A New Kind of Diplomacy in Americas

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The end of the political crisis in Honduras went practically unnoticed: after becoming magnified in the world stage last year, the tense events of that small nation pretty much fizzled out. In an uneventful ceremony, Porfirio Lobo was sworn in while ousted President Manuel Zelaya quietly exited his Brazilian Embassy refuge into exile. Interim chief Roberto Micheletti, working with Honduras' congress, pushed through a political amnesty for Zelaya and then separated himself from the executive office.

Looking back, the most repeated commentary during that short moment when Honduras became a focus of attention was that the crisis roused darker times from decades past in the Americas. But that humdrum perspective misses a more important point about the region and its ties with the United States. What started back in mid-2009 as a power struggle stemming from local, economically-ingrained interests evolved into the most salient display so far of a relatively recent trend in Latin American affairs: a contest between the major foreign policy voices in the continent.

It was less a confrontation over gaining influence than a trial of their agendas and leadership. A lot of attention in that sense went to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian campaign. To him, Honduras came down to validating himself before his national bloc of allies. Returning Zelaya to the presidency without negotiation would have effectively proved Chavez's patronage extends beyond oil exports and ballot demagoguery. Actually brokering a messy resolution for the sake of the ousted president's country was never his intention.

But two other presidents - Costa Rica's Oscar Arias and Brazil's Lula da Silva- have also consolidated their prominence and must also be taken into account. Focusing only on Chavez makes for an incomplete picture.

Arias, for his part, was driven much more by ideology than any of the others. For him, Honduras offered the opportunity to boost liberal diplomacy as the predominant tool in Latin American relations. Building on his recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize-recipient, he has unabashedly promoted himself and that ideal as fully capable of repairing democracy through top-down, outside-in interventions. Da Silva's involvement in Honduras, meanwhile, was little more than the expression of his country's perceived ascendancy in the region. Zelaya chose the Brazilian Embassy as a hideout for this very reason. Yet, despite being supportive of the ousted president's plight, da Silva was first and foremost pragmatic. His chief concern was to avoid getting dragged into a complicated entanglement with Honduras, a country in which he had no direct stake.

How each of these leaders acted during the crisis in that country was a dioramic scene of the policies and attitudes they have projected onto the continent over the past few years. The interaction of the three against one another culminated in a neutralized counterbalance: in Honduras it played out in a single, condensed stage but it has been a common theme in Latin America for the past few years.

The same way in which all three commanded the greatest attention regarding Honduras at different moments of the crisis, all three have succeeded, at different instances, in becoming the region's most important voice. More so, and very not surprisingly, just as neither was able to fully to resolve the Honduras crises of their own accord, neither has been able to become an unqualified regional powerhouse. If Chavez had significant resources to flaunt himself around, he lacked Arias' general good standing; Arias, in contrast to Chavez, might have received a welcoming audience in most countries but was unable to put together a far-reaching platform for his agenda. Da Silva could equal and possibly surpass both in terms of capital and prestige but, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, was ultimately unwilling to promote anything else above and beyond his country's direct interests.

Viewing the resolution to the crisis in Honduras in these terms says a great deal about the role of the U.S. in Latin America.

It speaks to a recurrent but mistaken conclusion inferred from the increasingly subdued presence of the United States in the region, a trend that started late in the Clinton years and continues to this day. Contrary to what conventional wisdom suggests, a lower profile has not translated into diminished U.S. leverage. More than anything else it has considerably eased the impression of the U.S. as meddlesome. If anything, with the rise of autochthonous but limited leadership, it has allowed the U.S. to gain a stronger position as the paramount broker of last resort.

Consider: nothing would have inflamed the situation in Honduras more than if Chavez had contested the U.S. for influence from the very start. Fortunately, the Obama administration stepped aside as the other leaders interceded, even openly supporting the initiatives by Arias and -in this case to a lesser extent- da Silva. When the process deadlocked it fell back to the U.S. to push forward negotiations. The result was a straightforward, effective, and mostly unchallenged resolution.

This outcome should serve as a pretty strong argument against attempting to reinstitute some sort of Monroe Doctrine or for that matter any initiative that supports more prominent involvement by the U.S. in the region For all the recent apprehension over China's - or even Iran's - rising influence in Latin America, the reality is that the most important development in the continent is the consolidation of leaders with the capacity or the willingness, or both, to advance and advocate their own agencies.

And this is in the United States' best interest. For starters, as long as Chavez is around it will provide a measure of stability against his impetuousness. But, even after he is gone (which might be sooner rather than later), the development of an energetic foreign policy dialogue will benefit all of the Americas as it encourages better and more mature governance.

Going forward there are some challenges looming at the same time there is promise for the continent. Both Arias and da Silva will soon leave office, and the dynamic discussed above along with them: the diminished competition will benefit Chavez. However, after Honduras, the general framework for this new form of inter-American relations is firmly in place. Hopefully other figures, including the successors to Arias and da Silva, will position themselves soon enough as leaders and reinitiate the "contest."

The attention may now be on the resolution stemming from the recent gathering of heads of state in Cancun, Mexico, that established the diplomatic bases for an exclusively Latin American organization. Yet the seminal moment for the region already came and, practically unnoticed, went.

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