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Don’t Turn Back the Clock: Tillerson Should Advance the U.S.-Latin American Partnership Into the 21st Century

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a joint press conference after their meeting at Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 23, 2017, in Mexico City, Mexico.

On the first day of a trip to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson extolled the virtue of the Monroe Doctrine, declaring it “as relevant today as it was the day it was written” in 1823.

At the heart of the doctrine and Tillerson’s odd invocation thereof is the notion that Latin America and the Caribbean are some sort of U.S. protectorate. In effect, the doctrine asserts that the United States has an ownership claim to influence throughout the Americas and that it has the right and responsibility to exclude other external actors.

This ownership mentality stands in stark contrast to the partnership approach that has marked U.S. policy in the Americas for much of the 21st century. It is also an affront to a set of dynamic countries across the Americas who have deepened their global ties during the past 20 years and who are highly unlikely to kowtow to any assertion of U.S. ownership, much less one from a nativist Trump administration.

These countries are key potential partners for the United States. Mexico, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia are not, for example, vulnerable actors asserting their independence from Spain, as they were in the 1820s and 30s. Rather, they are more than capable countries that can, and will, determine on their own their relationships with countries around the world.

All of these countries are predisposed to work with the Unites States as we share common interests and, at least until recently, common values. Working with these and other countries across the region is essential to advancing U.S. national security interests. Their cooperation is fundamental to confronting illicit flows in the Americas and is essential to addressing the existential threat posed by global climate change. They are key markets needed to revitalize, high-value U.S. manufacturing and other job-creating export sectors.

Sadly, Secretary Tillerson’s reversion to 19th century policy makes a twisted sort of sense. As President Donald Trump’s nativist policies and politics demonize countries to our south at every turn, Tillerson has little choice but to try an antiquated assertion of authority. In this environment, partnership born of shared interest and mutual respect is a tough sell even for an oilman like Tillerson.

In just the past two months, the Trump administration has systematically turned its back on some of the most vulnerable countries in the region—Haiti, Nicaragua, and El Salvador—when it terminated Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for more than 300,000 individuals from those countries.

In his State of the Union address, President Trump outlined policies that seek to physically wall the United States off from our neighbors to the south; radically reduce legal migration from countries across the Americas; and leave at least 5 to 6 million migrants from the Americas subject to deportation.

In recent weeks, the president has reportedly referred to countries in the Americas (and Africa) as “shithole countries” and badmouthed Mexican and Colombian anti-drug cooperation, even as Tillerson sat across the table from Mexican counterparts trying to fortify such cooperation.

These are not the makings of respectful partnership.

Neither U.S. gunboats nor tough talk will keep external actors like China and Russia out of the Americas. Nor will attempts at zero-sum mercantilism do the trick. But the U.S. economic relationship with the rest of the Americas is fundamentally different than China’s. It is nonsensical to suggest that the United States compete with China’s voracious appetite for raw materials, which drives China-Latin America trade.

It is, nevertheless, unquestionable that the United States needs to compete in the Americas. The United States can stand apart from other foreign actors in the region by advancing 21st century partnerships with our neighbors to the south to make clear that the relationship with the United States is unmistakably a better deal than neocolonial economic relationships with China or pseudo-Cold War relationships with Russia.

A good place to start in that competition would be to abandon nativism and mercantilism and fashion a 21st century policy approach, not revert to a 19th century one.

Dan Restrepo is a senior fellow at American Progress.