With American influence in Central and South America on the decline, analysts say Canada has a golden opportunity at this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles to improve its standing and influence in among its hemispheric neighbours.
The question is: will Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seize that opportunity? So far his track record in hemispheric diplomacy, like so many of his predecessors, has been wanting, experts say.
Those who pay close attention to hemispheric affairs, like scholar Peter McKenna, have watched many other prime ministers and diplomats squander opportunities for Canada to deepen ties, improved trade and strengthen democracy in Caribbean and Latin America.
“Canada has significant national interests at play, not just strategically and militarily and diplomatically, but also economically and politically,” said McKenna, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island and the author of Canada Looks South: In Search of an Americas Policy.
“We could be playing a much more higher profile role in the Americas,” McKenna said in an interview Monday.
“The problem is the Trudeau government is not interested in the region and is not willing to commit the time and the energy and the political will. And therefore we’re sort of on the sidelines where we’re missing in action. Canada could be a major player if it wanted to and could have its voice heard. And the reality is that countries in the Americas actually want Canada to take on a bigger role.”
McKenna cited Cuba and Haiti as two examples.
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Ottawa’s engagement with the region stretching back decades has been what Kenneth Frankel, chief executive of the Toronto-based Council of the Americas, called “spasmodic” as successive Canadian governments ceded the ground in the Americas to its own southern neighbour.
But America, particularly since the presidency of Donald Trump, is less and less influential in the Americas. And so, if there are hemispheric neighbours — Chile is a great example — seeking help on everything from adapting to climate change to strengthening human rights, Canada could be and, some say, ought to be a natural ally.
“Given the U.S. position on all of this, it only makes Canada’s potential role in the hemisphere, not just materially but symbolically really critical,” Frankel said. His organization, the Council of the Americas, promotes intra-regional dialogue and free markets.
“Latin Americans who are struggling for democracy and human rights — they want to know that there’s a big country in the neighbourhood that’s on their side.”
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It quickly became evident that Trump’s America was not going to be that “big country” and, though one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s missions at this weeks’ Summit of the Americas is to re-establish his country’s relationship with Caribbean, Central and South American countries, the damage, in Frankel’s view, has already been done.
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Leaders of those countries may listen to Biden’s message but they wonder what will happen after he’s gone. Will Trump or his acolytes return? Frankel said many business and political leaders in the Americas believe it’s only a matter of time before they once again see an America-first foreign policy that has little interest in advancing the cause of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
“During the Trump time, they were sort of desperate,” Frankel said. “Where do we turn to? Who’s going to be our champion? Who’s going to go shoulder to shoulder with us — a country that has some weight and will stand up to this kind of a thing? And so the door is wide open for more and greater Canadian influence in the hemisphere.”
Many Latin American countries, looking to replace the U.S. as a source of capital, new markets, and technology transfer, are turning to China and even Russia, which are eager, of course, to supplant and diminish U.S. influence in the region.
“The U.S. has a problem,” McKenna said. “It has neglected the region for so long. It has not paid attention to what has been happening in the region. It has taken Latin America and the Caribbean for granted, and it’s now come back to bite them.”
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All the more reason, then, for Canada to be more visible in Latin America.
“We could be so much more if we just had the political will and the interest on the part of the Canadian government to really increase Canada’s stature and presence and reputation in the region,” McKenna said.
“And they want us to play a role there — begging us to play a role. And here we are sitting back, virtually ignoring the region, treating it like it’s an afterthought when we have vested interests at play. ”
Trudeau’s detailed agenda while in Los Angeles, including the list of leaders with whom he will have one-on-one meetings, has not yet been set — which is typical for any summit. As a middle-power, the Canadian prime minister is on a lot of “nice-to-have-a-meeting” lists but on few “must-have-a-meeting” lists.
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In any event, it seems clear that there will not be any major “deliverables” for Canada at the summit. Instead, Canada’s success this week will be measured — or not — in the months and years to come but only if the Trudeau government makes it a foreign policy resource with enhanced diplomatic resources.
“A good summit for Canada is a situation where Canada has strengthened its relationship with leaders throughout the hemisphere. And you can’t underestimate the value — not just throughout the world but particularly in Latin culture — of the face-to-face, the handshake, the sitting across the table from each other,” Frankel said.
“And so if [Trudeau] has a series of successful meetings and an exchange as to how the countries can work together and Canada can listen to what these various countries want or are looking for, that to me, is a good result.”
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