WASHINGTON — As President Bush travels to Latin America Thursday, it's become fashionable in Washington to argue one of two extremes when it comes to policies in the region.
On the left, critics suggest that the war in Iraq and perceived US neglect of Latin America since 9/11 explains and even justifies the anti-US wave that is sweeping parts of the region. As a result, we should expect little in terms of cooperation to achieve US goals in the hemisphere.
On the right, the view is that Latin Americans themselves have made little progress in developing their own economies and institutions and that the region has little to offer the United States. Therefore, the region justifiably has been ignored in the face of numerous competing global priorities.
Both views are wrong. In fact, the ability of the US to address the significant global challenges it faces would be directly enhanced by closer coordination with willing partners in Latin America. Among the issues crying out for effective collaboration: nuclear nonproliferation, global peacekeeping, energy security, and a continued focus on global trade talks.
A key to this new strategic approach with Latin America is the US relationship with Brazil, South America's largest country. With the president's trip unfolding, now is an excellent time for Mr. Bush to explore the possibility of an enhanced partnership.
Brazil is certainly showing that it is ready for a stronger relationship with the US. For example, by voluntarily giving up its nuclear program, Brazil turned swords into plowshares. As Iran's nuclear ambitions continue unabated, active partnership with Brazil within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), if pursued, could directly assist the global effort to deny Iran's ability to acquire nuclear weapons.
Brazil can also serve as an example to Arab countries that favor the promotion of atomic energy for peaceful purposes. By developing relations with various Arab leaders, Brazil is building credibility as a potential partner to counter the growing influence of Iran in the Western Hemisphere, highlighted by the recent jaunt of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through the region. And "leftist" Brazil has itself served as a breakwater against the more populist, anti-US bent in other Latin American countries.
Brazil has already participated in numerous global peacekeeping operations through the United Nations and the Organization of American States, including in Haiti and much of Portuguese-speaking Africa. Expanding such efforts would show Brazil's acceptance of the responsibilities expected of a global actor, and the international community should strongly encourage such action.
Closer to home, even as the US seeks to cure its "addiction to oil," Brazil is the world's most efficient producer of ethanol, a cleaner, renewable fuel. The country is selling ethanol to China as quickly as the fuel can be produced, and if the US opened its own markets, Brazil could more effectively export ethanol there, too.
Though not a panacea, the efficient production and distribution of ethanol and other alternative fuels could contribute to an overall energy solution that must also include conservation. And by promoting alternative fuels, the US helps address climate change while lessening the regional influence of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, who is using oil resources to build an ideological movement contrary to US interests.
Finally, global trade talks will continue to get a boost to the extent that the US and Brazil work together to address agriculture subsidies and market-access issues worldwide. Recent discussions at senior levels of government have been promising, and should continue to be pursued with vigor.
By concentrating with purpose and resolve on specific areas of mutual interest, Brazil and the US can build toward an enhanced relationship that would benefit both. Given the challenges we face ahead, the time to get started is now.
• Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.