In April 2018, heads of state from around the Western Hemisphere will gather in Lima for the 8th Summit of the Americas, the only formal gathering of all the region’s leaders. In the past, the United States has used the Summit to advance its diplomatic goals (such as the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas during the Clinton and second Bush administrations) and hemispheric democratic norms, and demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with its Western Hemisphere priorities—as President Obama did during his much-publicized meeting with Raúl Castro at the 2015 Summit.
While the agendas and motives of the Summit have changed since the elected leaders of the hemisphere first convened in 1994 in Miami—it has sometimes descended into gratuitous anti-American side shows (Mar del Plata in 2005, for example)—it has remained a centerpiece of hemispheric summitry, long before the conspicuously U.S.-absent UNASUR and CELAC gabfests. Even with the occasional distractions and empty abrazos of the Summit, the 24-year-old process has set a tone for regional relations and remained a platform for U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.
Nevertheless, rumors have circulated in the past week that President Trump will skip the 2018 Summit in Lima. Should that occur several possibilities may emerge. The first is that other heads of state from the region would decide to abstain as well, damaging the prospects that the Summit will take place at all and threatening any future summits. Second, other countries, such as Canada and Mexico, would step up and lead the Summit in the absence of the United States. The worst case scenario is that in the vacuum of U.S. leadership the usual gaggle of anti-American stalwarts, from Nicaragua to Venezuela, would use a forum once dedicated to democracy and free trade to rail against the United States and advance their own autocratic, retrograde agendas.
Historically, the Summit has been an opportunity for the U.S. to promote its interests and bolster its standing in the region. First held in 1994 in Miami during the Clinton administration, the first few rounds of the Summit largely revolved around discussions over a hemispheric free trade agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The Bush administration continued the U.S.’s prominent role in the Summit despite the eventual collapse of FTAA negotiations. In a 2001 op-ed in the New York Times, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell noted the achievements of the previous two summits and called inter-American cooperation “one of the first and highest priorities of President Bush’s administration.”
The early Summits weren’t solely dedicated to trade negotiations either. Negotiations during the 2001 Summit led to the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the fall of that year—the very agreement that the United States, together with Argentina, Mexico and others, has tried to invoke against the Maduro government in Venezuela.
Just four months into his presidency, President Obama used the 2009 Summit as a coming out party of sorts, meeting with dozens of regional leaders eager to move on from the Bush Administration. And in 2015, President Obama brought renewed attention to the gathering when he met with Raúl Castro. The meeting garnered near-universal praise from the region—including from allies such as Colombia and Chile—and seemed to mark a symbolic turning point for the standing of the U.S. in Latin America.
Then came Trump. More than a slight against the Summit of the Americas and Latin America and the Caribbean generally, his truancy should be seen as part and parcel of the former real-estate magnate’s general disdain for multilateralism and international cooperation, which he believes limits the U.S. scope of action. It’s no coincidence that since President Trump’s election—with all the rhetoric against immigrants, free trade and action to combat climate change—positive views of the United States in Latin America have plummeted.
But given the Trump administration’s attacks on the central issues in the region such as immigration and trade—and decades of U.S. bipartisan policy around those issues toward the region—it shouldn’t be surprising that President Trump may skip the Lima gathering. “If I were him, I would hesitate to be in a room with more than 30 leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean after having criticized their countries relentlessly for the last two years,” said Dr. Richard Feinberg, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an architect of the first Summit in 1994. “They could well gang up on him, and it would be an uncomfortable experience.”
Still, skipping the Summit altogether—or any longstanding summit for that matter—is without precedent. Even as U.S. standing in Latin America reached a low in the middle of the last decade, President Bush continued to attend the Summit. (In President Bush’s defense, his term in power coincided with the so-called Pink Tide in the Americas that resisted much—though not all—of the Bush agenda.)
The Summit is the one forum where regional issues can be discussed at the head-of-state level. If President Trump does decide to skip the gathering, Feinberg cautioned, “it would be part of a broader process of a peculiar, self-inflicted, voluntary retreat from international leadership and decision making.”
In the year since President Trump took office, the United States has committed self-inflicted damage on its standing in the region in ways that threaten its influence. Attending the 2018 Summit of the Americas in Lima would present President Trump with an opportunity to reaffirm a U.S. commitment to leadership and stability in its neighborhood, advance important diplomatic and economic policy goals, and put in important face-to-face time with regional leaders.
Ambassador Jamal Khokhar, president of the and Canadian Ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2015, stressed the importance of President Trump’s presence at the Summit: “Now is when dialogue at the leadership level is needed. Not only when things are going well, but especially in challenging times.”
Skipping the Summit, on the other hand, would signal another missed opportunity for President Trump to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and build goodwill in the region. “We’re so blessed in the United States to have good relations with our neighbors, which frees us up to focus our resources on the rest of the world,” warned Feinberg. “To purposely toss out that strategic advantage by continuing to generate hostility with our neighbors would be strategic folly.”
There is a simple decision at hand. The Trump administration can stop the self-inflicted diminution of U.S. influence in its immediate sphere of influence by simply agreeing to attend. If he does he will find many pro-business heads of state with whom he will share a lot: from President Macri in Argentina, to President Piñera in Chile, to the host President Pedro Pablo Kuczinski in Peru. That’s a far friendlier audience than President Bush had in Mar del Plata in 2005. He still went. And hey, some ceviche might be a nice change of pace from all those Big Macs.