April 17, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America, Democracy and Human Rights

Why American Leadership Still Matters

President Barack Obama is taking his bully pulpit abroad for the second time in less than three weeks. This time he's bound for Trinidad and Tobago to meet with many other leaders from the Western Hemisphere for the fifth Summit of the Americas.

Given the economic funk many of the world's leading markets have fallen into since the last Summit in 2005 (which was a disaster for the U.S.) and fresh threats of aggression and terror around the world, there's little doubt the summiteers will be eager to hear from President Obama. But if he merely repeats the apologetic speeches he gave during his recent European trip, he'll be missing a tremendous opportunity.

Seeking to draft a new page in U.S.-Latin American relations, Obama might accept the mistaken view of the international left that so-called U.S. "arrogance" was a leading cause of the current economic recession, or that poverty results from what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounces as the "savage capitalism" of the U.S. and other Western powers.

With many of the biggest economies in Latin America struggling, regional leaders are looking for a scapegoat, but Obama shouldn't present then with a ready target. It would be far too easy (and wrong) to let those leaders off the hook for their own misjudgments and failures by letting them blame the dire straits of the global economy on the "blonde-haired, blue-eyed people in the world," as Brazilian President Luis Lula da Silva recently remarked.

Instead, Obama should dismiss such nonsense and remind his fellow heads of state that the reasons for global financial difficulties are far too numerous to be simply pinned on one country. Allowing the U.S. to be used as a scapegoat by critics on the left would just advance their anti-American and anti-free market agenda in Latin America. Unfortunately, President Chavez is no longer alone in these anti-U.S. efforts, thanks to the likes of leftist allies in the region such as Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega.

Obama should firmly defend his country at the Summit and exert some much needed American leadership.

He should issue a renewed call to defend democratic institutions, advance free trade, defend human rights and uphold the rule of law. Having recently won a historic presidential contest, Obama fully appreciates the importance of free and fair elections in a democratic republic. And in a region of many fledgling democracies, underscoring the virtues found in a democracy is especially relevant.

On economic matters, President Obama should argue in favor of fewer trade restrictions and unnecessary tariffs in order to strengthen ties throughout the Americas. And although a U.S. trade agreement with Colombia (stalled in Congress) and a newly-ignited trade war with Mexico (due to recent protectionist measures passed by Congress) have undermined his standing, Obama should pledge to reverse these shortcomings and pledge to reject the politics of protectionism.

On issues concerning national security, Obama should tell the leaders gathered at the Summit that hateful anti-American sentiment doesn't help strengthen our relationship with the region. Our hemisphere harbors no nuclear weapons or WMDs, but its security is undermined by drug cartels, criminal gangs, black marketers and rampant lawlessness. Outside players like a resurgent Russia or a radical regime like Iran look for fresh opportunities for mischief in Latin America.

The stakes couldn't be higher for this upcoming Summit of the Americas. Latin America is a key trading partner and strategic ally; good relations with the region are vital to the national security interests of our country. President Obama must carefully thread the needle of lending an ear while nonetheless unabashedly asserting the importance of U.S. leadership and the resilience and relevance of U.S. ideas in these momentous times. Anything short of that would be a disappointment for the citizens he represents.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry