How to salvage the Summit of the Americas

Joe Biden
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Joe Biden speaks in in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

The U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas, set to take place in Los Angeles in a mere three weeks, was in danger of becoming a sleepy affair. Following threats by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro to stay home, the Biden administration is scrambling to salvage what should have been their best opportunity to roll out a comprehensive policy for the Western Hemisphere. Lacking the two largest countries and economies in the region, the Summit of the Americas is careening off the rails.

Ostensibly, some regional leaders are grumbling about the exclusion of authoritarians in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba from the invite list. However, the Biden administration is right to exclude the regimes in Caracas, Managua, and Havana.

The administration points to the Inter-American Democratic Charter — signed by all countries in the region (except Cuba) in 2001 — as the region’s basic commitment to democratic aspirations and ideals. Yet, ill-advised outreach to the Nicolás Maduro regime at the beginning of March has come home to roost. The administration’s strategic blunder — and the message that democracy and human rights were of secondary importance to the dubious prospect of increased oil production — opened the door for some in the region to call out U.S. inconsistency and insist on the presence of dictators at the Summit. Large countries like Mexico have given cover for smaller countries, such as Bolivia or Caribbean countries, to also threaten their absence.

However, the current crisis goes well beyond the complaints over U.S. policy toward Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba in a region surging to the left politically. After all, it is highly unlikely Maduro (or any of his cronies) would show up in Los Angeles when they are under active indictment for drug trafficking by the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the more likely reason driving the region’s absence is that the Western Hemisphere senses an overwhelming feeling of abandonment by the U.S. and thus very little benefit to Summit participation.

The lack of a genuine positive offer — and counteroffer to China’s increasing presence — on the issues most important to our shared neighborhood has led the Biden administration to this point.

Put another way, the Biden administration is right to point out that clubs and summits must have minimal criteria to determine who participates and who remains on the other side of the velvet ropes; unfortunately, however, the administration has utterly failed to develop a set of policies that entice the very participation necessary to make the Summit of the Americas a success.

The lack of ambition on display — especially compared to the last time the U.S. hosted the inaugural Summit of the Americas in 1994 — has lowered the cost of defection for regional leaders. Like the student cramming for finals after skipping class all semester, the administration has only recently started to talk about a “framework” for trade relations with the region. However, if the Biden administration had spent its first year and a half developing a more robust set of aspirational, visionary policies for the Western Hemisphere, the cost of defection at the Summit of Americas would have been much greater, and the attraction of attendance would have been nearly irresistible, while there would have been costs imposed on those left behind.

Instead, three weeks from the big event, the administration has been left scrambling. The U.S. mindset must shift immediately from a proactive, visionary event to one overwhelmingly focused on rescuing the Summit. To salvage the Summit of the Americas, the Biden administration must focus on several key policy areas — quickly and publicly.

On trade and development, the Biden administration must announce efforts to begin free trade negotiations with Ecuador and Uruguay, something both countries have requested repeatedly. It is important to show the U.S. can meet the interest there, as both countries are negotiating agreements with China — meaning the U.S. risks losing the ability to set standards and maintain influence. Ideally, the Biden administration would announce other ambitious trade initiatives as well, such as a much-needed update to the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, which could benefit from, among other things, an additional chapter on digital commerce.

The Biden administration needs to engage the Bolsonaro administration urgently. Bolsonaro says very offensive things, but so do India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Mexico’s President AMLO from time to time. It will take some effort to get Brazil to attend, but not having Brazil would be unfortunate. The Biden administration has not met with President Bolsonaro, while there have been meetings with Vladimir Putin, Modi, and Johnson. Since Brazil wants to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. should engage and use the OECD membership process to negotiate on important things such as environmental stewardship.

To complement these policies, Biden could announce his support for a much-needed capital increase at the Inter-American Development Bank.

The administration should round out its trade and development policies with increased flexibility and greater geopolitical consideration at the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to lend to middle- and upper-middle-income countries, which comprise much of the Western Hemisphere. To do so, the administration would have to soften its approach to leveraging the DFC for social and environmental projects only, and focus on topics like the region’s digital transformation.

There are other fruitful avenues for collaboration, too. The administration should make a major announcement on vaccine diplomacy for those countries that are still reeling from COVID, as well as boosters for those that received China’s substandard Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines last year. Forging partnerships on sustainable mining of lithium and copper will be critical to the region’s green energy transition. And greater cooperation on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is another area where the U.S. could make meaningful contributions, especially to the region’s food security and local livelihoods.

Finally, the Biden administration must be prepared to swallow what they will consider to be several “bitter pills,” something that should have been done more than a year ago. To salvage the event and ensure the participation of several key leaders, it should communicate its willingness to engage in bilateral sit-downs on the sidelines of the Summit. This includes Bolsonaro, whose domestic antics have been met with increasing isolation from the Biden administration. Another case would be Guatemala, with which the administration has had a testy relationship (and which was left uninvited to December’s Summit for Democracy and feeling snubbed). Yet, a mature approach to the region would let bygones be bygones and find a way to pursue the national interest. Frankly, a commitment for a 45-minute one-on-one with heads of state that attend should be on offer.

In spite of naming excellent staff at the State Department to help pull it together and two special envoys, the Biden administration — mostly because of a lack of direct engagement from the President himself — is in danger of bungling the Summit of the Americas. Further, since January 2021, it has been perceived as absent and disinterested, or sending mixed signals at best. The lack of policy proposals until now is showing in the region’s growing disinterest in attending the Summit and the perceived political costs (or lack thereof) of bailing by some of the region’s leaders.

The failure of the summit is not consequence free. China will sense a grand opportunity, and our shared neighborhood will continue to drift into its orbit. The U.S. needs a positive, forward-looking agenda that can be built with our neighbors. The administration should unveil some potential initiatives immediately, before the Summit, to entice heads of state to come. Biden himself should call several heads of state — or every head of state on the invite list — put ideas on the table and extend one-on-one meetings to each head of state in attendance to quickly to salvage the Summit.

Ryan C. Berg is senior fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at CSIS. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Biden Biden foreign policy Boris Johnson Brazil–United States relations Cuba Foreign relations of China Free trade Great power competition Inter-American Democratic Charter Inter-American Development Bank Jair Bolsonaro Joe Biden Mexico–United States relations Narendra Modi Nicaragua Nicolas Maduro OECD membership Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Summit of the Americas trade negotiations United States International Development Finance Corporation Venezuela Western Hemisphere

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