At Last, Team Trump Has a Western Hemisphere Policy

The Trump administration finally seems to be developing the semblance of a policy toward the Western Hemisphere. In its basics, the overall strategy is remarkably like the policies of past administrations from both parties. Focusing on “three pillars of engagement…. economic growth, security, and democratic governance,” senior officials in recent days have laid out a broad framework for the region but also emphasized the problems presented by two very different countries: Venezuela and China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s biggest challenge to implementing a Latin America strategy is not in the region; it is five blocks away from Foggy Bottom, emanating from a house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Prior to departing for a five-nation trip to Latin America on February 1, including Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Jamaica, Secretary Tillerson stopped by his alma mater, the University of Texas (UT), to outline the structure of “U.S. Engagement in the Western Hemisphere.” The first pillar, economic growth and trade, appears to be synonymous with energy. In a background briefing before the visit, a senior State Department official referred to a “prosperous, energy-secure” hemisphere. In his speech at UT, former oilman Tillerson spoke extensively of “energy integration throughout the Americas…abundant energy resources in South America…and an energy partnership that spans the Western Hemisphere.” In a speech at CSIS the following day, David Malpass, a senior Treasury Department official, put “energy and infrastructure” at the top of his list of growth initiatives. Finally, in Tillerson’s joint press availability with Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso of Mexico, the secretary cited energy integration as the first example of economic cooperation. It’s safe to say that Western Hemisphere oil, gas, and electric grids will receive lots of attention from Washington policymakers.

The security pillar, however, consists of at least four distinct parts: dismantling transnational organized crime organizations (mostly in Mexico); reducing coca cultivation in Colombia; fighting corruption; and improving the abilities of small countries in Central America and the Caribbean to protect themselves against better-armed and better-financed criminals. The Mexico piece is essentially a continuation of the George W. Bush–era Merida Initiative, a $4 billion security package that included helicopters, inspection equipment, and training for law enforcement officers. It also earmarked money for judicial and prison reform. That cooperation wisely will continue under the Trump administration. However, the threat that the United States may still pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada was less of a focus during the Tillerson visit to Mexico than security and energy cooperation. The panic of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal, widespread just a few months ago, has largely passed. There are even hints that Mexico may make some significant concessions in the next round of talks. The worst-case scenario seems to have shifted to one in which the negotiations are quietly postponed until late 2018.

Tillerson’s skills as a diplomat were put to the test in Bogotá outlining the U.S. continuing counternarcotics assistance to Colombia. The press was, not surprisingly, interested in his (and President Juan Manuel Santos’s) reaction to President Trump’s insinuation earlier in the week that Colombia would be punished for its failure to reign in coca production. “We send [these countries] massive aid,” Trump told Border Patrol agents, “and they’re pouring drugs into our country and they’re laughing at us. I want to stop the aid.” Tillerson admitted to “open and frank” conversations with the Colombians and laid out “our expectation that Colombia is going to make significant progress this year in reversing these trends,” while pledging U.S. support. He did not threaten an aid cutoff. So, depending on who you talk to, Colombia is a key U.S. ally, or we are about to swipe left on our assistance.

Both Tillerson and Malpass raised the importance of fighting corruption in the region in their prepared remarks last week. However, in his joint press conferences with his counterparts and the presidents of Peru and Colombia, Tillerson didn’t bring up the subject. Talking about high-level governmental corruption tends to be an awkward subject at high-level government events in Latin America.

The inclusion of Jamaica on Tillerson’s trip seemed to be an outlier, but it was a nod to the administration’s new “Caribbean 2020” strategy. The micro-island states (as well as the small Central American countries) face most of the same problems as their larger counterparts but with only a fraction of resources. The U.S. security interests in the region, according to the plan, are “ensuring that ISIS is denied a foothold in the region, dismantling illicit trafficking, enhancing maritime security, and confronting violent and organized crime.” There is also the prospect of exporting U.S. liquified natural gas to the Caribbean as subsidized Venezuela oil production implodes.

Tillerson, of course, did more than talk grand strategy. Much of the time during his trip was taken up with discussions of the need to call out the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela and a strong warning to the world not to rely on China as a model. In Texas, Tillerson touted the fact that the United States has slapped sanctions on more than 40 Venezuelan officials, and he cited U.S. cooperation with “Latin American partners…to counter [Venezuela’s] slide into dictatorship.” Unfortunately, his response to a student’s question at UT seemed to imply acceptance of a military coup. “Peaceful regime change is always better than violent change,” he said. But he continued, “Oftentimes it is the military that handles that…the military leadership realizes that when things are so bad…they will manage a peaceful transition.” Tillerson even joked that perhaps the Cubans had a nice “hacienda on the beach” waiting for Maduro. The audience found it funny. The regional press did not.

Tillerson raised Venezuela in all his meetings and so did the press. As Venezuela further collapses with hyperinflation, widespread scarcity of food and medicine, thousands fleeing to neighboring countries every day, and with no clear electoral way out, Tillerson prioritized the importance of the role of the international community to increase pressure on Venezuela’s regime. In Mexico, one reporter asked about the “U.S. military offensive from the United States” and whether Mexico and Canada would join in. Still, it was clear that there is no real disagreement between the United States and most of the region on Venezuela. “We cannot do nothing on Venezuela,” said Foreign Minister Videgaray at his joint press appearance with Tillerson and Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s top diplomat. “Mexico is going to keep working with rest of the region, and of course with the United States and Canada, to keep looking for a solution.” The regional approach was buttressed by Undersecretary Malpass, who in his February 2 speech praised the leadership of the Lima Group and pledged to “work with our partners in the region towards free and fair elections and the provision of humanitarian relief.”

Making the Monroe Doctrine Great Again also looks to be a feature of Trump and Tillerson’s policy toward Latin America. Indeed, at the University of Texas, the secretary of state warned that “we have forgotten about the importance of the Monroe Doctrine and what it meant to this hemisphere.” In today’s world that means watching what China and Russia say and do in the region. Calling China “a predatory actor in our hemisphere,” the secretary acknowledged that it had become the largest trading partner for Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. But “China’s offer always comes at a price,” he warned. “The China model extracts precious resources to feed its own economy, often with disregard for the laws of the land or human rights.” China also figured prominently in Malpass’s February 2 remarks . “Rather than help reform governance and macro polices, China’s investments have too often enabled poor governance.” Malpass explicitly linked Chinese lending and investment in Venezuela as a factor in the regime’s ability to hang on.

Tillerson devoted just one line of his UT speech to Russia, reflecting its negligible economic influence. The Russian threat, apart from election bots on Twitter and Facebook, is the sale of military goods to “unfriendly regimes.” If Russia is hoping to resurrect the Cold War contest, it will have to try a lot harder.

In sum, the Tillerson version of the Trump administration policy is engaging the region with essentially the same core principles as previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat. There is a greater emphasis on developing energy finds and infrastructure, but given the rapidly changing world market, that is no surprise. Tillerson himself seems to have adjusted to his role, and his performance before the press in Latin America was professional. He is clearly listening to his top regional experts. Hot spots like Venezuela will continue to consume the attention of the top policymakers at the State Department and the National Security Council, with a watchful eye on Chinese investment and Russian meddling. For their part, Latin American leaders already may have learned to downplay contradictory and confusing rhetoric from the White House and listen instead to Tillerson’s team. This two-track strategy may work until these same leaders face elections, where President Trump’s words cannot be safely ignored.

Richard G. Miles is director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative and deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Richard Miles