Latin America Charting a New Course in 'Post-American' World

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 9, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- The decline of U.S. influence in the world has been fodder for a lot of media analysis lately. "We're just not that strong anymore," columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote this week in The New York Times. "We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes."

Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek's international editor, identifies the problem as "the rise of the rest." Emerging global powers are growing richer and more influential, challenging U.S. pre-eminence in industry, economy and culture. As Zakaria points out, the world's "largest publicly traded company is in Beijing. Its biggest refinery is being constructed in India. Its largest passenger airplane is built in Europe. The largest investment fund on the planet is in Abu Dhabi; the biggest movie industry is Bollywood, not Hollywood."

This "seismic shift" is redefining the world's relationship with Washington. While many in this country are feeling unsettled about this development, Zakaria suggests that their worries are unfounded because the rise of new powers is no longer defined by their opposition to the United States. Rather, these new actors have moved on and, while they extensively challenge U.S. dominance, their attitude is not one of anti-Americanism but what Zakaria calls "post-Americanism."

Certainly, there are exceptions, notably in Latin America. Anti-Americanism largely defines Venezuela, one of the region's new global players, where President Hugo Chavez's raison d'etre is precisely his antagonism toward Washington.

But post-Americanism is still a useful way for understanding regional developments and the future of hemispheric relations. After all, the far more important actors in Latin America's "rise of the rest" are those who indeed have moved on.

Latin America's two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, both are emerging as important global players, pushing for membership in the U.N. Security Council and attending, along with China, India and South Africa, summits of the Group of Eight industrial democracies. Also, by one count, eight out of the world's 25 fastest-expanding companies are based in Brazil or Mexico. In 2007, the world's richest man was Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Slim Helu.

But more to the point is that the rise of Brazil and Mexico is not seen as an outright challenge to Washington, nor is it motivated by the long tradition of anti-Americanism in the region. Brazil's reluctance in becoming a full member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of rich nations, is offered up as evidence that it is in no hurry to become a full-fledged great power.

Mexico, meanwhile, is trying to chart its own course with little regard to its past antagonism toward the United States. As Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S, told me this week, "the pro-or-against-U.S. dichotomy is a false dichotomy, a dichotomy of the past; it is irrelevant given the profile of this globalized world."

In this rise-of-the-rest landscape, what then should be the role of the United States? No doubt, Washington's ability to set the agenda for nations in the hemisphere will be greatly eroded. Latin America will rely more on homegrown solutions.

Less obvious is the impact that the United States will continue to have indirectly on the Latin American landscape. Friedman considers a U.S. focus on its internal challenges to be particularly urgent. The United States still has "all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country," he wrote.

When or if this comes to pass, few regions stand to benefit as much as Latin America. Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that "the domestic front is going to be really critical, and fits right into policies Latin America is most affected by, such as immigration and trade."

If Washington manages to diminish growing anti-globalization anxiety, adopt a more rational immigration policy or develop a more balanced approach on free trade, Latin America will be watching -- and perhaps even following -- closely.

Should that happen, Latin Americans will not only benefit by default but, in the long run, they could see an improved U.S. foreign policy as a result. As Sarukhan notes, if "the United States comes out stronger and more confident about itself, it will come with much more enlightened international policies."

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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