U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent tour of Latin America and the Caribbean might as well have been dubbed “Mission Impossible 2018.”
Against a growing chorus of nativist and protectionist policies peddled by President Donald Trump, the long-beleaguered U.S. chief diplomat was tasked with trying to convince the United States’ immediate neighbors the region has a role other than being cast the villain.
The reasons for trying to convince them so are compelling. As Secretary Tillerson himself made clear during stops in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica, cooperation with countries across the Americas is vital to advancing key U.S. interests.
The United States cannot, for example, successfully confront the Hemisphere’s most significant humanitarian and political crisis – Venezuela’s death spiral at the hands of the Maduro Regime – alone. Countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean need to more effectively rally to the cause of the Venezuelan people through word and, more importantly, through action.
Countries across the region need to join efforts to sanction key regime figures and the region needs to concretely and publicly prepare the massive assistance package that will be needed after Venezuela rids itself of the Maduro Regime. An unmistakable signal must be sent that better days can and will be ahead for Venezuela with the solidarity of its neighbors.
Thankfully making this case is increasingly easier for Tillerson as Venezuela’s accelerating collapse both adversely affects its immediate neighbors Colombia and Brazil and its demise severely curtails its ability to buy diplomatic silence, particularly in the Caribbean.
But goodwill toward the United States would help. And not only is President Trump not cultivating good will, he’s fomenting just the opposite as the positive view of the United States across the Americas has plunged to just 26 percent according to a recent Pew poll.
That demise is driven by a President with an even lower regional approval rating—16 percent. A level not at all surprising given his prioritizing a wall between the United States and its neighbors; his vilifying undocumented immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean at every turn; and his seeking to reduce legal immigration from the region by 50 percent. Not exactly the plot points in a story of shared values and interests.
Diminished U.S. standing is particularly problematic during the region’s super-election cycle where voters in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil, among others, will go to the polls in presidential elections in the coming months. Aligning with President Trump is unlikely to be a winning electoral strategy anywhere in the Americas.
The damage extends well beyond the Venezuela front.
The United States cannot, for example, effectively confront the scourge of transnational criminal organizations without the active commitment and cooperation of its neighbors. Drug and human trafficking, along with other illicit activities, fuel citizen insecurity across the entirety of the Western Hemisphere.
Secretary Tillerson frequently acknowledged this reality, while back at home, true to the impossible mission, President Trump publicly bad-mouthed Mexico and Colombia and entertained cutting off U.S. assistance to these key partners and other in the Americas.
The Tillerson’s Trumpian obstacles also extended to what should be a key element of any U.S. agenda in the Americas – credible economic engagement.
Next-generation, high-value manufacturing as well as other job-creating export sectors in the United States requires enhanced international market access – in the Americas and beyond. As Secretary Tillerson himself noted, albeit with an odd invocation of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States needs to compete with China in the Americas.
Doing so is impossible with President Trump’s protectionist agenda.
U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—Trump’s first act as President—was an act of unilateral commercial disarmament vis-à-vis China in the Americas. Holding much-needed NAFTA modernization talks hostage to nativist and protectionist whims further undermines any notion the United States wants to constructively engage its hemispheric neighbors.
Those who value forging deeper ties in the Americas can only hope that after his regional tour, Secretary Tillerson takes on Mission Impossible 2018: The Sequel—convincing President Trump and his followers to abandon their nativism and protectionism before it does even more harm at home and across the Americas.
By Dan Restrepo, Fellow, Center for American Progress