Tara Sonenshine is a former member of PSA’s Board of Directors. She also served as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and is currently a distinguished fellow at George Washington University. This article was originally published in GW Planet Forward.
A World Hungry for Food and Solutions: Why We Need Food Diplomacy
If there is one truly global issue that unites people and divides them it is food. Food security—or lack thereof, is today on the top of every nation’s priorities including our own. Simply put: There is not enough food to go around in a world that is likely to house 9.6 billion people by 2050. Food insecurity—where someone in the household literally has to reduce food intake—affects people in the United States, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
A five year old boy killed by a shot of acid to the heart. Bodies dissolving in vats of chemicals. Plastic bags containing severed heads dumped in shopping centers. These are brief glimpses into the brutality of Mexico’s savage drug war, which has killed over 13,000 people since Mexico’s President Calderon deployed the army to curtail cartel activity in 2006. While grisly headlines churned out by the American media ensure that the chaos in Mexico is well known in the US, the long-term ramifications of that chaos have not yet been fully considered. Nor, it seems, have they been a priority in DC since the signing of the Merida initiative. But even though the maelstrom in Mexico has been overshadowed by national nail-biting over Afghanistan and Iran, it carries a heavy impact for the security of many Americans. The Obama administration, busy as it may be, cannot afford to continue ignoring the situation south of the border. Instead, Obama must be proactive, addressing the situation now before it worsens and the US finds itself with security threats on its border, not half a world away in Afghanistan.
Mexican drug violence is increasingly spilling over into the US. Already, the Department of Justice has designated Mexican drug cartels as the biggest organized crime threat in the US. In the past few years there has been a substantial increase in the number of cartel-related crimes in the US, with cartel activity in forty-eight states. In 2006, the Justice department estimated that 100 cities in the U.S. were affected by cartel activity. By 2009, that number had risen to 230. Accompanying these rising numbers are rising crime statistics. In Phoenix, for example, the police department has recorded 700 home invasions in the past two years, all of them linked to drug and human smuggling. Between 2004 and 2007, a Mexican drug trafficking ring tortured and killed nine men in San Diego, dissolving two of their bodies in acid. And in Alabama in 2008, police stumbled upon the corpses of five men who had their throats slit for not paying their debt to a drug-trafficking ring.
Three months ago, at the conclusion of the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, anti-American leftist leaders across Latin America were optimistically embracing President Obama’s commitment to a new “spirit of cooperation” with the region. But soon after the onset of the Honduran political crisis, what was heralded as a “renewed partnership of the Americas” appeared to be quickly unraveling. Less than an hour after the Honduran army descended on the presidential residency and whisked Manuel Zelaya away to Costa Rica in his pajamas, Hugo Chávez was already accusing the “Yankee empire” of having a hand in the ouster. Later that same day, Obama issued the following statement:
“I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
Obama’s response was carefully worded. In calling for all actors to adhere to democratic norms and the rule of law, he made thinly veiled indictments of both the ousted president and the de facto government. But the administration’s main objective must be to ensure the security and wellbeing of the Honduran people – who are now faced with restricted trade, suspended aid, and deepening isolation – and that goal will be most easily reached through compromise. The precision of Obama’s language has made his position on two aspects of the crisis very clear – that both sides are partially at fault and that the conflict must conclude with a peacefully negotiated agreement. (more…)
When Hugo Chávez strolled over to Barack Obama with a book in hand and a sly smirk plastered on his face it was clear the Venezuelan president was up to no good. Obama’s reluctance at first to even rise from his seat to accept Chávez’s gift – Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America – was a telltale indication that he wanted the encounter to be over as soon as possible. But Chávez prolonged the handshake to the brink of awkwardness while slightly twisting the paperback’s cover toward the cameras and holding it high for all to see. The book’s subtitle, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, was all anyone needed to see to ascertain Chavez’s intentions. Ironically, Eduardo Galeano is the same man who coined the term “democratoship” – an apt characterization of the style of government practiced in Chávez’s “Bolívarian Republic”. To most of the hemisphere’s leaders, Chávez is nothing more than a self-righteous demagogue who happens to be sitting atop one of the world’s largest oil reserves. To others, like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and the rest of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), he is nothing less than a champion of Latin American pride and glory. Americans generally tend to agree with the former description, so the intense scrutiny that Obama has endured for his friendly reception of the controversial socialist leader has come as little surprise. Senator John Ensign said “you have to be careful who you’re seen joking around with. I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez.” Former House speaker Newt Gingrich warned that “everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate, that he is acceptable.” But despite the ominous forecasts of a mounting challenge to American democracy, the simple truth is that Chávez’s regime does not imperil the U.S. in an era when cultural identity – not political ideology – serves as the most fundamental element of international relations.
Obama’s approach to Chávez, and to the Fifth Summit of the Americas in general, has certainly stood in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. Four years ago, prior to the Summit’s fourth gathering at Mar del Plata, Argentina, Morales led a grand procession of anti-Americanism aboard a train called the Expreso del ALBA, culminating in a dramatic address by Chávez before 25,000 people at a soccer stadium to denounce George W. Bush and the “Washington Consensus”. The subsequent meetings accomplished little but to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to unilateralism, and leaders throughout Latin America left Argentina questioning whether the Summit and the American-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) still maintained a purpose.
All signs in Latin America seemed to be pointing away from the principles that America stands for. But according to Latinobarómetro – an annual Chilean public opinion survey of 18 Latin American countries – while attitudes toward the U.S. have diminished since 2001, support for democracy has steadily increased throughout the region. This trend seems to indicate that Latin Americans embrace American values, but they object to America’s means of advancing – or imposing – those values. Evidently, when it comes to our neighbors to the south, the reach of American influence has exceeded its grasp. The U.S. sorely needed to reassess its strategy toward Latin America. (more…)
As we near the end of Obama’s first 100 days, it would be hard to argue that this Administration has been reticent about stating its policies on national security and foreign policy issues. We’ve heard major policy announcements on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, climate change and nuclear proliferation, just to name a few of the big fish that have been thrown onto the crowded frying pan. And given the number of high-profile officials that have been named to coordinate key challenges, it seems that President Obama is looking to put his name in the Guinness Book of World Records under “most special envoys named.”
Yet, despite what has been a relatively forthright presentation of policy shifts on many other issues, the Administration continues to be relatively restrained on changing policy toward Cuba. True, the Administration is lifting some restrictions, but that is small potatoes when you’re starting from a trade embargo, which apparently is not open for debate.
On April 17, Obama will meet with his counterparts from the Western Hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. Cuba will not be in attendance, and the Administration has gone so far as to point out that Cuba is not on the agenda. It is clear that the President will hear a lot about Cuba and say very little. The question is why.
A new report was released yesterday by Richard Lugar (R-IN) that supported a significant change in US policy towards Cuba. It’s a sign that the policy of isolation that has continued to govern the US relationship with Cuba since the end of the cold war, could be changing. This is a welcome development and is the type of policy that should get broad bipartisan support. For too long, the US policy towards Cuba (at least at the presidential level) has been governed by interest group politics that reflected the hard-line approach of much of the Cuban American community living in the swing state of Florida.
After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of, “bringing democracy to the Cuban people,” while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further choices from Cuba’s impoverished population…. We must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances US interests.
We can all agree that Cubans would be much better off with a democratic regime that respects human rights and is responsive to their needs. The question, however, is what is the best way to reach that outcome – isolation or engagement. Today there is growing agreement that this decades-long isolation simply has not worked. It has not brought democracy to Cuba. It has not strengthened human rights. And, as Lugar mentioned, it has provided a straw man for the Cuban regime to blame for its own deficiencies.
The American public also seems to increasingly be on board. A February 2009 poll released by Fox News showed that only 30 percent of Americans felt that we should continue the embargo. In fact, recent polling of the Cuban American community shows that a majority (55 percent) wants the embargo ended.
It’s these types of common-sense solutions that counter narrowly focused interest groups that are ripe for bipartisan compromise.
This not to say that we should give up on human rights and democratization in Cuba. Certainly not. These should continue to be prioritized. However, just as with countries like China, we have decided that sometimes a policy of engagement is the better approach. Sanctions and isolation have their place and I’ve certainly been one to advocate for these tools for countries such as Burma and Sudan. In his statement, Lugar even mentions their effectiveness in South Africa. However, we must also recognize that such tools work in some situations and not in others. We must not employ a one size fits all solution to these complicated problems. Clearly, the history of the past several decades has shown that this approach simply has not been effective in the case of Cuba. It’s time to try something different.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.