The First Rule of Countering Influence: Don’t Talk About Countering Influence
This article has been updated from the version originally published on July 2, 2021.
China’s growing influence in the Americas is neither in the U.S. nor the region’s interests.
The growth of Chinese influence around the globe has become one of the top priorities for the United States, with President Biden going so far as to state, “We are in a competition with China to win the 21st century.” With China’s presence in the Latin American and Caribbean region increasing, there has been abundant consternation within U.S. foreign policy circles.
Despite the rise in U.S. attention to Chinese influence in the Americas, concerns remain over the United States not paying enough attention or being strategic enough in responding to this threat. However, framing the Chinese influence as a threat may undermine the very efforts aimed at countering China’s presence in the region. While concerns over China’s influence are warranted, addressing the challenge of extra-hemispheric involvement is complicated, and important lessons can be drawn from historical U.S. attempts at preventing the rise of external influence.
In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented the Good Neighbor Policy (GNP) and embarked on what is widely considered to be the “Golden Age” of U.S.-Latin American relations. Despite this rosy perception, two major U.S. concerns provided the foundation of this policy: the recovery of the U.S. economy post-Great Depression and countering foreign influence in the region. Economically, the United States extended an olive branch to Latin America by unilaterally lowering tariffs, boosting trade, and creating the Export-Import Bank.
Apart from economic cooperation, there were particular concerns over German influence in the Southern Hemisphere – specifically, the Nazi Party’s growing relationship with Brazil. However, rather than counter Nazi influence by framing the Brazil-Germany relationship as a threat to the United States, the GNP utilized cultural diplomacy to foster a sense of Pan-Americanism. The overarching narrative of these policies was not to spread American ideals or even to compete with American adversaries but instead to foster an Inter-American identity. Following Pearl Harbor, nearly every country within Latin America declared war on the Axis powers. Brazil even sent troops to fight in the European theater.
Countering the rise of Chinese influence in the Americas should be a priority for the United States
During the Cold War, the United States was once again concerned about growing extra-hemispheric influence in the region– this time from the Soviet Union. However, rather than framing policies through a cooperative and Pan-American lens, the United States took an interventionist strategy to stop the spread of Communism in the Western Hemisphere.
Instead of seeking to build upon shared values and addressing common challenges, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War regularly focused on supporting anti-Communist dictatorships and overthrowing leaders viewed as Communist or too close to the Soviet Union. The strategy could not have been less effective for building a positive relationship with the region’s people. However, it was clear that this U.S policy was not intended to strengthen Hemispheric ties but used Latin America as a pawn in their competition with the Soviet Union. This narrative, coupled with support for undemocratic actors in the region, left a lasting stain on U.S.-Latin American relations.
Despite all the differences, the GNP and Cold War-era foreign policy toward Latin America shared a goal– countering foreign influence in the region. However, framing Latin America as a battleground during the Cold War often undermined U.S. objectives to limit Soviet influence in the region. Conversely, the Good Neighbor Policy created a sense of unity within the region while still warding off German influence, a position that had positive results.
Countering the rise of Chinese influence in the Americas should be a priority for the United States. However, as previous attempts to counter extra-hemispheric influence show, how the issue is framed is critical. Pushing to improve relations with the region will be difficult, however, as the Trump administration framed much of U.S.-Latin American relations as a battle to push China out of the region and went as far as to resurrect the Monroe Doctrine, a policy associated with U.S. interventionism in the region. Administration officials even scolded Latin American nations for taking aid from China. This heavy-handed approach helps explain the decrease in Latin American perceptions of the United States during the last administration.
The United States will make more friends in the region with carrots than sticks. Rather than pushing Latin American countries on the issue of China, the United States should take steps to show that it is a better partner and do so without making the issue about China. Doing so can limit Chinese influence in the region by providing a reasonable alternative to China. For instance, studies show that Chinese influence (in the form of aid) has been most notable in places where the United States has been disengaged from the region. In other words, increasing aid will likely result in a decline in states seeking support from China.
Framing Latin America as a battleground for influence vis-à-vis other great powers undermines the ability to forge meaningful relations with the region. One area where this should be particularly clear is in boosting COVID-19 vaccine access. While some have called on the United States to more actively compete with China in the “Vaccine Diplomacy” game, providing vaccines through the prism of great power competition limits the ability to combat foreign influence and improve relations with the region.
One need only look at China’s attempts to pressure Paraguay on the issue of Taiwan to see how this can backfire. Rather than seeing Paraguay switch recognition towards Beijing, it has become clear that the Chinese government’s support to the region is predicated on political objectives rather than supporting the region. This provides a learning opportunity for the United States. By framing Pandemic aid as contingent on bolstering political influence, a country can undermine its own interests.
Fortunately, Juan Gonzalez, the Biden Administration’s Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, recently noted that the United States should provide vaccines to the region without strings attached and as a means of combatting the pandemic as a common threat. Although there will be those that identify the increase in U.S. attention to the region as being due to Chinese influence in the region regardless of what the administration says, the Biden administration should avoid framing aid as about China and work with partners in the region irrespective of their stance on China.
China’s growing influence in the Americas is not in the U.S. nor the region’s interests. However, suppose the United States frames relations and support for the region through the prism of the Chinese threat rather than as supporting Latin America. In that case, the region will not see the United States as an ally and may continue to turn to China rather than work with the United States. Instead, the Biden administration should look to history and frame the relationship as a mutually beneficial partnership rather than as an effort to counter China.