During a press conference with President Obama last week, Chilean President Piñera made an observation about regional integration in the Americas that stood out to me.
No doubt that insofar as integration of the Americas, we are lagging behind. And the best way to illustrate this is to compare what has happened in America with what happened in Europe.
Last century, the Europeans had two world wars with a toll of more than 70 million casualties. But at some point, they had the wisdom, the courage to abandon the rationale of Line Maginot, or Siegfried Line and to embrace Maastricht Treaty. With the leadership and the vision of such renowned statesmen like Adenauer and De Gasperi, Housman, Truman — they began to build what today we know of as European Union.
And in America, we are much behind that. In America, 20 years ago, President Bush, father, raised the idea of a free trade area from Alaska to “Fire Land” (Tierra del Fuego) generating a lot of enthusiasm in the region, but it never came true, never materialized.
And so the time is right now because Latin America has been for too long the continent of hope or of the future, but a continent cannot be a promise forever. And so we are of age now and we need to fulfill our mission. Therefore the main task of Latin America is to recover the lost time and tap all of its potential….
While I disfavor framing the discussion as different regions of the world racing against one another, Piñera’s larger point is spot on. The Organization of American States (OAS) is an underdeveloped international organization. It took politicians with vision to steer Europe towards regional integration, the OAS requires similarly committed national leaders to direct the organization toward a stature on the world stage like that of the EU.
Past colonialism and an imperious US stance towards the Americas creates a legacy that makes growing an intergovernmental-supranational hybrid like the EU more difficult in the Americas. Reading the charter of the OAS, the repeated reaffirmations of sovereignty and weak (relative to the European Commission) bureaucratic institutions means the OAS was not in the EU’s league from the outset. In terms of fostering regional integration, the OAS sits firmly in the intergovernmental camp. Also, the OAS has not met the same success as the EU due to the absence of a committed Franco-German engine equivalent; the EU benefits from successive generations of French and German leaders working in partnership to drive the organization forward. In the Americas, that engine would necessarily include the United States and a partner, perhaps Brazil.
The US has been complacent, satisfied with bilateral arrangements like trade agreements between the US and Chile or the US and Peru, with US-Panama and US-Colombia trade agreements proposed. The North American Free Trade Agreement is neither as broad nor as deep as South America’s Mercosur, let alone the EU. Trade agreements (reviving the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas if possible), routinized ministerial cooperation, and privileged migration status should all be top tier goals for the Americas and US policy for the hemisphere.
The OAS is worthy of increased US commitment. Broader US interests would be advanced by strengthening the operations of our regional international organization. Major European countries get two bites at the apple in global affairs given they bring influence to bear both through the traditional national means and through the EU. The US is missing a trick by allowing the OAS to remain underdeveloped. Even if the US position in the world this moment does not absolutely require a full service OAS akin to the EU, an increasingly multipolar world means the US should exhaust all avenues for exercising influence. (Meaning the US should also join the Commonwealth of Nations.)
On occasion, Obama did mention the OAS in his speeches during his tour through Latin America this month. In his keynote speech in Chile, Obama put forward the laudable goal of 100,000 more US students studying in the Americas and 100,000 more students from the Americas studying in the US. Obama also highlighted cooperation on counter-narcotics and energy policy. The global war on drugs policy aside, setting forward reasonable, incremental goals for US policy. But Obama should set his sights far higher. Overall, the Obama administration has not yet shown the commitment to institution building in the Americas on the scale or scope required, as Piñera put it, to tap the region’s unrealized potential.