By Laurence Allan and Guy Edwards

American President Barack Obama is gearing up to visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, to forge new alliances in the region based on the use of smart power and multilateral engagement, appropriate to the 21st century. Meanwhile, Britain appears to be dusting off the policy relics of the 19th century.

Foreign Secretary William Hague's Canning House speech on British-Latin American affairs last November would surely have impressed George Canning - his pro-Latin America, 19th century counterpart. Hague was unequivocal about the need for British governments to stop underestimating the region. The coalition government would henceforth attempt to reverse this regrettable trend. However, in less than thirty minutes the foreign secretary had unintentionally exposed the weaknesses of British foreign policy towards Latin America on three fronts.

The singular emphasis on trade and commerce is turning British foreign policy into a one-dimensional closed circle, as if multiple global challenges do not merit greater attention. British Prime Minister David Cameron's insistence that all government representatives meeting with foreign officials keep commercial aims first in mind misses the wider implications of Latin America's key international role on a number of issues. These include multilateral reform, global economic stability, energy security, climate change, resource scarcity, South-South cooperation and combating drug trafficking.

Hague's closing remarks that Latin America can broaden the horizons and the prosperity of Britain failed entirely to reflect the broader strategic importance in working with Latin America. Nor have ministerial statements in the House of Commons and other public forums revealed any particularly nuanced thinking on the region and its place in an uncertain and complex world. Current statements on Latin America appear to use the 2007 United Kingdom Public Strategy for Latin America as their autocue, demonstrating not only continuity with the previous government but also the poverty of UK thinking.

As global hegemony slowly drains away from the west , the rise of Latin America, where many countries share fundamental values with Britain, the European Union (EU) and the United States (US), is essential to maintaining democratic values at the core of the international system. Geopolitically, Latin America's immense resources, ranging from fossil fuel reserves to environmental services and agricultural products, remain a key strategic safeguard against democratic countries being held hostage by illiberal, resource hungry regimes.

But Latin America must believe that Britain seeks genuine and equitable partnership in developing those resources in the long-term. Short term commercial scrambling not likely to send that message, nor does it give progressive sectors in those countries much faith that broader sustainable development issues will have any place in British- Latin America policy. Hague's words were in effect all take and no give.

Secondly, there appears to be far greater emphasis on bilateral relationship than on multilateral channels, including the European Union. Given their growing economic weight and significance in the international system, Brazil, as Jan Rocha wrote in The World Today's October 2010 edition, and Mexico, are the two regional countries where the greatest bilateral efforts will be focused.

This is at first glance rational, but in a context of diminishing budgets, a greater focus on these two regional giants will inevitably mean that some other countries fall off the policy map altogether. The costs of ignoring the latter states could be far reaching.

Taking just one example, the logic of austerity bilateralism suggests still further diminishing of relations with Cuba. But Cuba is influential in the United Nations and G-77, and maintains significant influence with a wide range of developing countries.

Likewise Bolivia is bilaterally of little significance to Britain. Yet it is an outspoken and important actor in global climate change politics, especially as a driver of global activist networks - a key constituency that Britain needs to engage with in an interconnected world. Ignoring smaller countries renders working with them on global issues more difficult, and also underplays the potential that other Latin American countries might offer for positively influencing the regional giants.

Given budget restraints, Britain's role as one of a number of developed countries who act as second rank balances to the US and China demands that it maintain commitment to the EU in Latin America. That will not be easy, as the seemingly intractable EU differences over Cuba policy illustrate. But EU member states' diplomats and development workers generally cooperate effectively together on the ground. This should intensify as the EU External Action Service (EEAS) becomes fully operational. If Britain wishes to strengthen relations throughout the region, it should take greater advantage of the prospects that provide and secure high-level government support for the EEAS.

Thirdly, although the foreign secretary's speech provided a rhetorical sweetener for Latin American diplomats, the absence of any fresh commitment to specific policy, operational or resource developments will not have gone unnoticed. With the confidence of Latin American governments flying high, it is doubtful whether these officials can be courted with empty promises, especially when other global players are happy to deliver with far greater conviction.

Taking advantage of the political and economic opportunities Latin America offers means Britain must heal damaged credibility. The closing of embassies and the relentless squeezing of staffing and resource levels by previous governments has meant a reduction of its physical presence across the region. The mantra both for the current coalition government and for its Labour predecessor has been 'do more with less', stretching diplomatic resources to paper-thin levels. Arguing that government will now seek to facilitate British trade goals is all very well, but cannot be achieved on words alone. Meanwhile other EU countries, notably France and Germany, have in recent years increased their credibility in Latin America, widening their activities and seeking to work with regional partners.

Recently, Britain worked successfully with a range of Latin American players on climate change, welcomed by countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Colombia, but also by those with prickly bilateral relations, including Cuba and Bolivia. Yet, excepting Brazil, few of those countries can be counted as significant trading partners. Does austerity bilateralism mean that important initiatives, such as those on climate change, will fall by the wayside in those countries where little commercial gain can be realistically expected in the short-term?

Given the well-known financial restrictions on the current coalition government and the long-term shrinking of British presence in the region, are the majority of Latin American governments to believe that the 'new' policy on Latin America is anything other than narrow self-interest?

That may fit within traditional realist views of the world but shows limited understanding of perceptions in a region whose governments now show that regardless of political complexion, they are not prepared to simply be price-takers - politically or economically - from Europe and the US. This does not necessarily imply hostility, but does underline a clear regional recognition of the increasingly fluid nature of the international system, and the new opportunities that exist for Latin America.

The slow burn of Latin America's rising presence in international affairs has, until recently, largely eluded the grasp of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Through existing channels in the EU and in concert with the US, Britain could radically improve relations with this strategic global partner in order to secure a number of foreign policy objectives.

Perhaps Hague's reflections on past engagement do signal a new stage in British policy. But high level ministerial visits to the region will mean nothing unless the government tries harder to clarify its real intentions and to fix inconsistencies between what it would aspire to do in Latin America, what is actually conceivable, and what it is really doing. In this multi-polar era of interdependence and international realignment, a policy based on the mouldy memoirs of a 19th century empire is inadequate. The coalition government should look beyond this narrow focus if its newfound interest in Latin American is to gain credibility and achieve success on pressing global issues, in tune with British national interests beyond the parameters of Treasury thinking.


Dr. Laurence Allan is an independent Latin America-Caribbean analyst and Associate Fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, London, and Guy Edwards is a Research Fellow at Brown University and edits the blog InterCambio Climatico


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