American specialists of hemispheric affairs have been complaining about the Obama administration. After encouraging signs, during his campaing and in the first few months after the election, his administration appears to have done little of substance. The Western Hemisphere looks no more important to it than it has been for every other administration since Ronald Reagan's Cold War adventures in Central America. This should come as no surprise. Beyond Mexico, Colombia (for now), and to a lesser extent the Caribbean, the region does not matter much to the US. An indifferent policy reflects the absence of strong interests in the region, and the resulting lack of the strong domestic constituencies that would force the government to become serious towards it.
The Americas have long been seen as the US backyard. In fact they have been claimed as such by the United States since James Monroe famously barred European powers from interfering on the continent, at the beginning of the XIXth century. For a long time, there was not much substance to that claim and Britain, in particular, did as it wished, dominating the continent economically until World War II. For sure, a US-dominated Pan-American Union—which became the OAS in 1948—was created at the turn of the XIXth century, US marines and "advisors" have been roaming in the hemisphere since then, American multinationals have invested massively in the resource sectors of much of the continent and, from the 1950s until the 1990s, they had little "foreign" competition. From those standpoints, there was something like an American domination of the continent.
A closer look, however, reveals a much different picture. Throughout the XXth century, true imperial dominance was largely confined to the Caribbean and Central America, with the South largely free of outright intervention. Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Guatemala, Grenada, and Panama bore the brunt of the Empire's dominance. The sub-continent, however, had a very different history.
Much fuss was made about US support for the military regimes of the Southern Cone and the coups that launched them in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was just that: support for regimes whose claim to power were largely self-sustaining. A convergence of interest between Cold War America and anti-communist and reactionary military and economic elites has long been painted as the manipulation by Washington of political establishments utterly dependent on that support to stay in power. It is easy to forget how nationalist and profoundly anti-liberal those regimes were, how free they all felt not to play into US' anti-Cuban policy or, to take specific examples, how nationalized Codelco became the cash-cow of the Chilean military, how it is the Peruvian military launched the land reform in their country, how Brazil's generals were not keen at all on US multinationals, how their economic policy is best understood as state capitalism and how quick they were to establish relations with communist Angola and to cut military cooperation with Jimmy Carter's America. Similarly, when the time came for the generals to leave, US influence proved marginal: elites turned their back on them, civil society mobilized and in some cases—Argentina and Chile for instance—sheer hubris brought them down. Differently from Central America and the Caribbean, in sum, domestic factors overwhelmingly determined both the rise and the fall of South Americas military dictatorships, not US schemes and manipulations.
Something has broken down since the end of the 1980s, but that something is partly an illusion, for the Empire's backyard had always been smaller than it looked. Still, what hard ground there was for that illusion is shrinking as American strategic and economic interests in the region as a whole diminish.
Strategically the most important challenges to America have disappeared, like the communist threat in Central America, they are wildly exaggerated, like the Chavez threat, or self-created, like the prohibition-induced illegal drug market and the "War on Drugs"-induced drug violence in Colombia and especially Mexico. Between 2001 and 2008, US military financing to the region represented less than 2% of world total, and 80% of that 2% went to Colombia. Moreover, when the US does not realize on their own that a strong presence is not a good idea, they are told. As the Colombian government's progressively wins its civil war, the legitimacy of a significant American presence in, and military cooperation with, the country will also shrivel. Recently expelled from Ecuador, the American military looks doomed to fully abandon the region soon, which may not matter that much, primarily because the stronger trend takes the region towards increasingly developed and democratic societies, whose interests are unlikely to conflict fundamentally with those of America.
Economically, the US is also losing interest in South America, whose proportion of US stock of investments has declined radically over the last ten years, from 6% of its global portfolio in 2000, to 3% in 2008. Much of US investments in the Americas—beyond Canada—is concentrated in Caribbean fiscal havens: Bermuda and the British Caribbean, with 9% of the global stock of investments, have more weight than South America and Mexico combined (6%). Trade numbers look slightly better, but much of that trade is made up of commodities which, by definition, are globally traded and priced. In 2008, Brazil, with 50% of South America's GDP, represented 1.45% of total US exports, and 2.48% of its imports. From the standpoint of US companies, consumers and economic policy-makers, in other words, South America, with or without free trade agreements, is a very minor part of the world.
The flip side of that declining interest has been a growing presence of new players in the region. Canadian companies dominate the mining sector of most Andean countries, and of the continent as a whole for exploration. European banks, particularly Spain's, along with Canada's Scotia, have aggressively invested in the region. China, while still tentative and not particularly welcome, should soon make significant forays in the resource sector. Russia and France are strong players in the regional arms market. Even Iran is now expressing interests, albeit essentially for diplomatic reason. The overall effect is that while the Americas decline in US global portfolio, the US also declines as an investor in, and trade partner for, the region.
The breakdown of imperial America's continental hold makes hemispheric arrangements superfluous. The project of a Free Trade Area of the Americas collapsed less as a result of Brazilian resistance than of Washington's and especially Wall Street's indifference. The OAS has long been a diplomatic backwater, notwithstanding its recent ventures –sometimes successful—into local crises. Its recent reinvention as a bulwark of democracy on the continent, already tested in the recent Honduran crisis, could soon break on the reefs of Chavez' autocratic consolidation, in the face of which it will likely be impotent and divided. The Summit of the Americas' process is quickly sinking into irrelevance. There simply is no more need for such arrangements and their survival is becoming at best a matter of inertia: meetings follow meetings, treaties beget commitments, diplomats sustain posting locations, and bureaucrats hold on to their jobs.
The region is left without a frame, but the idea of one survives, and ideas still matter. This one still structures much of the diplomatic activity in the region, and it explains why in the face of low and declining interdependence, existing if weak institutional arrangements survive and why new ones keep popping up, just as weak and institutionally deficient. It also explains why the United States remains a constant reference in the region's nationalist discourse while, paradoxically, American analysts keep deploring their country's indifference towards the region.
[A slightly different version of this piece has recently been published by the Robarts Centre's Canada Watch]