Despite the abysmal state of U.S.-Latin relations over the past eight years, there is still a lot of goodwill to build on—especially given the remarkable democratization of the continent, with the rapid spread of freely elected governments throughout the hemisphere. Just in the last three years, 21 new leaders have been elected in the Americas.
Thus, the Obama administration will be taking office in a favorable climate in which to advance a pro-Latin policy. But President Obama still has to take the hard steps toward working in a multilateral fashion and treating Latin states as partners. He will be able to strike a new note when he attends the fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009, a gathering of all the hemisphere's heads of state, where he will be able to reiterate his pledges of last spring.
However, if he is waylaid by the economic crisis or finds himself not yet ready to address these issues for other reasons, the United States may soon face not two or three hostile nations staring daggers at our country but a ring of fiery anti-American states. That would be a situation that could lead to further damage to our economy, a reduction in oil supplies, an exacerbation of drug trafficking, and a worsening immigration inflow.
Stephen Schlesinger is an adjunct fellow at the Century Foundation and the former director of the World Policy Institute. He is the coauthor of Bitter Fruit, about the U.S. coup in Guatemala; author of Act of Creation, about the founding of the United Nations; and coeditor of Journals 1952-2000, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. His brother, Robert Schlesinger, is deputy editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report.