Why Obama is courting his troublesome neighbours

In a world of shifting power balances, the president is wise to re-engage Latin America.

Barack Obama brings to a close today what for him has been a troubled, and troubling, five-day tour of Latin America.

Before he began his trip in Brazil on Saturday, Hillary Clinton had talked up the visit as heralding "a new era" in US-South American relations. Events in Libya have largely focused the world's attention since then. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of this trip for US-Latin American relations. In that sense, Clinton may well be proved to be right – if not quite in the way she imagined.

Because, for all diplomacy-friendly images of Obama playing soccer with kids in a Rio slum, or the first lady dazzling the Chileans with her fashion sense, the picture this trip has revealed above all is that the US is in a weaker position with respect to the continent than it has been for years. Whisper it quietly, but there seems even to be a sense of concern within the Obama camp that the US might have dropped the ball in what it has long thought of as its own backyard.

Just last year, 32 Latin America and Caribbean countries formed a new regional organisation, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLAC), with just the United States and Canada excluded. The year before that, China overtook the US as Brazil's major trading partner. It has been offloading investment ever since.

Were it not for the sheer weight of Brazil's growing stature and the extent of economic interest by China, the US would doubtless have been only too happy to jog along for some years to come in the cold war redux mode Obama began with. It was certainly ambivalent at best during the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

But 2009 is beginning to feel like a long time ago now. Since then, Brazil under Lula has spoken out in support of Iran. And even as the Obama roadshow got under way, Dilma Rousseff had Brazil abstain in voting on the UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Libya. If this doesn't make clear the challenge that Brazil poses to US political clout in the region, Rousseff's trip to China next month almost certainly will.

Hence the distinctly audible change in Washington's tune, as articulated by the White House adviser Ben Rhodes. It is "imperative", he says, "that the United States not disengage from these regions". To which Obama's senior Latin American adviser, Dan Restrepo, added that what is at stake during this trip is "the restoration of American influence and appeal" in the region.

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You wouldn't have heard that a few years ago, but global political and economic circumstances are changing fast. And in US geostrategy, "engagement" is the new defensive play of choice. The cold war was all about containing and distancing threats, either militarily or economically. Today it is all about insisting on reconnection – and Latin America looms large here.

Which is why this trip has gone ahead even though Obama was forced to juggle dinner with Chile's president, Sebastián Piñera, alongside updates from national security advisers on the situation in Libya.

A still-fractious recovery from financial crisis and high unemployment rates make it almost essential the US expand trade southwards. And Obama knows only too well that Latin America stands to play an important role in American moves towards energy security, too. Engaging in both these arenas will also be seen domestically as a way to get some of America's 14 million officially unemployed back to work.

But engaging in this way will mean eating more humble pie than Republicans, at least, are likely to want to digest. Above all it will mean some measure of support by America for Brazil's gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council – the major challenge here being whether it now makes sense to try to hasten that process, cultivating Brazil in order to later use it as a foil against the other Brics, which also abstained during the Libya vote.

So, too, will it mean listening to the voices of ordinary South Americans, rather than reading their needs through the polarised right-left rhetoric that clogs up most debate on the continent. Judging by Obama's willingness throughout the trip so far to extol the virtues of Latin American democracies as an example of what Arab nations in the Middle East might aim for, there seems to be at least some willingness here to budge a little from positions of the past.

Just beware America's interpretation of what a good functioning democracy actually means in the Latin American context. That may be one thing that is slower to change.

Either way, we now have a better sense of where Obama's current thinking on Latin America is heading. And the answer is that he is looking at it through the prism of 2012.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.