Op-Ed

Pay Attention to Next-door Neighbors

Ernesto Zedillo and Thomas R. Pickering

When President Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20, he will confront tough choices about how best to allocate his government’s precious economic and diplomatic resources to pursue the legitimate interests of the United States in the world.

Inevitably, certain hot spots, particularly in the Middle East, will absorb much of those resources. Yet, a region of the world where U.S. engagement is both urgent and necessary, and where effective engagement can produce results at relatively low cost to the United States, is Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).

Closer engagement with LAC countries is more important than ever. The region, with its 600 million people and $3.5 trillion economy, has a significant impact on the lives of Americans.

  • More than 30 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Latin America, considerably more than from the Middle East.
  • More than half of the U.S. foreign-born population is from LAC countries.
  • LAC countries buy a fifth of all U.S. exports and supply a fifth of its imports, and most of these countries share with the United States fundamental values, including a belief in democracy, a market economy and civil and human rights.

At the same time, key hemispheric challenges have become so complex and deeply transnational that they cannot be managed — let alone overcome — by any single country, not even the United States. To tackle them, Washington needs partners, partners with shared responsibilities and common stakes in the future.

To outline what a hemispheric partnership might look like and to make concrete policy recommendations for the new U.S. Congress and administration, the Brookings Institution recently convened the Partnership for the Americas Commission, which we co-chaired. The 20-member group of men and women was evenly balanced between U.S. citizens and citizens of LAC countries. Commissioners included former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, former Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Lafer, former CIA Director John Deutch and former Envoy to the Americas Thomas ”Mack” McLarty.

Serving U.S. interests, too

In its final report, the commission argues that the United States should engage its hemispheric neighbors in a sustained way on issues where shared interests, objectives and solutions are easiest to identify. This pragmatic approach is much more likely to serve U.S. interests than a confrontational stance that rewards governments of the ”good Left” and punishes those of the “bad Left.”

Four areas hold the greatest potential for hemispheric partnership:

  • Expanding opportunities for all through economic integration.
  • Developing sustainable energy sources and mitigating climate change.
  • Managing migration effectively.
  • Protecting the hemisphere from drug trafficking and organized crime.

Though not obviously an issue for regional cooperation, U.S.-Cuba relations is an area where urgent reform is needed, as it sets the tone of U.S.-LAC relations more broadly. Rather than a total overhaul of U.S.-LAC relations, we recommend a series of practical and realistic policies.

Trade remains a major opportunity for mutual benefit in the Americas. We recommend that the United States step back from bilateral trade agreements and emphasize multilateral negotiations, which offer a superior channel for trade liberalization. We also call for a series of strategic agreements with Brazil on key areas of mutual interest. To protect U.S. workers from dislocation, we recommend an overhaul of Trade Adjustment Assistance programs.

On energy and climate change, we call for the establishment of regional groups to coordinate hemispheric positions on global climate-change negotiations and to help countries adapt to climate change. We also call for a jointly funded Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Americas to cooperate on the development of renewable-energy technologies.

On immigration, our recommendations aim for a system that provides the United States with the immigrant labor its economy needs while fighting the culture of illegality that pervades the current system. We also call for regular dialogue between the United States and key sending countries on measures to encourage return migration, generate economic development in key sending regions and protect migrants abroad.

Drug trafficking remains at the heart of organized crime in the hemisphere, and years of fighting a ”war on drugs” have produced few tangible results. More of the same (interdiction, tough laws, ineffective eradication and long prison sentences for drug offenses) will not work. We therefore call on U.S. policymakers to take a hard, serious look at the full range of options, based on a comprehensive evaluation of what is and is not working in the United States and other countries.

Empower Cuban people

On Cuba, we recommend reorienting U.S. policy toward greater economic, cultural and technological engagement with the island. These policies are meant to empower the Cuban people to bring about political change from within and on their own terms. We call for an end to restrictions on travel, remittances and communications, as well as for measures to reengage Cuba in international bodies.

Successful multilateralism in Latin America and the Caribbean will help the Obama administration make a powerful statement about its vision for U.S. relations with the larger world. A hemispheric partnership to address common challenges is a logical place to start.