Image: Preparing for the Fifth Summit, held in 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago. Source: AP.
The world has changed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s ascendance to a global superpower, and growing political rhetoric of a need to consolidate regional cohesion in Africa and the Caribbean have cemented a new global order—one that is no longer solely underpinned by the United States and the institutions it helped create in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Instead, the world is moving toward enhanced regionalism, where more countries—particularly those of significant economic and political clout—are looking to advance their agendas closer to home. Largely, this is due to the shifting nature of challenges facing many countries, most of which, like migration crises, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic require regional cooperation to address.
The situation is no different for the United States. And luckily for President Biden and his administration, an opportunity to advance regional cooperation is upcoming at the Ninth Summit of the Americas in June. In the past, the Summit has largely been ineffective in producing tangible outcomes for the hemisphere. But new global circumstances can renew emphasis on how the Summit can be a blueprint for future U.S. engagement and leadership in the Western Hemisphere.
However, the U.S. will first need to contend with a new global order. While the Biden administration has crafted the democracy versus autocracy narrative as a key component of its foreign policy, including holding democracy summits, global issues today are less ideologically based and more materially based. Regardless of economic size and institutional maturity, all countries are in some way affected by the same challenges, like the pandemic and climate change. As a result, regional collaboration and—by extension—the emergence of new regional hegemons will increase.
For instance, states see addressing economic recession, COVID-19, climate change, migration, and global supply chain disruption as drivers of political and economic decision-making, especially in their immediate geographical vicinity. This focus does not mean that states are not seeking international forums or global agreements to address these challenges, but similar geography or shared histories remove some of the obstacles that would allow them to act quickly and with more cohesion. Furthermore, the nature of these challenges is not bound by country borders. For example, climate change and the pandemic affect all regions, as does the volatility of global markets. And even internal crises, as in the case of Venezuela, there are outward effects for neighboring countries.
Other examples include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s intent on solidifying its interests in the South China Sea. Both countries have global ambitions, but their actions start with those nearest first. Countries still on the rise, such as India, have also begun to advance their regional agendas, partially to counterbalance China. The African Union is more often taking a unified stance at multilateral forums and engaging with other regional bodies. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Argentina’s diplomatic visits to China and Russia and its efforts to secure regional support for its presidency at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States highlight its regional ambitions. And, even smaller regions, such as the Caribbean Community members, have enhanced the frequency of its regional engagements, including meeting recently with Colombia and the Central American Integration System.
What does this mean for the United States?
The result is a global situation that is tempering U.S. influence and is challenging a U.S.-led world order that emerged after World War II. No longer can the U.S. act consistently in a unilateral fashion or are the international institutions it helped create seen as sole forums or financing mechanisms. Calls for changes of development criteria for lending at international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, and more pressure to reform the United Nations Security Council are broad examples.
In a new regionally focused world, this year’s Summit and its themes can achieve two objectives. First, regionalism by nature requires the use of multilateral diplomacy and mechanisms, meaning that it falls in line and moves forward President Biden’s commitment to reembracing multilateralism. Second, and more importantly, it can introduce more empathy to U.S. foreign policymaking, meaning that the circumstances and factors that drive state interests in Latin America and the Caribbean will hold more weight in the Biden administration’s outlook for future regional engagement. This is crucial as most of Latin America and the Caribbean, which will continue to be shaped by the same challenges facing the United States, are starting to look and act less like the U.S. “backyard” and more like its next-door neighbor.
Achieving these two objectives should be feasible as almost all the Summit themes the administration outlined this year (the exception being democracy) require more interest and materially based decision-making instead of ideological fronts and grandstanding. The other themes include digitalization, migration, pandemic and natural-disaster resilience, and green and equitable economic growth. Each theme can only be addressed at a regional scale, especially as the challenges they address are not bound by geographic borders, and all are more advantageous for states of all sizes to do so. For smaller countries, such as those in the Caribbean and Central America, regional approaches can help aggregate resources and political weight they cannot muster themselves. For bigger countries, particularly those looking to establish themselves as regional hegemons, cooperation can be a medium to elevate their statures as leaders. The U.S. falls into the latter group.
Therefore, the U.S. should approach the Summit as the blueprint for its future engagement with the region. Doing so under the context of a changing global order means refocusing on Latin America and the Caribbean. More so than in years past, crises have arisen or grown from Cuba to Central America to Haiti, with worsening climate and pandemic effects expected to spark additional challenges. Yet, even as ongoing crises across the world capture Washington’s attention, the reality is that what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean will always reach U.S. shores, thereby necessitating committed and consistent attention to its neighbors—one that is met with action and resources.
Renewed attention must go hand-in-hand with a blueprint for how the U.S. will strengthen regional institutions. The Inter-American Development Bank has long championed many of the noted Summit themes and has an active presence in the region, more so than other international financial institutions. But the recent election of its new president broke with a longstanding tradition and can be interpreted as a last-ditch attempt to hold onto the U.S. unipolar moment. And the U.S. will have to work out what to do with the Organization of American States (OAS). At present, the OAS is paralyzed by increasing polarization in the hemisphere, notably over Venezuela, and has only served as a forum to count which countries do or do not vote alongside U.S. interests.
Finally, embracing a regional mentality has global implications for U.S. interests. If U.S. foreign policy will continue to watch and compete with other regional hegemons, specifically China and Russia, then strengthening or creating regional alliances around Summit themes can create greater incentives for Latin American and Caribbean states to work within the hemisphere and not others.
The Summit of the Americas, this time hosted in the United States, is an opportunity to announce a new blueprint for regional cooperation. Even more so, it would come at a historic moment in global history and provide the U.S. the chance to embrace a new global order that continues to benefit its and its allies’ interests.
Wazim Mowla is the assistant director for the Caribbean Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and is a Nonresident Scholar for Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon School for Public Policy.