“We prefer dealing with America and its companies because of our close ties in culture, history, language, and immigration.” When a president in South America told me this a few years ago, I felt a sense of pride in my country and optimistic about our relations in Latin America. But then he continued. “But you are largely absent from the region, and the Chinese are very present. So we work more with them.” I winced.
As I later thought about this interaction, I reckoned there was a lot of truth to what this president said. United States foreign policy has largely looked eastward. As recently as the United States Mexico Canada Agreement and as far back as the Monroe Doctrine, we have had moments of engagement in the Western Hemisphere. But when you consider the Cold War, military conflicts, and the focus on Russia, China, and Iran, our global policy over the last 70 years has centered on Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The result is that foreign adversaries have swept in to fill the void.
Why have we not been more engaged? The 35 countries in the region face several problems like drugs, poverty, violence, and political instability that directly affect the United States and vice versa. As we prepare for the new administration, one of my hopes is to watch Joe Biden embrace a national security policy with the primacy on North America, Central America, and South America. What would an “all Americas” policy look like?
First, Biden must appoint senior officials with expertise on Latin America. No president today would name high ranked foreign policy staff without including individuals with knowledge and background on China, Europe, or the Middle East. The same needs to be true for Latin America and the Caribbean. Appointing bilingual spokespersons at the White House and foreign affairs agencies would also allow for better communication with our Spanish speaking citizens and our foreign counterparts.
Second, our top United States diplomats need to spend more time in the Western Hemisphere for our interests. Just look at what that president in South America told me. When we are absent in the region, our allies can see it, while our adversaries can take clear advantage of it.
Third, we should build more sustained security partnerships in the region. We need a special coordinator to integrate federal government initiatives to support security efforts in Central America and bolster the work of the Southern Command in Latin America. The new administration must undo the most destructive and ineffective immigration policies of the current administration. It should address the root causes of mass migration and welcome refugees and asylum seekers to the United States.
Fourth, we should engage more on energy issues. Western Hemisphere countries produce over 65 percent of energy imported into the United States. To seize on the enormous renewable energy potential, the new administration should not only rejoin the Paris climate accord but also invest in electricity interconnection to integrate the markets and make renewable energy sources more permanent and consistent.
Fifth, we should ensure successful enactment of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement and prepare for the next generation of free trade with Latin America. We should build upon the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, of which Peru, Chile, and Mexico are members, by bolstering key enforcement of labor and environmental standards and bringing more countries in Latin America into the fold. This could also counteract the push from China, whose investments lead many across the region to view it as a source of economic hope.
Sixth, we have to continue to strengthen multilateral institutions in the region, especially the Organization of American States, which has been doing critical work to monitor elections, tackle corruption, and address the crisis in Venezuela. Resolving all such challenges will take consensus from countries in Latin America. The region will be mired in dysfunction without consensus and will provide an arena for actors like Russia, Cuba, Iran, and drug traffickers that will harm our own interests.
Finally, we have to remember the Caribbean, which has been forgotten in Western Hemisphere foreign policy. Under the current administration, the Dominican Republic broke its diplomatic ties with Taiwan at the behest of China. While small, countries like this are important given their proximity to the United States. It is long past time for our diplomatic attention and investments to get in the game and compete with China.
The Summit of the Americas will be hosted by the United States next year. What an opportunity this could be for Biden if he took time in his first nine months as president to deliver an “all Americas” foreign policy. Indeed, his inauguration would not just be seen as a turning point for our country but as a turning point for the Western Hemisphere as a whole.
Tim Kaine is a United States senator who is a former governor of Virginia.
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