On the 27th of June, Barack Obama tried to bring balance back to his government’s response to the leaks from Edward Snowden by saying: '' I am not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29 year-old hacker''. However, this response only came after officials in the US State Department deployed the age-old schoolyard tactics of “If you don’t give me that toy, I’m not going to be your friend any more”. For the first two weeks of the NSA and GCHQ scandal, the US State Department made veiled threats to China, Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Last Friday, US Secretary of State, John Kerry has reportedly promised his Venezuelan counterpart to close NATO airspace to the country's flights and stop crucial oil product deliveries if Caracas grants asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The US's top diplomat sent a clear signal that Venezuela's Air Force One is not immune and President Nicolas Maduro could easily face the same fate as his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales, whose plane was grounded for inspection in Austria earlier this month in violation of all international diplomatic agreements.
A dialog dependent on irony is a sign of lost control over a narrative. The absence of any real focus on the region except to complain about trade disputes, the hunt of Edward Snowden or quibble with the likes of Chávez has created a void that means when something goes wrong, it actually is seen as the totality of U.S. policy in the Americas.
So it loomed larger than it otherwise might have when there was a fiasco concerning the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales's flight in Europe because he was thought to be ferrying Edward Snowden to a new destination. It inflamed Morales's colleagues throughout the region. The big bully of the North was dissing them again, extralegally violating their sovereign prerogatives. And then, when it was discovered that the National Security Agency was actively intercepting communications of millions of Brazilians, the United States actually succeeded in sending U.S. relations with the region hurtling back to the periods of the last century in which some U.S. policymakers seem most comfortable.
It certainly hasn't helped that it has also been reported that the surveillance efforts extended to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and others. The U.S. intelligence community was in everyone's business again. The United States was treating them like second-class citizens again. And it was hard to name major countervailing positive initiatives -- as you might find in the case of China or even Russia -- that could counterbalance and at least keep the relationships "complex" rather than just lousy.
It is sometimes thought that the failure to pay much attention to a region at least has the advantage of doing no harm. Not true. It leaves the door open for the unexpected and uncomfortable to define the totality of the relationship and gives the United States little leverage to offset problems when they do arise. It is akin to the U.S. stance in Syria, where doing nothing doesn't mean the United States is off the hook. Sometimes you own a problem not because you "broke it," but because your neglect has exacerbated it or made it possible.
If the Obama's administration does not want to preside over the descent of U.S.-Latin America relations to their worst level in years, it's going to have to start thinking about concrete, meaningful, positive initiatives of the kind it has thus far sidestepped or failed to follow through on during the past few years. A breakthrough on Cuba, recognition of Brazil as a true partner in the community of major powers, prioritization of collaborative rather than divisive policies with Mexico, a new trade road map, trailblazing policies in areas associated with the Internet economy and data security, and meaningful energy and climate cooperation could all be elements of a more constructive approach.
But most important would be recognizing that policy isn't something that the United States does to a region only when it feels like it. The most effective and enduring policy initiatives are ones the United States takes with its partners -- based not just on its needs and agenda but on listening to theirs and finding common ground. In other words, the best policy initiatives are based on the kind of genuine mutual respect that has been lacking from the U.S.-Latin America agenda for years -- well, forever.
When Obama indicated that he was not going to spend any more geo-political capital on extraditing Snowden, it was a statement intended to get the State Department inline as their actions up until that point were wasting this capital and resembled childish schoolyard diplomacy. Such politics are a line of last resort. Whether deployed in school lunchrooms or on the front pages of newspapers; the risks of this tactic are high. If it works, it speaks to your legitimacy and strength but it can also backfire and show your weakness instead. The way the US handled the Snowden case so far, obviously points to the latter. In the fallout the State Department has been left with a response based on irony rather than fact.
Judging from US's reactions, it is clear that however this issue is resolved, U.S-Latin America relations have been bruised. What is not clear is when the reliance on rhetoric and irony will end and what effect the hunt for Edward Snowden will have on the perception of US-Latin America diplomatic relations in the future. After all, Edward Snowden is likely to be granted political asylum in Russia, because Russia has the better hand, especially since America wants more from Russia than Moscow from Washington.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: Reuters-US Secretary of State, John Kerry