Argument

China's New Backyard

Does Washington realize how deeply Beijing has planted a flag in Latin America?

For the past decade, Washington has looked with discomfort at China's growing interest in Latin America. But while Beijing's diplomats bulked up on their Spanish and Portuguese, most U.S. policymakers slept soundly, confident that the United States still held a dominant position in the minds of its southern neighbors. In April 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on China's influence in the hemisphere and concluded that the U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere was much stronger than China's and, moreover, that Beijing's economic engagement in the region did not present a security threat. But that was 2005.

In late May of this year, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went to Latin America for a three-day, three-country tour, Beijing was hot on his heels. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Trinidad and Tobago just days after Biden left: Whereas Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, characterized her discussions with Biden as "at times brutal," Xi's stop in Trinidad and Tobago included the unveiling of a children's hospital funded with $150 million from the Chinese government, discussion of energy projects, and meetings with seven Caribbean heads of state. Xi's itinerary took him to Costa Rica and Mexico on June 4 to 6, but his shadow followed Biden all the way to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, Biden referred to a new "strategic partnership" between the United States and Brazil, yet his words' impact was undercut by the strategic partnership that Brazil has had with China since 1993 and the much-publicized fact that China overtook the United States as Brazil's largest trading partner in 2009 (trade between China and Brazil exceeded $75 billion in 2012). It's not an accident that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made a state visit to China in April 2011, prior to paying one to the United States.

Make no mistake: China is now a presence in the region. Xi's trip to Trinidad and Tobago is only the second visit by a Chinese president to the Caribbean -- his predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited communist Cuba in November 2008 -- but China and the Caribbean's economic and political ties have been growing rapidly. On this trip, Xi promised more than $3 billion in loans to 10 Caribbean countries and Costa Rica. Xi's choice of three destinations near the United States, followed by a "shirt-sleeves" summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on June 7 and 8 at the Sunnylands resort in California, sends a subtle message that the new Chinese leadership seeks to engage the United States globally as an equal -- without the deference shown in the past to the United States in countries close to its borders.

Ironically, it's the Latin American country closest to the United States where Xi might be able to make up the most ground. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's engagement with the Chinese president, both at the April summit in Boao, China, and this week in Mexico City, allow him to differentiate himself from his pro-U.S. predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Similarly, Mexico's role in forming the Pacific Alliance, a new subregional organization built around a group of four pro-market, pro-trade countries (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) allows Mexico to reassert a leadership role in the Americas, relatively independent of the United States.

The challenges arising from China's global engagement should not, however, be confused with the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that characterized the Cold War, in which each side actively promoted different, competing concepts for a global order. China does not seek to impose a new ideology on the world, yet the mercantilist way in which it promotes its economic development, combined with its lack of commitment to international norms that it didn't create, makes it more difficult for the United States to conduct business and pursue policy goals in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Consider China's ties with the eight countries that make up the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Since 2007, China has loaned $50 billion to Ecuador and Venezuela, the alliance's two largest countries, giving them the financial wherewithal to continue sustaining anti-U.S. policies at home and to advance their cause in the region -- from funding oil alliance Petrocaribe, to setting up teleSUR and Banco del Sur, to sending suitcases of cash to politicians in Argentina. And the willingness of Chinese companies to invest in Venezuela and Ecuador has made it easier for those countries' regimes to nationalize industries and displace undesired Western corporations. China's indifference to those countries' political systems has cleared the way for their devolution to less democratic practices, from the legal actions taken against the leadership of El Universo and other Ecuadorean media, to forcing RCTV off the air in Venezuela and persecuting Venezuelan opponents from Manuel Rosales (now in exile) to former armed forces head Raúl Baduel (now incarcerated). China's no-strings-attached investments enable the regimes to thumb their noses at Western institutions and prevailing international norms regarding respect for contracts, freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights.

The challenge to Washington from China's presence in the region also extends beyond economics and policy objectives. The U.S. Defense Department's critical posture regarding Chinese cyberattacks is a reminder that hostilities between the United States and China, though highly improbable and undesirable, are not unthinkable. In such a conflict, China-operated ports, airports, telecommunications infrastructure, and other parts of the Chinese commercial presence in Latin America would represent potential assets in a global asymmetric warfare campaign against the United States.

It is ironic that, after his meetings in Mexico, Xi will meet with Obama in California. But for the difficulty in getting Xi's entourage of Chinese luxury cars across the border, he could almost have driven the last leg of the journey. But perhaps that is the point: It has taken a leader coming from the other side of the world to remind the U.S. leadership that Latin America is connected to the United States, in physical, economic, and human terms. Thus, what happens in the region is of profound importance for the United States and, hopefully, will be at least one of the topics of conversation between President Xi and President Obama after they shake hands at Sunnylands.

ELIZABETH RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Rice, Power, and Hope

Did Obama just change Washington from the inside?

Five years ago when Barack Obama ran for president he promised the country a foreign policy that would "change the mindset" that launched the Iraq War.

Five years later, we might just finally be getting it.

With the announcement yesterday that he is selecting Susan Rice to be his national security advisor and is nominating Samantha Power to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (a decision that comes on the heels of the selection of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Kerry as secretary of state), not only is the president putting a more personal stamp on his national security team, but he appears ready to become the foreign policy president that his 2008 campaign initially promised.

It's been a rocky path to this point. Obama's first-term foreign policy -- and in particular the team he selected to manage it -- didn't look much like what candidate Obama had discussed on the campaign trail. Although Obama had long pledged to devote more resources to the war in Afghanistan, the policy he settled upon was more reminiscent of the "dumb" wars he bemoaned in 2002, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Liberals hoping for a change from the Bush years got a poorly devised and unrealistic counterinsurgency strategy based on flawed assumptions and championed by the same people who had enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq. Obama ramped up the drone war (as he had promised he would during the campaign), but he was far less solicitous of congressional and constitutional prerogatives or as transparent about his counterterrorism strategy as he had led his supporters to believe he would be.

His foreign policy team didn't suggest great change either. Obama had run for the Democratic nomination by challenging Hillary Clinton's support for the war in Iraq but then gave her the top job at Foggy Bottom. He continued the depressing Democratic practice of giving top national security positions to Republicans or members of the military by keeping Bob Gates at the Pentagon and making Marine Gen. Jim Jones his national security advisor -- a pick that seemed to be driven more by the stars on Jones's shoulders than the strategic ideas in his head. While there were significant and important advances in Obama's first term (the New START treaty, the Russian reset, a successful counterterrorism effort, withdrawal from Iraq), it was hard to discern a significant break from the foreign policies of the past. If anything, Obama's first-term foreign policy appeared both defensive and overly political.

While it's far too early to say that Obama's personnel moves augur noteworthy change, the signs so far are surprisingly hopeful -- even if many of the names are familiar.

What unites Rice, Power, Hagel, and Kerry is first and foremost their connection to the president. Both Rice and Power took a leap of faith in jumping aboard the upstart Illinois senator's presidential campaign in 2007, when few thought he had a chance of upending Clinton. They've been with him as long as any of his other foreign policy aides.

The relationship between Obama and Hagel goes back to their days in the Senate, and Kerry was integral to his political rise -- he asked Obama to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, at which Kerry was nominated for president. There is also John Brennan, who recently became CIA director, and was one of Obama's closest national security advisors during his first term.

Beyond those personal links, there are important policy connections as well -- none more significant than Iraq. Hagel and Kerry both voted in support of the war while serving in the Senate, and they share political scars from that decision. Hagel turned against the war and his party's president, which made him persona non grata in the GOP (a fact on clear display during his contentious confirmation hearing earlier this year). Kerry's support for the war ironically helped him win the Democratic primary in 2004, but his inability to stake out a clear position for it or against it -- until the general election campaign -- became, in part, his political undoing. Rice and Power were both critics of the war, and Rice has said she saw in Obama's stance on Iraq a kindred soul who stood against the tide of the Democratic foreign policy elite (even though her own opposition was decidedly opaque).

What is perhaps most important is that all four have shown not just skepticism, but also nuanced thinking about the use of U.S. military force. The elevation of Rice and Power has led many to conclude that liberal interventionists now have greater influence within the White House. But the truth is far murkier. Rice, who was President Clinton's assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Rwandan genocide has said she is haunted by the experience. And she was one of the key proponents of intervention in Libya. But, along with Power (and the president), she has been deeply skeptical about the efficacy of intervention in Syria. Power, who wrote a Pulitzer-winning book calling for greater response to genocide, has been dubbed the "the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world." But her focus on preventing human rights atrocities has not equaled a call for military interventions in response. In 2003, for example, she bristled at just such suggestions, noting that ''if you think of foreign policy as a toolbox, there are a whole range of options -- you can convene allies, impose economic sanctions, expel ambassadors, jam hate radio,'' she said. ''There is always something you can do."

Kerry's contrarian views on the use of force of course date back to the Vietnam era, but even when voting in support of the use of force against Iraq in 2002, he did so with pronounced reservations and the argument that a yes vote from the Senate would further the larger goal of disarming Saddam Hussein. Hagel expressed similar concerns at the time. Since then, he has been a regular skeptic on the use of force and a critic of what he calls the "bloated" Pentagon budget.

In short, neither Obama nor the team he's assembled can be so easily buttonholed as realists or liberal interventionists or neo-cons. As Heather Hurlburt, head of the National Security Network (full disclosure: I serve on NSN's board) said to me, "They are all reality-based thinkers." In this regard, all four bear striking similarities to their boss, who used his Nobel Peace Prize as an opportunity to talk about the necessity of war.

A candidate who ran for president on a promise that he would not conform to "Washington groupthink" is truer to his word than one might initially realize. Second-term Obama seems disinclined to groupthink either of the Washington or non-Washington variety.

His recent speech at the National Defense University followed just such a pattern -- a professorial, introspective examination of the cross-cutting moral, legal, diplomatic, military, and security-related challenges that underpin the country's counterterrorism strategy. None of these issues offers easy answers, and Obama's words were a revealing insight into the difficult choices that policymakers face when it comes to national security (not surprisingly, it was a speech that made both liberals and conservatives unhappy). For a president who has been criticized for a lack of transparency, it was perhaps the most transparent moment of his tenure as a foreign policy president.

In a sense, this was the initial promise that Obama offered in 2008 -- not that he would approach national security with a singular and dogmatic worldview, but rather would do so with sophistication, nuance, and good judgment. Now he's surrounded himself with individuals who appear think in similar terms.

This isn't to say he will be successful or even that events won't force decisions upon him that he would prefer not to make. But so far Obama's second term foreign policy looks a bit more like the hopey-changey thing he promised in 2008.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images