The writer is Senior Fellow for Latin America and Conflict, Security and Development at the IISS
This week’s Summit of the Americas is the first to be held in the US since the inaugural one in 1994, but there is little expectation that it will prove a watershed moment in bilateral relations. This is disappointing but not surprising. Although some steps have been taken by the Biden administration to re-engage with Latin America after years of neglect, the reality is that the region’s importance in US foreign policy remains painfully low.
This may prove a strategic miscalculation in the medium term. Latin America’s global significance is on the rise, for both positive and negative reasons, and the US risks being taken by surprise as it looks elsewhere.
Although no interstate war is happening in the region, internal conflict — a mixture of organised crime and political violence — is increasingly rife. Its repercussions will prove global. Criminal groups have emerged from the pandemic stronger and more transnational in their supply chains, networks and operations. Their business is constantly optimising itself, moving from one sector of the illicit economy to another, following demand and profit margins. Criminal partnerships rooted in Latin America now span across geographies.
The constant reconfiguration of the drug-trafficking business is a case in point. The growing focus of the largest Mexican cartels on producing and exporting synthetic drugs to the US, now largely uses precursor chemicals from Asia (and notably China). This should be a particularly troubling development for the Biden administration given the lethality and ease of trafficking these drugs.
This transnational reach of organised crime represents an even more formidable threat to global stability when one considers the quasi-state role that criminal groups increasingly play in many parts of Latin America, leveraging states’ weaknesses, deficient institutional presence and lax governance standards. By becoming the main provider of (criminal) governance and services, they have gained legitimacy, turning into political actors that will need to be dealt with internationally.
Elsewhere, the region’s immense economic needs currently require deep, mostly Chinese, pockets. If China’s growing economic, infrastructure and technology clout on the ground is not enough reason for Latin America to move up significantly in the US’ foreign policy agenda, urgency should be added by the increasing infiltration of other non-traditional powers (including Russia and Iran), often with malicious intent.
Climate security is another reason why Latin America must up its global presence. The region’s vast endowment in water, forests, arable lands, and biodiversity makes it crucially important for fighting climate change. Its endowment with critical minerals (lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese, and graphite among others) makes it equally crucial for the global energy transition. At the same time, its high climate vulnerability exacerbates the underlying causes of violence and migration, resulting in more regional instability.
Finally, the US should look to the potential offered by Latin America in terms of reinforcing and expanding supply chains for essential goods closer to home. Formidable infrastructure and economic diversification challenges (including very little and declining intraregional trade) remain but there are large opportunities for expanding North American supply chains into the region.
All of these are powerful reasons why Latin America must feature more prominently in the US list of priorities. But they are also powerful reasons for the region to reclaim its seat at the global table after years of punching below its weight geopolitically. To do this will require a more united voice and approach towards the rest of the world. This may well prove the biggest challenge going forward.