Look South, Not East

Written on November 15, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Americas, Foreign Policy, Globalization & International Trade

The Obama administration is turning to Asia for the defining competition of the next century. But if the United States actually wants to win, it’ll need Latin America.

By Parag Khanna

With Barack Obama’s administration pivoting toward Asia and with the U.S. president now off to Hawaii for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (and then to Australia and Indonesia), let’s remember that the most important trip of his time in office was not east but south. In March, in the midst of the fallout from Japan’s tsunami and nuclear meltdown and the brutal escalation in Libya, Obama made an international trip the Western media almost entirely ignored. His destination: Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. There was pressure to cancel the visits, and photos and media reports revealed that Obama was accompanied by his military advisors and was getting constant updates on both crises from a secure camouflage tent.

Of course, the date for the trip was not movable, especially as it was precisely the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s declaration of the “Alliance for Progress,” which brought about an industrial expansion from Mexico to Argentina. Obama’s journey thus had a grand strategic purpose missed by Washington’s Mideast- and China-obsessed elites (not to mention previous administrations — one recalls George W. Bush in 2005 being startled by a map of South America and exclaiming, “Wow! Brazil is big!”) By setting out to “forge new alliances across the Americas,” Obama has implicitly acknowledged the emerging geopolitical reality that Latin America is nothing less than the third pillar of the West, alongside Europe and North America.

The United States certainly can’t take Latin American loyalty for granted, if it ever could. This is an age of multialignment, with most powers playing all sides. South America has rolled out the welcome mat to the new Asian power, with Brasilia and Beijing declaring a strategic partnership years ago and many South American commodities exporters like Chile and Argentina owing much of their recent growth to China’s massive appetite for raw materials.

Indeed, the first aim of geopolitics is access to resources, which South America has in abundant supply. Some 30 percent of the world’s total biocapacity resides in South America. It may sound cliché to say that the Amazonian rain forest is the world’s lungs, but it’s true. The continent is also the world’s breadbasket. Most of the global supply of bananas, sugar, oranges, coffee, soybeans, and salmon, as well as a major share of beef and pork, come from South America. It also has massive mineral deposits: silver, copper, lead, tin, zinc, iron ore, and lithium.

Perhaps most importantly, Latin America is fundamental to any strategy for energy self-sufficiency. North America’s energy future already looks strong with oil and gas deposits under the Arctic seabed, Canada’s gigantic oil sands, wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and newfound shale-gas deposits in the United States. Add to this the major discoveries of oil off Brazil’s Atlantic coast, plus Venezuela’s abundant reserves, and you have a comprehensive solution for total energy independence from the turbulence of Eurasia and Africa. There is also a sustainability angle here. Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol is four times more efficient to produce than North American grain-based ethanol.

According to energy expert Daniel Yergin, the new Western Hemispheric energy axis runs from Alberta, Canada — from which the United States gets another 1 percent of its oil imports each year — through Texas and the Gulf of Mexico down to Venezuela, French Guiana, and Brazil. U.S. energy policy should be increasingly Western Hemispheric — just as China’s energy policy is increasingly Middle Eastern. In this context, the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas can be delayed (as it just was), but it is nonetheless inevitable. Read more…

Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-First Century and How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on November 11, 2011.


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