Kerry should give Latin America more attention

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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New Secretary of State John Kerry's Senate confirmation hearing Thursday was a perfect example of what's wrong with U.S. foreign policy -- it was 70 percent about the Middle East and South Central Asia, 25 percent about Russia and China and 5 percent about Latin America.

As expected, Kerry didn't face many hard questions during his nearly four-hour hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he has served for the past 28 years -- the last four as its chairman -- and most members are his close buddies.

Perhaps the ultimate U.S. foreign policy establishment insider, Kerry gets high marks from both Democrats and Republicans.

And, granted, most of what Kerry said during his testimony was right on the mark.

"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said in his opening statement, stressing that the United States must first solve its fiscal crisis at home and become more competitive abroad before giving lessons on good management abroad.

"American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone," Kerry added.

"We cannot allow the extraordinary good that we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role that we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us."

But after Kerry's opening statement, nearly all of his fellow senators' questions focused on the Middle East and South Central Asia, and most specifically on Afghanistan, the Taliban movement, Iran's nuclear weapons program, Syria's civil war and the rise of Islamic parties in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other parts of North Africa.

In other words, most of the hearing centered on issues tied to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- the same issues that Kerry said should not "eclipse" other foreign policy priorities.

Regarding Latin America, if it hadn't been for isolated questions by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a Cuban-American who is likely to succeed Kerry at the helm of the Foreign Relations Committee; Marco Rubio, R-Fla; and Tom Udall, D-N.M., the region would have gone virtually unnoticed.

Kerry himself has not paid much attention to the region since the mid-1980s, when he led a congressional delegation to Nicaragua and later campaigned to stop U.S. funding for the "contra" rebels. And, let's face it, neither has the Obama administration, nor the Bush administration before it.

Nobody in his right mind will argue that Iran's nuclear program, or al Qaeda's cells in North Africa, should not be at the center of U.S. foreign policy concerns.

But if U.S. foreign policy is increasingly about economic policy, and if the United States needs to increase its declining share of global trade and investment, as Kerry said, it should definitely seek greater economic ties with Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile and other fast-growing Western Hemisphere neighbors.

Consider:

Latin America is likely to continue growing at a much faster pace than industrialized countries, according to International Monetary Fund projections. This year, the region will grow at 3.6 percent, compared to a 1.4 percent average for mature industrialized countries, the IMF says.

The United States already sends about 44 percent of its global exports to Western Hemisphere countries, according to the International Trade Commission: In 2011, the U.S. shipped more goods to Mexico ($197 billion a year) than to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Ireland combined, and exported more than three times more to Latin America ($366 billion) than to China ($103 billion).

The United States already relies on Western Hemisphere countries for 52 percent of its oil imports, compared with 22 percent from Persian Gulf countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

There is no question that a nuclear Iran and the threat of terrorism will -- and should -- continue to dominate the U.S. foreign policy agenda.

But if Kerry and the upcoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee leadership could raise Washington's focus on the Western Hemisphere to, say, a mere 20 percent, they would leave a very positive mark.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com

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