Presidential candidates have never lacked for opinions on how to fix problems abroad, whether it’s confronting the Middle East, strengthening ties with Europe or creating economic opportunities in China. The consistent failure lies in losing focus on the current situation in the Americas, due to apathy or the immediacy of a foreign-policy crisis.
By and large, we’ve lost sight of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, the first true PanAmerican, who said of Mexico and Cuba, “We consider their interests and ours as the same.” Our neighbors to the south should be our closest allies, and it is to our own long-term peril if we continue to take them for granted. As the satirist Horace so eloquently stated, “It is your business when the wall next door catches fire.”
For many years now, our hemisphere has been on the back burner because of the happenings in Russia, China, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. As a result, the long-time neglect of the Americas has allowed open wounds to fester. Inconsistently, we’ve attempted to halt opium production in Afghanistan while allowing cocaine and guns to sell across our border.
Of course, we continually need to keep our eyes on the rest of world, but the Americas should be our top priority. If Uganda falls apart, it is a bad thing — but if Costa Rica falls apart, the problem could very well land on our shores, affect our trade, and disrupt our peace. Greater scrutiny should accompany the closer problem.
One has only to look at history to find reinforcement. In addition to Jefferson, early US statesmen like Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton spoke positively of a PanAmerican identity. In recent years, we’ve lost what our forefathers understood well: the strengthening of diplomatic ties and of US influence within this hemisphere is important because of the many dangers that lie at our back door.
The obvious first step is for Republican presidential candidates to stop spreading conspiracy theories about a so-called North American Union and start promising to pay special attention to the yearly General Assembly of the Organization of American States. Alternatively, promise to call a special PanAmerican Congress to identify and address our hemispheric issues and act upon them.
It is then vital for the next Republican presidential nominee to develop a plan of renewed outreach to, and engagement with, the rest of the Americas. There are many countries that sit in the United States’ backyard — our neighbors — who depend on us for a variety of things, whether it’s defense or trade, economic partnership or common values. It only makes sense for the United States to be closest, in terms of trade and interaction, with countries located geographically closest to us. Consider too, those countries where we share significant linguistic advantages (37 million US residents speak Spanish) and where many of us share a Judeo-Christian outlook that is more common in the Americas.
This plan needs to fundamentally identify the hemispheric issues such as the indigenous peoples and how to treat them, legitimate economic opportunities and investment, defense partnerships and training, coastal erosion, environmental protection, immigration reform, and historical preservation. The Republican presidential nominee should be prepared and anxious to engage in dialogue on these issues with leaders from other countries in this hemisphere.
Natural disasters and cultural awareness bring additional opportunities to show interest in our neighbors. Hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, and other crises regularly impact more than one country at a time. Hurricanes rip their way through country after country. The earthquake in Haiti only impacted one country directly, but the response came from many neighboring states. In July, the PanAmerican games kick off in Canada — one of the largest athletic events in the world after the Olympics and deserving of recognition from US leaders. Our president, now and in the future, must not miss the chance to create hemispheric goodwill and a foundation of friendship by paying special attention to the issues, concerns, and happenings of the many nations in our hemisphere.
Increased trade can only benefit us at this point. Republican presidential candidates often talk a good game about free trade without actually having a plan in place for improvement. We only rise above lip service by having specific plans in place to protect the existing free-trade agreements and by identifying how to expand or improve upon them in the future. This definitive action would also show US voters the direction needed. There are more than 950 million people in the Americas, and a renewed effort to pass a PanAmerican free trade agreement, similar in structure to NAFTA, would benefit the ability of US businesses to reach hundreds of millions of consumers with a higher GDP per capita than China.
Fighting to bring down drug violence, arms shipping, and smuggling of illegal materials are also issues of hemispheric agreement. Any Republican presidential candidate should have a plan about how to combat terrorism, not just in the Middle East, but also here in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, he should have a plan for helping Colombia defeat FARC, helping Peru shut down the Shining Path guerrilla, and combating the large drug cartels that have set up shop in Mexico. In each of these cases, the violence of the terrorists or narco-terrorist groups spills over the borders and into other countries. A Republican presidential candidate who wants to be seen as forward thinking and dynamic will put these groups on notice and have a plan in place to weaken or destroy them.
Increased focus on creating high-school student exchanges among countries in the Western Hemisphere could create more cross-cultural bonds, alongside more student visas for students from this hemisphere looking to attend college in the United States. We want the best and brightest students, and they want to be educated in the best universities in the world; it’s a win-win opportunity.
There are many ways unmentioned to strengthen these alliances, these friendships. If you want to improve the neighborhood, you start with your own backyard. You follow the time-honored wisdom of setting your own house in order, knowing it will bring strength. Republican presidential candidates have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to prove that outreach to the Americas combined with international experience and knowledge is the trifecta that will prove the United States to be a formidable leader … and trusted friend.
Chuck Warren is a prolific fundraiser for Republican candidates, including serving as the National Republican Congressional Committee finance chair for Utah and Arizona, as well as on the Utah and National Finance Committee for Romney for President. He is a managing partner with Silver Bullet LLC, a public affairs, crisis communication, and initiative qualification company (@SilverBulletLLC).
Edited by Fergus Hodgson.