Photo: Latin American and Caribbean leaders listen to U.S. President Joe Biden’s keynote address at the IX Summit of the Americas / Samuel Corum / NYT
At the inaugural Summit of the Americas convened in Miami in 1994, the 34 leaders of the Western Hemisphere (absent Cuba) signed a single, consensus Plan of Action. With 23 commitments, the text had been arduously negotiated word-by-word over many months. The signatories committed to strengthening still-fragile democracies, to social justice, and most notably, to negotiating a visionary free trade area for the Americas. All governments fully concurred; not a single reservation was recorded.
Today, the hemisphere is a much more fractured place. Ideologies range from far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to more traditional center-right leaders like Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador and Iván Duque of Colombia to authoritarians like Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro to the modern leftist Chilean Gabriel Boric. Throw in hard-to-label eccentrics such as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López-Obrador and Salvadoran Nayib Bukele, and the political spectrum is dauntingly diverse.
In its domestic politics, the United States has also suffered from deepening divisions. Any U.S. president struggles to sustain positions on controversial foreign policy initiatives with a degree of specificity and resource commitments (other than resisting overt military aggression by a great-power rival).
The periodic inter-American summits aspire to deepen community, not only among governments but also among the private sector assembled in the parallel CEO Summit of the Americas and through the Civil Society Forum, convened by the Organization of American States (OAS). At the latter, non-governmental organizations interested in a range of urgent issues—including democracy and human rights, climate change, access to health care and education, gender equality, and indigenous rights—exchange national experiences and grassroots perspectives. At the summits, articulate NGO representatives have a forum to interact with government officials.
At the IX Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last week, the Biden administration chose to not invite the authoritarian governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela; in sharp contrast, passionate civil society activists from those countries were given space to call attention to repression in their homelands and to engage face-to-face with senior officials, including with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID chief Samantha Power.
In Los Angeles, U.S. diplomats fashioned a creative response to the divisions plaguing inter-American relations: a solution I label “layered multilateralism.” If the wording of a declaration is sufficiently general and aspirational, it might still be possible to marshal universal support. On some specific issues demanding attention, it might be best to build a coalition among like-minded nations, short of a full consensus but with enough relevant countries to be credible. And on matters that have become hyper-controversial, such as international trade and investment, the United States could, on its own, throw a piece of paper on the table and call upon other countries to sign on.
During the months leading up to Los Angeles, diplomats hammered out high-minded declarations on democracy, clean energy, climate change, digital transformation, and public health and resilience. The five aspirational communiques were formally signed at the summit, adopted by the assembled heads of state and government. Even so, there were many footnotes with reservations by one or more dissenting governments.
One of these documents, The Inter-American Action Plan on Democratic Governance, enumerates 32 laudable action items ranging from protections for human rights to anti-corruption measures. Included is a reaffirmation of the Follow-up Mechanism for the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (MESICIC). Yet, governments know from experience that such non-binding resolutions are often promptly signed and too-often forgotten—so long as the lofty language does not directly contradict tenets that a government holds dear or provoke objections among its constituents back home. There are no sanctions for non-compliance.
Notably, in their plenary speeches in Los Angeles, leaders rarely referred to these formal texts. Personally, when I read these noble documents and those that preceded them, I mumbled to myself: “If only countries would act upon the virtues which they publicly acknowledge, how different the ailing hemisphere might look today!”
In Los Angeles, on matters where no full consensus could be found, like-minded countries forged coalitions to sign several potentially powerful agreements, notably on immigration and the protection of oceans.
The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, negotiated at a ministerial meeting in Panama in April, garnered 20 signatures and remains open to other governments wishing to join. The document takes a comprehensive, regional approach to migration, acknowledging that large migratory flows must be managed rather than suppressed. It builds on the remarkable humanitarianism visible in South America, where already hard-pressed countries have taken in millions of Venezuelan refugees in recent years. The declaration also enumerates specific, measurable undertakings by individual signatories.
The principles of the migration declaration are worthy and innovative. What’s missing are U.S. commitments—in the numbers of migrants it pledges to accept or in financial resources it will appropriate—equal to the tough times ahead. To its credit, the United States did commit to issuing 11,500 H-2B seasonal worker visas for nationals from Northern Central America and Haiti and to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas during the next two years. These are positive gestures but ultimately drops in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of migrants pressing against our southern border each month.
The harsh realities of contemporary U.S. politics precluded granting additional work visas to, say, 500,000 Latin Americans, even if shortages in the U.S. labor markets are pushing up wages and fueling inflation. Such a generous number would have electrified the Los Angeles conference and drowned out the contentious headlines generated by the exclusion of the Cuban government. Undoubtably, the Biden team feared the clobbering it would take from Republicans and even from some Democratic colleagues, including within its blue-collar union base.
Chile’s new 36-year-old president, Gabriel Boric, successfully drove another plurilateral initiative among interested parties, the Americas Coalition for Ocean Protection. In a public ceremony, the nine signatories, including Biden’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, pledged to coordinate efforts on marine protected areas (MPAs), targeting the Eastern Pacific Ocean. A self-styled “progressive,” Boric spoke repeatedly in favor of multilateralism, of “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue.” (With his political poise, rhetorical skills, and tattooed forearms, Boric is a figure to watch.)
Finally, when as host government, you either cannot or will not craft an initiative that others wish to join, you can go it alone. You can just throw it out there, on a take-it-or-leave it basis. You can invite others to join after the summit in “initial conversations.” A case in point: the Biden team’s Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP).
In the 28 years since the Miami summit, opinions in both Latin America and in the United States have divided sharply over the virtues of free trade. In Washington, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has traditionally been a stronghold of advocates of open markets; yet some of Biden’s appointees are fierce critics of free trade agreements, who, like notorious polluters infiltrating the Environmental Protection Agency during the Trump administration, have taken up positions within USTR.
In Los Angeles, USTR head Katherine Tai flew in and out in 24 hours, cancelling an address to her fellow trade ministers at the last minute, while U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and her chief international officer, Marisa Lago, were no-shows. Apparently, the Biden team felt that, at a time of global fuel and food shortages and rising prices, it had to address core economic issues, but not too directly.
The proposed APEP sounded rather like the ambitious Build Back Better legislation proposed by Biden in 2021, but which has languished in the Congress. The APEP draft called for “cooperation and infrastructure investments in areas such as migration, education, health, unemployment and retirement, childcare, and women’s economic empowerment.” One wonders: Was the real audience for APEP not the assembled Latin Americans but rather the online Democratic Party faithful?
Partisan politics aside, the IX Summit of the Americas shows the way forward for conducting a resilient diplomacy in a divided world. Where wide agreement is possible, standard consensus declarations are first-best. Second, plurilateral coalitions of the willing may be realistic goals. And lastly, where a government is too tied up in its own knots to formulate an attractive negotiating position, you can punt. Welcome to the adaptive world of multilayered multilateralism!
Richard E. Feinberg, who was a principal architect of the 1994 Miami Summit of the Americas, has attended eight of the nine inter-American summits, including the most recent one in Los Angeles. Professor Emeritus at UC San Diego, he is the author of Summitry in the Americas: A Progress Report(Peterson Institute for International Economics).