Why Latin America shouldn’t pull its punches with Trump

Donald Trump, president of US (image: GageSkidmore )

Why Latin America shouldn’t pull its punches with Trump

Now is the time for Latin America to step up when the current US administration of President Donald J. Trump threatens the region’s interests.  There’s already a lot at stake with trade and immigration.  A passive or conciliatory approach on these issues and others risks undermining Latin American countries’ interests and sabotaging progress on global challenges on everything from environment to prosperity and security.

The region’s priorities are based on generating prosperity and ensuring security for its citizens. Improving Latin America’s integration into global markets, attracting investment and forging trade deals are among the chief elements for that progress. The global keystones for building prosperity are the region’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

On both of these issues, Latin America and the United States are drifting apart. This year President Trump announced the US’s exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his plans to abandon the Paris Agreement. Both decisions were met with disappointment in Latin America. But the reaction deserves more than disillusionment with the lack of US global leadership; it demands collective pushback.

The Trump administration’s decision to leave the world’s principal lifeline for combating climate change provides a raw look at “America First” in action. The Paris accord is one of the only recent success stories of multilateralism and demonstrates why the liberal world order is essential for promoting Latin America’s interests, given its extreme vulnerability to climate change impacts, such as more intense and frequent floods and droughts.

The Trump administration’s transactional view of international relations risks undermining this order. President Trump’s worldview reveals a schism between his administration’s willingness to act unilaterally and Latin America’s collective commitment and interest in upholding core global responsibilities.  In Latin America, the majority of countries support multilateralism and the protection of a rules-based liberal world order.

The Trump administration is sending mixed signals, which suggest that core commitment for even positive initiatives is weak and potentially ephemeral. For the moment, President Trump’s bark appears worse than his bite. On Cuba, NAFTA and the border wall, he has talked tough but has toned down some of his actions.

However, the president has on numerous—including recent—occasions threatened to withdraw from NAFTA as the second round of negotiations got underway, and cause a government shutdown if funding for the border wall is not approved by Congress. In short, his positions could change on a dime even on relatively consensus-based policy issues. The president’s unpredictability remains a serious test to both allies and adversaries.

The close economic, trade and cultural ties between Latin America and the US leaves the region with few options.

But Latin America is no longer boxed in under the US’s shadow. Over the past decade, Latin American governments have demonstrated an increasingly independent foreign policy, as its deepening relationship with China shows.

The multipolar world presents new opportunities for Latin American countries to exercise their diplomatic clout. As power diffuses through the global system, developing countries are challenging the status quo and questioning the dominant norms of the geopolitical system to reflect their own interests and values. This was impressively on display in 2015, as many Latin American countries played outsize roles in the UN negotiations to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

Latin America could assertively protect and bolster the liberal world order that underpins its interests. Failure to defend and strengthen that order with allies in the US and also countries in Europe, Canada and Asia will prove far more costly to the region and other parts of the world.

Latin America can and even should be bold with the US by proactively pursuing its interests on sustainable development and climate change with the federal government and US states and by cooperating with other allies in other regions. This difficult balancing act requires a clear strategy, shrewd tactics and composure. Countries can prevail if they resist putting short-term economic gains above longer-term interests.

Latin American governments can leverage their allies and interests with the US to increasingly become a decision influencer rather than a decision taker on major issues that directly affect its interests. Failing to do so will only mean the region could slip further in the US’s respect and calculations.  An emphasis on constructive and candid discussions that link climate change and sustainable development to other U.S. priorities such as security, immigration, and economic and financial stability could get the Trump administration’s attention.

Latin American countries can advance these agendas with the US and other allies in various ways. They could focus on US sub-national actors including state and local government and the private sector, which are increasingly active following the announcement to leave the Paris accord. Countries could cooperate with the America’s Pledge campaign, which includes 227 cities and counties, nine states and around 1,650 businesses and investors united with the aim of fulfilling the US’s pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce its emissions.

Mexico could ramp up its cooperation with California, where the state legislature is considering a bill that would push for the state to obtain all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. This cooperation can build on the joint goal announced in 2016 by the US, Mexico and Canada which agreed to achieving 50% of North America’s electricity from renewables by 2025.

The region can also lobby US lawmakers to water down proposed cuts to development assistance. A leaked State Department memo says that Foggy Bottom anticipates continuing support for developing countries’ activities related to climate change where mutually beneficial to US goals. Climate change impacts in Central America and Mexico are driving immigration flows as people abandon the countryside and head north. Countries could make the case for linking their climate and development agendas with their US counterparts where they may find a more receptive audience than expected.

In 2018, Argentina will host the G20 Leaders’ Summit. There is a risk that Argentina may downplay climate change in the summit agenda to placate the US Rather, President Macri should combine his focus for the G20 on jobs and investment with the transition to a low carbon economy focusing on the promotion of renewable energy and low carbon agriculture. This framing would resonate strongly with European G20 nations, China, US sub-national actors and the Multilateral Development Banks.

Next month’s EU and Latin America and the Caribbean summit in El Salvador also provides an ideal moment for the region to advance progress on the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals with its allies.

Latin America can play a significant role in defending the liberal world order. Whether it will depends on its willingness to push its interests with the Trump administration. Backing down prematurely or allowing tough issues to be jettisoned is not an option if the region wants to advance its interests.

This article was originally published by The Global Americans

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