Turning Our Gaze North & South: The U.S. in its Own Hemisphere

November 21, 2013

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere at the Organization of American States.  He announced the end of the era of the Monroe Doctrine and called for “a higher and deeper level of cooperation between us, all of us together, as equal partners in this hemisphere.”

During my years as a Foreign Service Office, I served in 6 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including El Salvador and Haiti.  During that time, we failed to appreciate the value of strong relationships in the Western Hemisphere.

We saw Central America as a factor in the Cold War, South America as part of our so-called war on drugs and promotion of democracy (read elections) and Haiti as partly humanitarian and mostly to limit Haitian emigration to the United States.  Mexico is a special case that is now a major influence in US domestic politics.

As our attention shifted to the Middle East and beyond, we did not seriously consider the political, economic and social issues that were changing in the hemisphere, leaving many of the policy decisions to interest groups such as the Miami Cubans and human rights organizations.  One of the results of our dwindling interest was a steady loss of influence. From the 80’s to the present our influence has steadily declined.  We either did not recognize this or did not think it important, pretty much continuing our paternalistic treatment of countries in the region. With few exceptions the American press does not cover the region other than to report sensational stories.  Xinhua and Al Jazeera provide better coverage.

Meanwhile, back in Latin America, countries began to see the value of more participation in the Pacific Rim, and China and Japan became major players.  Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia challenged us directly, and our response was weak and lacking in vision.  We could have adopted a realistic policy based on mutual interests, especially trade, but again fell short, delaying important free trade agreements with key countries.

We share many cultural values and historic links with the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The Western Hemisphere has vast resources – natural resources throughout, and developing human resources. We have a fast-growing Hispanic population in the United States.

Our policymakers should cast their gaze south and north rather than just east and west, taking the lead in policies based on respect and mutual interests and less on repeated rhetoric and tired programs that have little impact. The Organization of American States is weak, but it holds numerous conferences in prime locations in order to publish reports.  So far it is relatively harmless.

Finally, in discussions of the Western Hemisphere we seldom mention Canada.  We need to correct this. We should recognize Canada’s importance and work to ensure a system of shared roles and obligations. At the same time, Mexico is much more than drugs and violent executions.  The United States must see Mexico for what it is and can be.  Together, the United States, Canada, and Mexico represent a vibrant political, economic, and social force.


Janice Elmore is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose 25 year career included assignments to embassies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Bosnia, and the Sudan with a focus on political-military and law enforcement issues.


Image: John Cary [pun not intended], Cary’s New Universal Atlas, containing distinct maps of all the principal states and kingdoms throughout the World. From the latest and best authorities extant. London: Printed for J. Cary, Engraver and Map-seller, No. 181, near Norfolk Street, Strand, 1808.