palmieri, though he is by no means alone, since only one of the regional assistant secretary positions has been filled. (President Trump nominated A. Wess Mitchell as Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian affairs in July). In addition to Latin America, the positions for Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, the Near East, and South Asia remain unfilled and without nominees.
This is not to say that these aren’t talented, capable professions who aren’t executing their jobs effectively within the State Department. Arguably, many are more qualified than the political appointees they may have worked for in the past or may work for in the future. But as anyone who has worked in the government knows, the capacity to articulate a broad strategy and implement it throughout the bureaucracy and across embassies and departments depends on a high-level staff endowed with presidential authority and political-bureaucratic channels that run up to the highest levels of an administration. (Full disclosure, this secret is not something I focus on in the early part of my class on the Politics of Policymaking at SIPA, where I teach first that policymaking is a science of searching for the public good; then I get to how it really works.) Indeed, many of those currently occupying these temp jobs may get the formal appointment—and I hope they do—but until then they are still only serving in an acting capacity with the limits that come with interim positions, especially in terms of contacts with and confidence from the upper reaches of power.
Moreover, without a team of presidentially appointed and congressionally confirmed regional policymakers that have the White House’s ear, it becomes difficult to articulate a broad vision for diplomacy—bilaterally or regionally. Bold initiatives require authority and political momentum, and implementing them requires a set of surrogates, across different levels of government, that are charged with that authority. That doesn’t mean an overarching region-wide slogan, but even in the case of one country, a diplomatic initiative around a specific country (you know, say, Venezuela) requires coordination across countries and institutions.
If there’s a policy other than Vice President Mike Pence’s pledge that the U.S. “won’t stand by while Venezuela crumbles” I haven’t heard it. Meaningfully doing something requires coordinating diplomacy across countries and even regions, stating clearly a set of goals of carrots and sticks instead of imposing sanctions without a clear definition of the intent and future steps behind them. Oh yeah, it also demands not saying anything ridiculous like saying there’s a “military option” on the table when no such thing is viable, and even mentioning the idea is harmful for U.S. standing in the region.
But the vacuum of policy comes from more than just the incapacity (or disinterest) in filling critical decision making and policymaking positions in Foggy Bottom and in the field. It comes from the Secretary of State. And here Secretary Rex Tillerson’s stunning silence and absence on crucial matters on the hemisphere is embarrassing, if not destructive. In essence, the head of U.S. diplomacy has remained aloof on the issue of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the keystones of U.S. bi-partisan foreign policy in the region, treating it—I guess—as a trade and commerce issue when it arguably has been and remains almost equal parts a diplomatic and security issue.
The Secretary been also MIA on key diplomatic meetings, refusing at the last minute to attend the Organization of American States’ General Assembly meeting in Cancun in June—the only foreign minister from the region not to do so. In a region that values backslapping and bon homie this would have been important even at a symbolic level. But this went beyond symbolism. There were two critical votes held in Cancun that the U.S. lost: 1) the election of a qualified U.S. jurist Doug Cassel to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and 2) a resolution co-sponsored by Mexico and Argentina—among others—condemning the unconstitutional constituent assembly elections called by Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. In the end, the resolution fell short of the 23 vote threshold, with 20 votes in favor, 6 against, and 9 abstaining.
It’s impossible to know if Secretary Tillerson’s presence would have swung the vote, but it’s likely that it could have. More important, it would have built up a reserve of good will and reinforced a regional belief that the U.S. is committed to the region and its diplomatic processes. It wouldn’t have taken much, an hour or two at the meeting and maybe a margarita at Señor Frogs. Instead, the Secretary snubbed the region and the U.S. lost a vote on a country that even President Trump considers a priority.
Beyond the failure to fill critical diplomatic positions with presidential nominees, beyond the refusal to attend the region’s multilateral confab at a critical moment, even beyond the damage done by the “military option” comment, the greatest sin so far in the administration and particularly in the State Department’s policy toward the hemisphere has been its silence—with the unfortunate exception of the deafeningly stupid notion of a military option in Venezuela. Whatever you may think of the economic/financial sanctions on Venezuela, the goal of the sanctions remains unclear. Regime collapse? Mediation efforts? What comes next if the Maduro government doesn’t buckle? What is it supposed to buckle to? Where can other countries become involved and how?
The issues are growing outside Venezuela, too. How do the NAFTA negotiations reflect other economic relationships, such as directions for the CAFTA-DR or the numerous bilateral free-trade agreements between the U.S. and Latin American nations? Given proposed deep cuts in the State budget, what will happen to educational exchanges—one of the U.S.’s great traditions—which have helped support some of the region’s impressive cadre of technocrats? Where does U.S. policy—including the State, Treasury and Justice departments—stand on the issue of the corruption that is tearing up countries in Brazil, Guatemala, and Peru, to name just a few?
If before the complaint among Latin Americans and experts on the region was that there wasn’t enough policy toward the region, now there is none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Can someone tell me where we head next? This isn’t—as one of the articles in my policymaking class is titled—“muddling through,” it’s “muddling in silence, in place.”