Walser: Sunset time for the Summit of the Americas

Western Hemisphere Leaders at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, November 2005 (www.summit-americas.org)

When the sun sets over Cartagena, Colombia, on April 15, it may well mark the end of the 17-year-old Summit of the Americas process. Once upon a time, the Summit of the Americas seemed like an executive retreat with a serious work agenda. Today, it resembles a contentious dinner party with boors and nouveaux riches on the guest list.

The Summit of the Americas sprang to life in 1994 under Bill Clinton. At that time, in the golden afterglow of the fall of the Soviet Union, just beyond the “end of history,” liberal democracy and market capitalism were in flower.

The summits of that golden era symbolized its big Western Hemisphere idea — that we in theNew World were free, liberty-loving folk cut from same cloth. So, too, did the Inter-American Democratic Charter (2001) that promised free elections, democratic governance, and the protection of individual rights and liberties. The flagship of the Summit fleet was a projected Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Families that trade and invest together, stay together.

The FTAA crashed and burned in 2005.

Fast forward to 2012, and we find the hemispheric scenery vastly changed. We have seen the emergence of the BRICS [Brazil, Russian, India, China, and South Africa, aka the “rise of the rest”], a globalization backlash, and a revolt against the “Washington Consensus.”

Cheerleading the new hemispheric contentiousness are populist authoritarians like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez who espouse participatory democracy, socialism, nationalism, and anti-Americanism. They proclaim “Latin America for Latin Americans” and anyone else with enough gumption to pull on Uncle Sam’s beard. Following the lead of Chavez — Pied Piper of the Latin American left — are the motley members of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA, in Spanish, or “the dawn”) with a nasty penchant for expelling American ambassadors and cozying up to the Iranians.

President Obama was never a strong believer in the idea of the Americas or the power of proximity.

The Americas require a great deal of workmanlike attention and frequent handholding. Consider the multiplicity of states — from giants like Brazil to pygmy nations like Grenada and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Throw in a failed state like Haiti, and it just seems too complicated.

Our Latin American neighbors still like U.S. attention, access to U.S. markets, and the occasional helping hand.  Yet, grander global causes (like nuclear disarmament) and grander geopolitical strategies (like re-setting with Russia and pivoting to Asia) have captured the President’s imagination. But immigration reform and most other issues of interest and concern to Latin America have proven a bridge-too-far for the Obama Administration.

The Americas also give rise to the perennially awkward international conversation about our nation’s hedonistic, schizophrenic ambivalence on drug consumption and abuse. We remain the world’s biggest market for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana.  It’s an ugly fact that happy talk will not hide. And with 50,000 crime and drug-related homicides in Mexico since 2006, many in the U.S. are anxious for the stability of a nation far closer to home than bloody Syria.

Nor have revelations about Operation Fast and Furious, which allowed hundreds of murderous guns to walk into Mexico, engendered vast amounts of good will.

Also awkward is the fact that the Administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership can find a way to include communist Vietnam, but cannot make space for Canada or Mexico.

Nor can these problems be papered over with dollars. A cash-strapped U.S., now the greatest debtor nation in the world, is in no shape to showcase foreign largesse.

But the biggest problems confronting the Summit are not made in America. Rather, what threatens to make the meetings fruitless is a basic divergence of values and perceptions. It may sound old school, but here it is: If our neighbors cannot agree that a nuclear-armed Iran might just pose a threat to world peace, that presidents who stay in office for decades are not real democrats, or that Fidel Castro and little brother Raul, really are SOBs and tyrants to boot, then the space available for productive conversation drastically dwindles.

The time has come to sunset the Summit of the Americas. Privatize it! Let the region’s CEOs, civil society, or the Council of the Americas organize a grand encounter, a coalition of the willing so to speak, every couple of years with the U.S. president and like-minded democratic, free market leaders, ready for real problem-solving attendance.

Ray Walser, a veteran Foreign Service officer, is a Senior Policy Analyst specializing in Latin America at The Heritage Foundation.