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CSIS: Latin America and the Caribbean in an Era of Strategic Competition (p. 11 - 18)

Today we continue our look at the report on strategic competition in Latin America, beginning with the section on current challenges posed by Russia. The text also touches on Iranian influence and delves deeper into the strategic principles outlined in yesterday's section. Keep reading here:

"PRINCIPLES FOR A U.S. RESPONSE Geopolitics are back in Latin America, with great-power rivals seeking to use the Western Hemisphere for strategic leverage against the United States. The United States will need a long-term, strategic response. It appears the region will receive greater relative priority in U.S. policy: The Biden administration implicitly ranked the Western Hemisphere above the Middle East in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. Nonetheless, short of a major crisis, there is little likelihood that the level of resources the region receives will increase dramatically in the near term. With this in mind, we offer a few basic principles for a strategic response to the deterioration of American influence in the region that is mindful of resource constraints and the limits of what Washington can achieve within them.

First, track extra-hemispheric influence more systematically. The U.S. government will need a more complete cataloging of great- power activity and presence in its shared neighborhood, as one recent bill before the U.S. Congress would require. Just as important will be establishing qualitative and quantitative metrics to monitor and evaluate the presence of its geopolitical rivals in the Western Hemisphere. Lacking such metrics, policymaking will continue to be conducted on an ad-hoc basis. Given the multidimensional nature of great power competition illuminated in this report, developing such measurements is not a straightforward endeavor. However, proximity and threat level (regarding both military and economic challenges to the United States) should be guiding principles in this effort to establish thresholds for greater action. In particular, the United States would be wise to systematically monitor the transfer of dual-use infrastructure and technology to the region and determine at what point such transfers would cross a critical threshold, presenting a point of significant strategic leverage against core U.S. interests.

Second, track vulnerabilities as well as strengths. The expansion of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean has not always been a popular phenomenon. Industries and enterprises have been hurt by economic competition, and support for corrupt and illiberal regimes has tarnished the reputation of China, Russia, and Iran with some local populations. Heavy-handed vaccine diplomacy (with substandard quality vaccines and defective personal protective equipment to boot) could create further vulnerabilities for China in particular (and Russia, to a lesser extent). Studying which aspects of these countries’ regional presence create diplomatic or soft-power vulnerabilities is a starting point for developing a more competitive response.

Third, engage on security issues of greatest concern to local governments and peoples. The United States must present itself as the preferred partner to help countries in the Western Hemisphere address their security concerns. In this regard, Washington has had some success in the past, with wide-ranging security assistance programs such as Plan Colombia and the U.S.-Mexico Mérida Initiative. In other cases, however, U.S. policy initiatives have focused on issues—such as curbing migration—of comparatively lower concern to regional partners. To compete effectively, the United States must also prioritize the preferred security challenges of its partners—and understand that those challenges are quickly shifting. The burgeoning threat represented by China’s highly subsidized illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities in sensitive ecological waters off the Pacific Coast of South America is but one example of the rapidly evolving nature of the region’s security environment. The rise of disinformation and cybersecurity vulnerabilities throughout the region are other examples.

Fourth, counter the authoritarian playbook. While the presence of great-power rivals has often exacerbated political instability and furthered democratic backsliding in Latin America and the Caribbean, the truth is that preexisting political tensions, endemic corruption, and a poor record of governance in many countries throughout the region leave them vulnerable to Chinese, Russian, and Iranian influence. In the domestic context, there is a well-worn playbook that leads to authoritarianism, which includes electoral reengineering, suffocation of civil society and corruption of the media’s independence, and the weakening of political opposition and political institutions, capped off by the politicization of judiciaries, military, and police forces. Sometimes leaders following the authoritarian playbook even consolidate their gains by amending or rewriting their country’s constitution. Fortunately, the tools inherent in the Inter-American Democratic Charter can help sound a powerful warning against democratic backsliding and the authoritarian playbook. Maintaining the largely democratic nature of the region and focusing on improving the quality of governance and political institutions can reduce openings for the authoritarian playbook and limit opportunities for great- power rivals to use backsliding democracies and nascent autocracies as convenient entry points into the hemisphere. Inevitably, however, these decisions will present difficult tradeoffs for U.S. policymakers, as pushing countries too hard on the quality of their democracy and governance could also open the door to Chinese and Russian influence.

Fifth, do not make it all about China. There is no question that U.S. interest in Latin America and the Caribbean rises when perceptions of extra-hemispheric threats become more acute. But just as the United States sometimes misfired during the early Cold War by focusing excessively on the dangers of communism as opposed to aspirations for local political and economic progress, it is a mistake to convey the impression that Washington cares about the Western Hemisphere only because of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian threats. Similarly, there are times when public critiques of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian policies by U.S. officials are entirely warranted, and Washington—as part of a larger turn to strategic competition—will need a more robust, focused bureaucratic capability in this area. Another lesson of the Cold War is that those critiques are often more effective when delivered by friendly local actors rather than the United States itself. For example, if the United States points out that Chinese COVID-19 vaccines don’t work very well, it comes off as crass geopolitical point-scoring. If local actors in Chile or elsewhere make this argument, it is more likely to find a receptive audience.

Sixth, emphasize cost-effective means of competition. When resources are relatively scarce, the United States will need to find ways to increase the bang it receives for each buck. There are a variety of possibilities. International Military Education and Training initiatives are an inexpensive means of building relationships with the next generation of Latin American military leaders—connections that the United States is in growing danger of not having in the future. Visits by high-level U.S. officials to countries that have not historically received much attention from the United States can also play an outsized role in warding off rival influence. Showing up does matter: Taiwan, for example, has used this sort of approach to maintain its diplomatic toehold in the region.

Seventh, leverage non-governmental advantages. Great-power competition encompasses more than just state action. This is where the United States can leverage asymmetric advantages. The United States has deep cultural, political, and historical ties with its southern neighbors, exemplified by the many immigrants and diaspora groups in the United States who hail from the region. These immigrants and their descendants have a deep sense of patriotism that rivals (and often surpasses) native-born U.S. citizens. Facilitating people-to-people diplomacy—by relaxing travel restrictions, expanding trade links, encouraging religious and university exchange initiatives, or pursuing professional development programs through public-private partnerships—can be a cost-efficient way for the United States to strengthen its hemispheric relationships and limit the influence of its great-power rivals.

Eighth, understand that you ultimately get what you pay for. Most analyses of deteriorating U.S. influence in Latin America and the Caribbean focus on the resource-poor approach Washington has taken in the region over the past 30 years and calls for a more holistic, better-supported strategy. We support this basic recommendation. Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean still see the United States as a preferred partner on many issues of concern and regret there are not more opportunities to engage with Washington on these issues. Defending U.S. interests in the region will indeed require a whole-of-government effort to provide countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with alternatives to economic, diplomatic, and military reliance on extra-hemispheric rivals in investment, 5G telecommunications, strengthening governance, pushing for greater transparency (in development and other projects), and highlighting the predatory aspects of China’s advance, while not appearing to block countries from taking advantage of the trade and investment resources Beijing can offer. In the coming years, the United States will likely need to pursue competition on a strictly limited budget. But if it does not make greater preventive investments in the region now, it may once again experience the historical pattern of having to make far greater compensatory investments once key tipping points have been reached and emerging strategic challenges have become impossible to ignore."

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