Secretary Clinton’s Pragmatism: Can the Organization of American States Change?

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Diana Villiers Negroponte Former Brookings Expert, Public Policy Scholar - Woodrow Wilson Center

June 15, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Organization of American States (OAS) delivered a stern warning to hemispheric leaders gathered for their annual meeting this week in Lima. Clinton said the OAS risks becoming irrelevant unless its declared priorities are implemented and responsibility is assumed for its budget. She called for practical partnerships and cost effective measures to promote the rule of law, democratic governance, economic inclusion and burden sharing. She deplored the multitude of projects that members try to advance at annual meetings, but then ignore upon returning home. She recognized that there are too many projects to implement with a limited amount of OAS resources. Priorities must be identified and corresponding funding should be appropriated. In support of this, the Obama administration would request a 3 percent increase in U.S. funding to the OAS.

For the last decade, the OAS has become a center for rhetoric. Consensus is the basis for approving action, resulting in lengthy debate and minimum decisions. In 2009, however, members were asked to decide upon the admission of Cuba and the dismissal of Honduras. Both decisions were contentious, but the underlying principles were clear, namely the OAS’s Democratic Charter. President Obama and other hemispheric leaders agreed that Cuba should be a rightful member of OAS on condition that it met the criteria of the democratic charter. Honduras was expelled because its removal of President Zelaya contradicted these democratic principles.

Carrying out these two decisions has not been easy. President Castro continues to hold political prisoners and deny freedom of expression. Former President Zelaya insists upon returning to Honduras. In the meantime, the newly-elected Honduran government is in the process of meeting all the requirements of the San Jose – Tegucigalpa Accords established under the aegis of the OAS.  Accepting Zelaya’s return would add a new requirement that risks new violence between his supporters and the government. Neither the Cuban nor Honduran questions will be solved at the annual meeting because they are too controversial. Instead, members prefer to raise a new issue: curbing a hemispheric arms race. At the recent Brookings/National Defense University conference on this subject, the experts concluded that no arms race currently exists.

Secretary Clinton’s speech inferred some irritation with constant discussion by OAS members on issues that are rarely pursued in practice. Secretary Clinton called upon fellow members to make responsible decisions. In order to build a stronger and more effective multilateral organization, the OAS should seek to achieve the following:

1. Focus on its core mission to advance strong democratic institutions, such as electoral observer missions, and align its budget to core activities;

2. Reform the OAS budget from its current unsustainable economic position, which threatens its viability; and,

3. Implement the Democratic Charter through a collaborative plan of action and a peer review process. To lead this effort, members should create a special rapporteur for democracy.

In pursuit of these three objectives, the OAS should seek to be effective and measure its progress. The use of modern business strategies to identify priorities and measure progress will be welcomed by the U.S. Congress which must approve U.S. contributions to the OAS budget. It will also be appreciated by those who have become frustrated by the OAS’s lack of results in achieving its goals.

However, Clinton’s call for modernity and pragmatism risks alienating those who thrive off anti-U.S. sentiment. The Venezuelan led Bolivarian group as well as the Brazilians, who pursue their own global alliances, could leave the OAS and form their own hemispheric organization without the U.S. In pursuit of this, the hemispheric summit meeting in Cancun earlier this year indicated that a majority of Latin American governments are willing to sign onto such a new institution. 

U.S. realism and skepticism makes it less likely that this will happen. Who establishes the secretariat to call the meetings and pay the bills? Who devotes the time, management skills and resources to create a strong institution? If the countries of the hemisphere – except for Brazil – are unwilling to increase their share of the current OAS budget, where will they find the funds to create a new multilateral organization? Secretary Clinton recognized this reality when she said that the OAS was “the foremost multilateral organization of the hemisphere.” The desire to strengthen this organization acknowledges that another hemispheric-wide institution could complicate U.S. policy and influence in the region.  

With significant budget shortfalls and the need to end certain OAS programs, the time for a reality check has arrived. Unlike her predecessor who rarely attended the OAS Annual Meeting, Secretary Clinton has demonstrated her personal commitment to the hemisphere through frequent visits and her willingness to seek additional funds to make up the OAS budget gap. Secretary Clinton is an eloquent realist, willing to risk opposition in order to achieve “practical partnerships to advance shared interests;” a partnership that is “measured by results.”  Her words will be challenged, but she should remain firm.