During the first 2016 U.S. presidential debate, Hillary Clinton claimed that “it is essential that America’s word be good,” in response to presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s foreign policy claims regarding our allies and treaties. While there has been discussion of how presidential candidates have made statements that may threaten U.S. national security and relations with the Middle East, statements made by presidential candidates and other politicians threaten U.S. relations with other parts of the globe as well.
On December 17, 2014, President Obama ushered in what promised to be a new age of U.S. Latin American foreign policy, ending a half-century standoff with Cuba in favor of a policy of rapprochement, reentering into diplomatic relations, and ending the failed economic embargo of Cuba. This antiquated policy has long been considered a relic of the Cold War and been a deterrent to improved relations with the other nations of the Western Hemisphere. This rapprochement, U.S. assistance in the Northern Triangle, and anticipation of the Summit of the Americas led many to believe that the United States was entering a new and improved era of Inter-American affairs. However, over the course of the last two years, U.S. domestic politics have threatened to derail these potential gains in U.S.-Latin American relations.
Almost immediately after President Obama announced the government’s new policy towards Cuba, political opponents and members of Congress began not only to question the president’s position, but to announce their intention to oppose the rapprochement. Criticism rang out from both sides of the aisle. While it is common for concerns to be voiced by some members of Congress, some of the harshest critics have been leading politicians and candidates. While criticism may be common, candidates calling for a return to the failed embargo policy if elected to office and limiting the government’s ability to normalize relations and not accepting an ambassadorial appointment to the island nation limits the effectiveness of agreed-upon negotiations and may lead other countries around the world to question the wisdom of entering treaties or agreements with the United States.
In addition to confrontations over specific policy decisions, this election cycle saw politicians use offensive language that may have alienated the citizens of several Latin American countries, both those living in their native country and those who have immigrated to the United States. Most notably, Donald Trump made racist language part of his political stance when he said that Mexico was “…not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” These comments are problematic not only because they are false, but because the statements made during a U.S. presidential election are not only heard by domestic audiences, but across the globe. This has led to rebukes from leaders and former leaders in Latin America.
Electoral and partisan politics can weaken the global position of the United States. By making the Cuban negotiations appear subject to change or a cancellation at political whims, the United States loses its legitimacy in negotiating future treaties and much of the goodwill gained from reopening diplomatic efforts with the communist state.
Furthermore, as the United States reshapes its diplomatic relationships, immigration looms as a major political point of contention between the United States and its southern neighbors. While the issue directly impacts many U.S. citizens, leading to particularly strong or emotional opinions, this does not mean that political candidates should insult and make generalizations of immigrant populations. In our increasingly globalized world, these voices are heard through Latin America and may be seen as how many in the United States think about the Latin American population.
While open debate and dissent are important and identifying characteristics of the U.S. political process, politicians need to understand the implications of their actions on the standing of their country on the international stage.
Adam Ratzlaff is a guest author with Charged Affairs and a Sié Fellow and M.A. candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He has previously worked with the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, Southern Pulse Correspondents and the Commitment to Equity Project. He holds a B.A. in International Relations, Economics and Latin American Studies from Tulane University and has been a member of YPFP since 2015.