Obama's Latin American trip adds to his mulitlateral approach

In Chile, Obama stresses Latin America's 'shared responsibility' in the world. That's the same approach he's taking in Libya.

President Obama’s tour of Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador has been buried by news about Libya and Japan. But one of his messages – that Latin America can take more responsibility for global peace and prosperity – deserves to break through for further discussion.

In a key speech in Chile yesterday, the president emphasized the need for “shared responsibility” between the United States and countries south of the US border.

“There’s so much Latin America can now share: how to build political parties and organize free elections, how to ensure peaceful transfers of power, how to navigate the winding paths of reform and reconciliation,” the president said.

The urging fits with his two-year overture to rising powers such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China – known as the BRIC nations – for more security and economic burden sharing. Will his multilateral approach pay dividends?

Latin America is not the same place it was even 10 years ago. It is more democratic. It depends less on foreign aid as it surges ahead with trade. The region’s natural resources have also caught the attention of China, which is aggressively increasing its trade and investment presence.

These Latin American countries are more often flexing their muscles in the world – not always to Washington’s liking, as was the case when Brazil got too close with Iran under Brazil’s previous president.

Argentina and Brazil sit on the G20, or Group of Twenty major global economies. Chile has joined the OECD, the club of wealthy nations. Brazil and Colombia hold temporary seats on the United Nations Security Council, and Brazil aspires for a permanent seat. Latin American countries are doing more to help one another as neighbors (for example, rebuilding Haiti) and venturing to other continents. Brazil is newly involved in Portuguese-speaking Africa, where it is partnering with the US in health and agriculture. And then there are UN peacekeepers – Uruguay contributes more peacekeepers per capita than any other country.

All of this points to potential for a greater international contribution of expertise and diplomacy, and – eventually – money (remember that Chile’s economy is still only the size of greater Phoenix, while Brazil has the seventh largest economy in the world, about the size of the New York metropolitan area).

But asking more of other nations also means that the United States must hold up its end of the bargain. In Latin America, government leaders rightly complain that the White House has delayed sending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval. Mexico logically demands that the Obama administration do more to curb the flow of guns from America to drug cartels and to reduce its drug consumption.

Obama feels constrained by domestic politics – liberal Democrats on trade, budget cutters on drug prevention, and the National Rifle Association on guns. But the same can be said of political leaders facing tough choices in other countries.

At a time of budget and political constraints, the United States is likely to keep up its multilateral approach.

A prime example was last week’s UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone in Libya, in which the US sought the cover of other nations for a third military foray in a Muslim country since 9/11. Countries with which Obama has sought warmer ties – Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Turkey – abstained in that vote, allowing the resolution to pass.

At the same time, the world is seeing in Libya the risk of greater multilateralism pushed by Washington. When the US fades more into the background, who leads? That became a question once the bombing started.

It’s a similar issue to consider when Obama tells his audience in Santiago, as he did yesterday, that “in the Americas today, there are no senior partners and there are no junior partners, there are only equal partners.”

Obama may view himself as the great leveler in international affairs. Certainly, other countries – many in Latin America – have complained for years about America throwing its weight around. But stepping back, and getting others to step up, has its own challenges.

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