Monday marked the start of the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. From June 6 through 10, leaders across the Western Hemisphere will discuss the issues that plague the region. While the agenda remained vague up until the day before, five major topics will be discussed: democratic governance, health and resilience to pandemics, clean energy, climate change, and digital transformation.
For the Biden administration, the Summit is meant to underline resurgent American leadership in a region that U.S. President Joe Biden has made few key policy decisions. The Summit, which is held roughly every three years, is already plagued by an uncertain guest list and priority misalignments.
Even just days before the start of the Summit, the White House and State Department demurred in confirming which nations would actually attend. Leaders across the region have made it clear that the agenda does not line up with their priorities. As a result, the upcoming Summit of the Americas is shaping up to be a diplomatic disaster.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
One major challenge facing the United States is the guest list. As the host, the United States has discretion over who will be invited, choosing to invite only democratically elected leaders. This leaves out three of the United States’ regional adversaries: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This decision was met with backlash across the region, primarily from the President of Mexico. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Mr. Lopez Obrador will not be in attendance as those countries were left off the guest list.
His decision spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, causing other leftist leaders, including Bolivia and several countries in Central America, to reconsider their attendance. The leaders of Chile and Argentina, two of America’s closest partners in the region, were also critical of the Biden administration for the limited guest list and the Biden administration had to entice the leaders into attending.
Another major country in the region pondered not attending the Summit as well. For weeks, it was unclear whether Brazil’s nationalist, right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, would be in attendance. Mr. Bolsonaro, who maintains strained relations with the Biden administration, has since decided to travel to Los Angeles only after the promise of a bilateral meeting with Mr. Biden. Had he chosen not to attend, Mr. Bolsonaro’s absence, despite being nearly ideologically opposite of Mr. Biden – likely would have stymied the Biden administration’s efforts on addressing two major foreign policy goals – climate change and defending democracy.
While the United States has neither confirmed nor denied an invitation going out to Juan Guaido, who the United States recognizes as Venezuela’s interim president, several Caribbean countries threatened to not attend the Summit. The Caribbean nations also cited Cuba’s exclusion as justification for not attending. The fact that so many leaders – particularly Mr. Lopez Obrador of Mexico – are boycotting or threatening to boycott the Summit does not bode well for the Biden administration making any breakthroughs on a desired migration deal or reinforcing lagging U.S. leadership in the region.
Migration or Trade?
Many of the likely attendees of the Summit have complained that the United States is, again, dominating the agenda with what matters to the United States, not necessarily the larger region. Evoking sentiments of America’s legacy of imperialism in the region, the United States’ primary concern is migration, as the Biden administration is paying closer attention to the factors pushing people to flee their homes, including economic insecurity, political instability, gang violence, and climate change.
To be fair, the Summit will also focus on other migration issues since it is a hemisphere-wide concern as millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia and Brazil along with thousands of Central Americans from the Northern Triangle, Cubans, and Haitians escaping their homelands.
While migration is certainly an issue not confined solely to the United States, leaders from the participating countries want to focus more on trade and the economy. Economies across Latin America and the Caribbean are struggling to rebound after the COVID-19 pandemic. Most regional leaders are hoping for the Biden administration to announce new trade or investment initiatives, similar to the one announced during Mr. Biden’s trip to Asia. However, right before the Summit commenced, U.S. officials made no indication of any such initiatives. For most Latin American and Caribbean leaders, trade is the name of the game.
U.S. Leadership in the Region is Waning
As the second day of the Summit of the Americas kicks off, declined invitations and disagreements on priority issues threaten to undermine the purpose behind such summits. The leaders of several high-profile, powerful countries have chosen not to attend. The United States seems determined that migration be the central issue while other regional leaders prefer to discuss trade and the economy.
The Biden administration’s handling of the Summit and disagreements over the priority issues reveal how out of touch the United States has been with its nearest neighbors. Relatedly, the theatrics surrounding the Summit highlight the United States’ waning power and influence in the region.
This Summit is the first one held by the United States since 1994, not long after the Cold War ended. Most Latin American countries were transitioning into democratic and open market societies after enduring civil wars and brutal dictatorships. There was a degree of hope emanating from the region. Today, the world is a very different place.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that America’s nearest neighbors in the Western Hemisphere are fed up with American leadership and that the United States’ influence in the region is diminishing. Now, the Biden administration needs to realize these regional trends and design strategies to both reassert U.S. leadership in the region as well as truly hear what America’s allies and partners in the region are saying. The United States’ national interest in the region hinges on both of those factors.