CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

What Can We Conclude From the Cartagena Summit?

By Ludovico Feoli

A lot of hand wringing and snickering is going on in the press about the inability to reach any agreements during the hemispheric conference held in Cartagena last week. Aside from questioning the value of these forums beyond their photo opportunities and grandstanding platforms for the most vocal, it may be useful to consider the larger lessons that the summit suggests. Above all, it reflects a very different region in a very different world than existed when the hemispheric meetings were launched in 1994.

A different region. During the 1990s, Latin America was emerging from its “lost decade” and still transitioning to open markets and democracy. Today, the region is recognized for its steady economic growth, having weathered the Great Recession better than most, and, despite exceptions, its consolidated democracies. During the 1990s few, if any, of the countries in the region could aspire to global leadership. Today, the world is looking at and following the examples of innovation in social policies and participatory democracy that have emerged from the region. Brazil, thought by many to have finally come of age, vies openly for a seat in a reconfigured UN Security Council. Most poignantly, the summit host, Colombia, was hostage to drug cartels and counterinsurgency in the 1990s. Today, the country enjoys renewed levels of security, economic growth, and its cities are touted as examples of urban revival. Mexico has become a predominantly middle class society, and poverty and inequality have fallen throughout the region, almost without exception. Tellingly, in the United States these trends have been inverted and the country appears beleaguered by economic and political problems.

A different world. Overextension in international conflicts, growing inequality, political polarization, financial crisis, high unemployment and growing public debt have contributed, among a host of other factors, to cast a pall over the global leadership of the United States. The European Union, beset by regional inequality, towering debt and sluggish growth, is also seen as declining. Meanwhile, the G-8 has become the G-20, recognizing the growing weight of emerging countries in global affairs. Most notably, China has surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world and is challenging the US lead as a global trader and investor. Indeed, many Latin American countries now have greater trade with China than with the US, and China has embarked on a quest to spread its soft power regionally, building stadiums and buying up sovereign debt throughout the Americas. While the US is still important to the region, the underlying basis of its relationship is changing. It is no longer the only kid in town.

President Obama has recognized this, at least rhetorically. He describes his approach towards the region as a partnership among equals. With regard to the drug trade, he speaks of shared responsibility, given US demand for narcotics and easy access to guns, and he acknowledges the need to consider alternatives that focus on demand reduction and harm mitigation. With regard to Cuba, he facilitated travel and remittances to the island, and opened some areas of investment. With regard to immigration, he recognizes the contribution of migrants to the US economy and speaks of the importance of comprehensive reform. Yet, in these key areas there is little or no change, even as longstanding policies–the war against drugs, the embargo against Cuba, and the immigration regime–are considered to have failed. Despite some adjustments at the administrative level, the prospects for deeper reform are slight in the current electoral and highly polarized political environment. Obama’s regional policies will remain hostage to domestic politics even if he strikes all the right notes and takes the appropriate stance at regional summits.

Yet, the lack of accord at the summit reveals much more than acrimony against the US and its policies. It suggests that the region is also divided within itself: there is no regional consensus about what the solutions to critical problems should be. Take the drug trade. While much was made about US opposition to legalization, the Central American nations, battered more than most of the region by drug-related violence and corruption, could not agree on a unified stance in a meeting of their regional secretariat (SICA) the day before the Cartagena meeting. While Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica seem amenable to decriminalization, Nicaragua and El Salvador oppose it. Or take Cuba. While its absence from the summits is an easy foil to bash the US, few would escape the charge of cynicism if they somehow had to square that with their support for the Democratic Charter.

The broader lesson to be drawn from the lack of consensus at the Summit is that regional collective action has become more challenging. As the hemispheric hegemon has receded in dominance so has its encompassing interest in providing regional public goods. It is likely to continue doing so to a certain degree, but not in any way that deviates significantly from its narrower national interest. As an example of this, the US focus has shifted from multilateralism to a sharper focus on the most relevant actors. Under the circumstances, as no regional power is likely to become predominant to the point of hegemony, it is unreasonable to expect far-ranging regional accords. Even if the gulf in real power separating them from the US remains significant, emerging powers will tend to be more assertive, balancing against each other and the US, and this will lessen the chances for regional consensus. Regional policy and regional integration will advance in fits and starts.


  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research