Neither carrots nor sticks

Few things are as exasperating as watching two sides argue — and neither rise above being half-right, at best. Still, the resulting exchange in this case is thought-provoking.

Today, the left-liberal Center for American Progress responded to a Washington Post editorial calling for a tougher stance on the part of Washington against Latin American autocrats like Hugo Chavez and his cronies in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador. While the Post editorial is right on more counts than is the CAP piece, they both seem to buy into the notion that the internal policies of Latin American countries are any of American policy makers’ business.

Yes, the United States wields enormous influence in the region as the biggest economic and political player, but the biggest contributions it can make to the well-being of Latin America  countries are — and should be — limited to maintaining open trade and immigration policies (I know, easier said and done) and changing America’s Sisyphean drug policy.

CAP author Stephanie Miller rightly mentions “drug consumption” in the U.S. as an important factor affecting Latin America, but she fails to develop even this important point. Moreover, she doesn’t even identify it properly — it is drug prohibition that is driving Latin America’s rising crime wave. No amount of drug laws can ever kill off demand itself. Moreover, drug prohibition is causing great damage in Latin America, but the enormous damage it is already causing in the U.S. is enough reason to change policy, independently of any foreign policy implications.

Regarding the Post editorial, it rightly emphasizes the importance of trade. However it seems to imply that trade preferences for countries with hostile regimes somehow constitute “subsidies,” even though trade preferences usually entail the removal of trade barriers (however selectively).

Meanwhile, CAP’s Miller argues that, “Trade is important, but it is clearly not the magic bullet that promoters of the Washington consensus of the 1990s believed it would be.” Magic bullet? This is clearly a straw man. It’s a big jump to go from saying that trade is crucial — which it is — to it being a panacea to societies’ ills — which it is clearly not. Many development factors are necessary; none are sufficient on their own.

Finally, regarding what American policy should be, both the Post and CAP argue for interventions of different sorts. Miller argues that, “the United States must very proactively engage with civil societies in all of these countries at the grassroots level.” The Post contends that, “Sooner or later [Latin Americans] must be forced to choose between Mr. Chávez’s half-baked socialism and the democracy of the 21st century.”

What about just stepping back and let Latin American countries solve their own problems — and deal with the consequences of their own decisions? Contra Miller, development in foreign countries is not something the American government is well suited to promote. And contra the Post, the U.S. cannot save people in other countries from themselves, no matter how bad their choices.