Ronald Reagan's accession to the presidency is bringing fresh thinking to Washington on a wide range of issues, domestic and foreign. When it comes to policy toward Latin America, however, signs are multiplying that the new President and his advisers are tempted to reach back into the past, to revive shopworn concepts that are no longer apt.
One example, obvious on the front pages, is the vigorous assertion of a United States "sphere of influence" that affects how the US should think and act about the crisis in El Salvador. Another instance, worth more extensive comment , precisely because it is not being so widely discussed, is the increasing talk in Washington about rebuilding a "special relationship" between the US and the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean as a cardinal principle of US foreign policy.
The Western Hemisphere "special relationship" meant something positive during the 19th century, when the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed and enforced, although even then the notion meant less to Latin America than to the US. It still meant something after World War II, when the Organization of American States and other elements of the "inter-American system" were formally established to assure that regional concerns would be given due attention.
In 1959 the Inter-American Development Bank was set up for the same reason. Even then, however, it was becoming obvious that the primary preoccupations of the US and of the Latin American nations were often quite different. Latin Americans mainly wanted aid, trade, and economic preferences; Washington most wanted regional solidarity against the Soviet Union.
During the past 20 years the "special relationship" has signified less and less, no matter how often rediscovered and reproclaimed.
Regional economic preferences have been abandoned. Aid flows have become trivial. Regional political organs have been weakened and fractured. Regional defense arrangements have atrophied.
The reasons have not been obscure, nor attributable to any one US administration. The main problems in hemispheric relations today are simply not susceptible to regional solutions. Access to capital, technology, and markets -- Latin America's main concerns -- cannot be effectively assured in the Americas alone.
Scope remains for regional cooperation on cultural matters, on peacekeeping, and on the protection of human rights (though consensus on this last is badly frayed), but these are not the stuff of serious "special relationships."
But, as often happens, US rhetoric has outlasted reality and its political usefulness. As late as 1974 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was reproclaiming the "special relationship" in Caracas and emphasizing the supposed inter-American "community" at the Mexico meeting of OAS foreign ministers; the latter responded by purging the phrase from the official communique ending the meeting. By 1977, the Latin American foreign ministers, assembled at Bogota, went farther, declaring pointedly that "the community to which Latin America belongs is the community of the third world."
By then, Latin Americans of many political stripes had tired of Washington's ritualistic invocation of the language of harmony as a substitute for confronting the issues dividing the Americas, North and South. They came to see the concept as a means Washington used to justify singling out Latin America for rhetorical attention or interventionist abuse, military or otherwise, but not as a measure of positive attention, preference, or privilege.
This is the background President Reagan needs in order to evaluate the advice he is getting to resurrect the Western Hemisphere idea. US relationships with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are important, and will be so increasingly in the 1980s. This will be so because of Latin America's economic and political importance and potential; because of the region's capacity to help resolve or to worsen central international problems (such as food and energy production and distribution, industrial pollution, narcotics control, and nonproliferation); because of massive migration from Mexico and the Caribbean to the US, and because of Latin America's impact on the ambiance for the expression of the values fundamental to our society, such as respect for individual human rights.
But the way to secure Latin American cooperation in dealing with this significant agenda is by taking these countries seriously, not just by talking nice while menacing Cuba and Nicaragua with a big stick. Latin America's nations need to be engaged in the common pursuit of mutually beneficial solutions to real problems, not put off by slogans that hide conflict through verbal sleight of hand. The "special relationship" should not be born again.