Drawing lessons from the Summit of the Americas

On April 10th and 11th, the heads of state and government from nearly every state in the Americas will meet in Panama City for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. The leaders present in Panama preside over a region that has advanced far and fast on key political and economic indicators since the first of these meetings was held in Miami in 1994. At the Miami Summit, the legacy of the Cold War was very much present, and the specter of war, military dictatorship, armed revolution, financial crises, and political instability still hung in the air. 

In 2015, the region is by and large more democratic, economically prosperous, free from war, and the last insurgency in the region—Colombia’s—is winding down as peace is discussed between the government and its opponents at talks hosted by Havana. The beginning of a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba in December 2014 broke down one of the last remaining obstacles to an event that is truly inclusive of every country in the Western Hemisphere. 

In comparison to the rest of the world—where in the past year we have witnessed terrorist attacks in Paris, war in Ukraine, insurgency in Yemen, and saber-rattling around the South China Sea—the Western Hemisphere appears to be relatively better off. While there are a small number of countries that face challenging circumstances, especially among the fragile states of the Caribbean basin, these problems mostly threaten local rather than regional order. Given this picture, what lessons can we learn from the Western Hemisphere, and from U.S. policy towards the region, as we contemplate how best to improve global order?

Drawing the right lessons from history

The Americas have a long history of developing regional norms that promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Since the founding of the Panamerican Union in 1890, which transformed into the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948, the countries of the hemisphere have embedded these norms of peace into their multilateral institutions. While frequently criticized, it is important to remember that the OAS has presided over the elimination of inter-state conflict in the Americas. 

Today, Latin American states resolve territorial disputes at the International Court of Justice rather than on the battlefield. The last war in the region, between Peru and Ecuador in 1995, occurred two decades ago. Given how rare militarized disputes are at home, Latin American soldiers frequently serve as peacekeepers in United Nations missions around the world. Latin Americans have become good at peacemaking and peacekeeping, something that other regions of the world would do well to emulate.

When it comes to domestic politics, most leaders in the region now understand the political and economic principles that contribute to stability. Governments have become much better about economic governance, which means that as South America’s economy cools off this year, fiscal problems will be manageable and localized rather than region-wide and existential, a sharp contrast with the 1980s and 1990s. 

Leaders in the region have learned that promoting polarization for short-term political advantage is all too likely to produce instability, coups, and revolution. To minimize the risk that domestic political violence might reoccur in the future, states in the region have self-consciously examined the legacy of their authoritarian pasts, using innovative processes such as truth and reconciliation commissions—initially in Argentina in 1983—but also drawing on traditional courts to prosecute perpetrators of past abuses.  

In the 21st century, successful coups d’état have become rare, and when they do occur, as was the case in Honduras in 2009, the region collaborates to ensure a return to democracy. Here again is an area where Latin America has led the way through policies that reduce the likelihood of domestic conflicts that threaten internal stability or global order.

The importance of revisiting unworkable U.S. policies 

At this Summit in Panama, President Barack Obama will be able to credibly claim that he has listened to his Latin American counterparts and has begun to change policies that had become obstacles to improving regional order. At the 2009 and 2012 Summits (they occur every three years), U.S. policies on drugs, immigration, and Cuba had made President Obama the target of growing criticism from other leaders. In fact, many governments had made it clear that they would not attend the 2015 Summit if Cuba was not invited. 

Since 2012, the Obama administration has taken steps to address these concerns. It has taken executive action to reform immigration policy, signaled greater openness to drug policy liberalization by states such as Uruguay, and initiated a historic normalization of relations with Cuba. In each of these areas, the United States has shifted from policies that were largely unilateral towards its neighbors to policies that emphasize collaboration and partnership. This reflects U.S. learning that unilateralism produces blowback, strengthens its political adversaries in the region, and undermines its interests in the long run. This is a lesson worth considering as we think about our policies towards troubled regions of the world.

The risk of forgetting lessons learned

Yet not all countries and all politicians have remembered these lessons, and some of them have learned the wrong ones. In Argentina, macroeconomic stability is at risk due to a feud between the government and its international creditors. The result is a country cut off from international capital markets at a time when its economy is suffering the effect of declining commodity prices. Venezuela faces a deep crisis that has at its heart the highly polarizing politics practiced by the governing party and an unreasoning attachment to an unworkable economic model. Key countries such as Brazil have lost interest in hemisphere-wide institutions, as indicated by their refusal to appoint an ambassador to the OAS or pay their membership dues. And the region as a whole has become so attached to multilateralism and politics by consensus that is has forgotten how to work together when individual member states deviate from regional norms of democracy and human rights, as is occurring today in Venezuela.

So while the recent history of the Americas offers insights into policies that contribute to a peaceful and stable regional order, it also illustrates that these achievements are not irreversible. Let us hope that future generations do not have the relearn these lessons anew. At this and future Summits, there must be a commitment to preserving the gains made in peace, democracy, human rights, and economic prosperity, but also a new emphasis on developing workable mechanisms to address deviations from the norms and practices that have contributed to making the Americas a relative safe and orderly region of the world.

For more information, check out Emily Miller’s post on U.S. priorities at the Seventh Summit of the Americas.