The Summit of the Americas: Regionalism Is In

Carl Hageraats

Entitled “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity,” this year’s Summit of the Americas took place in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, and brought together 34 heads of state over the course of two days. As economic growth in the region reaches unprecedented levels and countries increasingly face common challenges, the Summit is becoming a prevalent venue for conducting foreign policy. In this article I explain the institutional and historical context of the Summit of the Americas. I then argue that this year’s summit demonstrated both unprecedented economic advancement in the region and evidence that summitry is becoming a norm for policy-making in the Western hemisphere.

What is the OAS?

For most Canadians, the acronym represents a certain part of our pension system in the news of late. Internationally, save perhaps for a few expat Canucks approaching retirement, the acronym refers to the Organization of American States. The organization’s current incarnation was founded in 1948 with the signing of the OAS Charter. The objectives laid out in the Charter include strengthening peace and security, promoting representative democracy, ensuring pacific settlement of disputes between member states and eradicating extreme poverty.

While the OAS’ most visible activity is organizing the Summit for the Americas, the regional organization works year-round to link member states through multilateral communication. It consists of a General Assembly, a number of bodies that deal with a whole variety of issues, and meetings of ministers of foreign affairs of member states. It was at a series of such meetings that the Santiago Commitment and Resolution 1080 were adopted in 1991. These measures provide a framework for collective action in the case of a democratically elected government being illegitimately ousted from power. They have been used on several occasions since, notably after the 1991 military coup in Haiti.

What is the Summit of the Americas?

The answer may be elusive, especially since coverage of substance at these gigs often gets overshadowed by how violent the protests are, or how some bodyguards like to party hard. However, if we look at past summits and the issues currently on the table, we find that there’s a lot going on behind the photo ops. In 1994, President Bill Clinton invited all democratically elected leaders of the Western hemisphere to Miami for the first Summit of the Americas. Here 34 nations agreed to work towards economic integration and trade liberalization, beginning the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) process. The third Summit was held in Quebec City in 2001. It reaffirmed a commitment to the FTAA, and took significant steps to increase the role of the OAS in promoting democracy. Through the ‘Democratic Clause,’ it established that countries that underwent an interruption of democratic governance could no longer participate in the Summit of the Americas process.

Why was this year’s Summit important?

Despite the business-as-usual – “Cartagena is so beautiful,” “I’m coming back for vacation,” “Can I keep the guayabera?” etc. – this Summit stood out for two reasons.
First, it comes at a time of unprecedented economic integration and growth in the region. American President Barack Obama accurately pointed out that “the days when we could think of each of our economies in isolation are long gone.” Trade and investment between countries in the region has never been higher, and Canada’s Americas policy is a prime example. In a recent Mind the Gap article, DG Stringer writes that Stephen Harper focused primarily on trade and investment, with emphasis on natural resource development. Because of increasing interconnectedness, Canada is having to position itself favourably vis-à-vis the rising stars of the region. As Carlo Dade, former director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas argues, “we need Latin America more than it needs us.” Canadian companies are having to compete more aggressively for access to the emerging markets of Mexico and Brazil, and CEO meetings at the Summit offered opportunity for them to develop business ties in the region.

Second, the event also represented a move towards political integration and an institutionalization of diplomatic negotiation. Summits are becoming the dominant forum for hashing out the details of hemispheric relations, the Cuba debate being a prominent example. Several Latin American countries have long resented the isolation of Cuba by the United States, and this year many countries pressed for Cuba’s inclusion in future Summits of the Americas. Canada and the United States were opposed, maintaining that because the island had not demonstrated it was serious about democratization and individual rights, it could not be included in these fora. Furthermore, Fidel Castro’s recent open letter to Stephen Harper, while stylistically intriguing, did little to set a tone of cordiality between Canada and Cuba.

Many observers point to the divisive nature of the Cuba issue and how it gummed up substantive negotiations, preventing the group from arriving at a consensus declaration. However, regardless of one’s position on the issue, the fact that Cuba’s isolation came up at the Summit suggests that countries are increasingly choosing international fora to articulate their positions. Additionally, Canada and the U.S insisted on democratic reform in Cuba in the context of the ‘Democratic clause’ and regional commitments to the promotion and preservation of democracy.

In conclusion, the more that summits are used as windows of opportunity to craft states’ foreign policies, the more multilateral diplomacy will arguably become an entrenched norm, a modus operandi of global policymaking. As a scholar from Guadalajara put it in 2005, “regionalism is in.” This year’s meeting in Cartagena shows that in 2012, summitry is in, at least for the Western hemisphere.