The last time prior to this weekend that Peru hosted a major international meeting was in late 2016 with leaders from the Asia Pacific. That’s when China’s President Xi Jinping proclaimed his nation to be the main defender of open markets across the region. Simultaneously, newly elected President Donald Trump declared his intention to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership and to rethink U.S. relations with some of our closest allies and friends, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. The tectonic real-time shift in geopolitics was unmistakable.
As leaders from across the Americas now converge in Peru for the VIII Summit of the Americas to discuss corruption (spoiler alert: they’re officially opposed), the world has changed dramatically since the first Summit, hosted by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and not just because of Xi. President Trump is staying away, and the president of Venezuela was disinvited. The host nation president only ascended to his role in late March with the resignation of his predecessor. While progress to contain and hopefully reverse the growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and to renegotiate NAFTA are possible at the margins, a robust consensus-based plan of action is unlikely.
This is, as they say, an opportunity missed. The United States has a unique relationship with the nations of the Western Hemisphere based on history, culture, economic links, and political ideals. China is no doubt a challenge in the hemisphere and across the world, but a confident, outward-looking United States would recognize that China cannot supplant the United States in the region without our active acquiescence.
The key to regional strength comes first from close relations with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, to the point where first President George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton saw the importance of NAFTA. The Clinton Administration, building on the passage of NAFTA, reorganized Canada from European to Western Hemisphere affairs while building a framework for relations with Mexico that fundamentally reworked that historically-fraught relationship.
A reorganized, updated NAFTA is key to our strategic well-being, as 10 former commanders of the United States Northern and Southern Commands recently wrote to the president. Both nations are reliable allies and are cooperative on security, migration, and a host of other issues. Our economic strength depends in large measure on theirs, and vice versa. Re-engaging on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Canada and Mexico and other Latin American nations, would also be an important and timely signal of regional interest.
Elsewhere across the region, the political winds have shifted so that leaders such as those now in place in Argentina and Chile are newly interested in strengthened relations with the United States. Other critically important nations including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Paraguay face elections this year, and voters will have a choice whether to select leaders who may be more or less willing to cooperate with the United States. The posture that the United States takes at the Summit in Peru will be an important indicator to regional voters of the type of relationship Washington seeks.
This will be the first time a U.S. president has not attended, and there is a lot riding on the participation of Vice President Mike Pence, who has already forged an impressive profile on regional affairs, much as Vice President Joe Biden did during the Obama administration. Vice President Pence has proven himself adept on the issues and, in the absence of the president, has an important opportunity to advance U.S. interests.
And as we saw personally in Miami in 1994, the presence at the Summit of cabinet level officials, members of the president’s family, and leading senators including Marco Rubio will reinforce the message. A robust U.S. private sector presence at the CEO Forum that precedes the Summit will have a similar impact. Ultimately, though presidential participation is always ideal, what matters is not who attends every individual meeting but what actions are agreed and implemented.
Common sense and good judgment suggest that U.S. interests are better served with sustained engagement in the hemisphere. U.S. presidents since FDR, at least, have acknowledged this fact, from the Good Neighbor Policy to the Alliance for Progress to the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, even if implementation has not been perfectly even. By launching the Summit of the Americas almost 25 years ago, the Clinton Administration built on these realities, establishing an enduring framework for the organization and management of hemispheric affairs. The question now is whether, in Peru and beyond, the hemisphere can come together around a meaningful agenda that puts people first and gets things done, ensuring the primacy of Summits of the Americas for years to come. Of at least one thing we can be sure: Whatever occurs, Beijing will be carefully noting the results.
Mack McLarty is the chairman of McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C.. He was President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff and first Special Envoy for the Americas. In 1994 he led efforts to organize the first Summit of the Americas and the accompanying private sector forum.
Eric Farnsworth is the vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Washington. He served in the White House as the senior adviser to the first Special Envoy.