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Extending the Fig Branch

A large fig tree shades much of the interior courtyard of the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington, D.C. U.S. President William Taft planted this tree in 1910 at the dedication of the headquarters for OAS’s predecessor, the Pan-American Union. Often referred to as a “Peace Tree,” it symbolizes the solidarity and friendship of the nations of the Western Hemisphere that were creating the Pan-American Union. While the history of U.S.-Latin American relations is often contentious, efforts to promote Inter-American cooperation are frequent and needed for addressing the challenges that face the Western Hemisphere.

Courtyard of the Main OAS Building.
Image courtesy of the Organization of American States © 2019

The Trump administration has caused immeasurable damage to U.S. foreign policy. It has launched trade wars with multiple countries, forced our allies to question U.S. credibility, gutted the State Department, and sided with dictatorial strongmen over U.S. values. One area hit particularly hard by the Trump administration’s policies have been relations between the United States and Latin America. Since Trump’s initial presidential campaign announcement, where he referred to immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, relations between the Trump administration and Latin America have been tense. These relations have become increasingly contentious as administration officials continue to call for Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, invoked the Monroe Doctrine, and have hinted at U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

As the Democratic Party attempts to pick its nominee to challenge President Trump in 2020, it needs to consider the nominee’s foreign policy positions as well as his or her ability to address domestic issues and the ability to win in a general election. As some of the over 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls begin to drop out of the race, some of their foreign policy positions should still be considered by the remaining candidates. One such policy to reinvigorate relations with Latin America comes not from former presidential candidate John Hickenlooper’s campaign pledges, but from policies that he supported in Colorado.

In 2010, then-Mayor Hickenlooper established the Biennial of the Americas in Denver. The Biennial represents an interesting and local approach to addressing foreign policy issues. Originally, the event brought policymakers, academics, artists, and business leaders from across the Americas for cultural and intellectual exchange in Denver. These individuals discuss the challenges that face peoples across the Americas. The Biennial does not, however, seek to force a U.S.-centric vision of how to address these challenges. Instead, discussions focus on looking at the challenges that are common across the region and build upon the learned lessons of experts from across the Hemisphere. These discussions highlight an important element of successful public diplomacy efforts; respect for others in the exchange of ideas. Furthermore, turning to local governments from across the region to address common challenges highlights the multiple levels at which public diplomacy efforts can take place.

In addition to looking for solutions to the challenges that face the Hemisphere, the Biennial of the Americas has sought to introduce the cultures of Latin America to the people of Denver. This has included hosting not only panels but different art and music exhibitions in the city. While this may appear to be of little importance, it represents a key component of successful public diplomacy efforts. In addition to supporting Latin American artists and musicians, the arts programs help to sell a more positive image of Latin America to the U.S. public. This is particularly important in ensuring the longevity of programs designed to promote positive relations between the peoples of the Americas. Without developing the bonds at the individual level that highlight the similarities between the cultures of the Americas and embrace the differences, support for these programs can be lost and animosity between different groups can emerge.

Since its inception, the Biennial of the Americas has continued to grow and now hosts Summits not only in Denver every other year, but also alternates in host cities across the Americas. Hickenlooper’s efforts to promote U.S.-Latin American relations suggest an innovative way of healing U.S.-Latin American relations that could serve as a model moving forward and one that all of the candidates should consider. Although the relationship between the United States and Latin America has often been contentious, hopes of Pan-Americanism continue to grow. The next U.S. president has the opportunity to continue the hopes of Pan-Americanism in addressing the challenges that face the Americas. This will require the next administration to look for innovative solutions that address the challenges that face the Hemisphere and repair the partnerships that the Trump administration has undermined. To do this and make sure that these policies are not fleeting, the administration will need not only to reassure the nations of the Americas about the value of Pan-Americanism but also convince U.S. citizens that the Americas can and should work together. At the first Biennial of the Americas, a cutting from the OAS’s fig tree was planted in Denver Botanic Gardens to commemorate the occasion and celebrate the centennial of the establishment of the Pan-American Union. Although Pan-Americanism has not yielded the results of its proponents, with the right efforts, Pan-Americanism can be reborn and, along with this new fig tree, flower into a more cooperative and prosperous hemisphere.


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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