The Death of Strategy

I've long resisted the facile argument that there is a fundamental divide in Latin America -- left/right, vegetarian/carnivore, illiberal/liberal, state/market, democratic/populist, Pacific/Atlantic. The pairings sometimes offer an easily digestible soundbite, but mostly they leave little room for the chiaroscuro, the gray area in which national and international life actually unfolds. They reinforce tendentiousness of rhetoric, argument, politics and policies.

Above all, from where I sit (literally), just one block from the White House and about two kilometers from the U.S. Capitol, I am still amazed at how hard it is for Washington to rise above these refrains. On the rare occasion when it does deal with Latin America, the White House does a much better job than the Congress, I'll give it that. But because the Congress controls the purse and the confirmation of ambassadors and senior government officials, we still face in Washington a failure of imagination and political will. Instead of a strategy for Latin America based on interests, we have lots of little programs and initiatives and "partnerships," with small amounts of money attached to them, administered by individuals in various executive branch agencies who by and large lack an overarching strategic framework from the top. Yes, yes: cabinet secretaries and our energetic Vice President make lots of trips to the region, and the crisis de jour (Central America these days) gets attention because it impinges directly on domestic politics -- immigration. But crisis-mode and airplane miles do not a strategy make.

I'm not talking about a George Kennan-style "strategy of containment." The world, including Latin America, is too complicated for something so simple. But how about some basic guideposts based on a reality-based assessment of the political, economic, security and demographic dimensions of our interdependence, our fault-lines and the opportunities therein? Absent a strategic framework, the women and men with responsibilities for their government's policies toward the region are forced to behave more like program officers in philanthropic foundations, trolling the region for acceptable recipients for the ever-decreasing funds of a scolding, capricious and politicized financial patron.

There is another problem, and here I will date myself a bit. A good friend of mine who for years worked on Latin America policy in various government agencies remarked recently that Washington policy bureaucrats born since the Reagan era lack basic tools of discernment and analysis. Ouch. He wasn't expressing nostalgia for the Reagan presidency, although the bipartisanship of the era is virtually nonexistent today. But I think what he meant is that Washington was once a city where ideas, not just ideology, mattered, if just a little. Today our town is susceptible to the simplistic rhetorical flourish because professional and political advancement sadly requires succumbing linguistically, and thus intellectually, to the tyranny of the tactical.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.