Photo Jonathan Blair

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Crunch time for the OAS?

On July 20, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has voted to suspend the United States' contribution to the OAS, with Republican members accusing the organization of being anti-US, supporting Hugo Chavez and the Castros' Cuba. If that decision holds, the OAS would lose $44.2 million--or more than half of its $85.3 million budget--and its very existence would be at stake.

Now, if the OAS were to disappear, what would be lost?

The first answer that comes to my mind is "little." After all, $85 million is not much money and the OAS has never been known for its efficient use of resources. With the re-democratization of the region, other mechanisms of cooperation have emerged that have played prominent roles in the international management of inter-state and domestic political tensions in the region, particularly in South America. Moreover, once you consider Canada's $10 million grant, the fact that the other members paid on average about $900,000 shows how little they care about the OAS and how much it was seen as a US "thing" for which the US was by implication expected to pay.

There are counter-arguments. The OAS has been an important player in crisis management and electoral observations. With the adoption in 2001 of the Inter-America Democratic Charter, moreover, it has become a symbolic bulwark of democracy. More subtly, its very existence has provided a readily-available forum where the countries of the hemisphere could quickly engage in broad-based multilateral discussions of common problems. Finally, it embodies the hemispheric idea, anchoring a regional identity that is distinct from the rest of the world.

The problem with all those arguments, however, is that without exception, they have been breaking down in recent years. What the OAS provided in terms of diplomatic mediation and electoral oversight, ad-hoc groups of countries from the region and beyond can just as easily supply. Moreover, those diplomatic "services" were increasingly confined to Central America and the Caribbean, as the big South American countries, Brazil in particular, were strongly opposed to OAS' presence in "their" part of the hemisphere. Finally, the OAS' inability to effectively reverse the 2009 coup in tiny Honduras and its unwillingness to confront the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela have severely damaged the credibility of the Charter and by implication of the OAS as a bulwark of democracy in the region.

The issues of an hemispheric forum and of some kind of shared continental identity are closely linked: without a sense of "togetherness," there is little point in maintaining a permanent space for joint discussions. Along with many recent developments in the region, what this new crisis reveals is the breakdown of any such sense of a shared identity. The main reason is relatively simple: the continent that was embodied in the OAS was anchored in Washington and that continent does not exist anymore.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been disengaging from Latin America and the Caribbean. The region's has declined in importance as a destination for its investments, as a trade partner and as a security preoccupation. There lies the much-criticized US indifference to the region since Ronald Reagan's, with Obama's only the last. Close relationships and interests obviously do exist, but they are bilateral and sectoral.

This process has been mirrored in the region, with links to the US weakening drastically. Even Mexico has now announced that its trade dependence on the American market was now coming down. South America has long "graduated" from US dependence with Hugo Chavez' obsession with US imperialism sounding increasingly anachronic. The US matters, but along Europe and especially China.

Without the US, what is left? Well, a number of overlapping blocs and regions, whose joint issues are properly addressed in a number of overlapping institutions and forum, which is largelly why such arrangements have multiplied in recent years. What is more, these blocs and regions do not share a common agenda: what happens in Central America does not have much bearing on South America. And while say, drug wars in Colombia and Mexico may affect Central America and the Caribbean, they also impact West Africa and through it, Europe. The War on Drugs is thus a transcontinental issue that calls for a transcontinental forum.

Brazil, with all its talks of South American integration but all its diplomatic efforts in the US, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is at the vanguard of this process of de-continentalization. Mexico, Colombia and Chile, looking intently towards China, are there too. From these countries' standpoint, a US-centred organization for a supposedly shared region is simply meaningless.

Now, to go back to the OAS, the amounts involved are so tiny that the organization could easily be bailed out. Expect many in Canada, with their dream of a neighbourhood where the country is not alone with the Big Guy next door, to call for a rescue. They will no doubt be joined by the well-meaning Americans who still see their country as a kind of uncle to the region and who lament its new "isolationism." The governments of Central American and Caribbean countries, who dominate the OAS assembly and get many of the plush jobs it provides, will join the chorus. In the end, they will probably win and a marvelous occasion will have been lost to have international institutional arrangements reflect a bit better the underlying economic, political and strategic realities of the world.