What’s Behind American Decline: Domestic Dysfunction

The Summit of the Americas, hosted this year by Joe Biden, offers a measure of how far the U.S. has fallen.

A hand emerges from behind a curtain at the Summit of the Americas
Jae C. Hong / AP

As the golden light bled from the Los Angeles sky one evening last week, a mariachi band played at a rooftop cocktail party for corporate executives and government officials from a couple dozen countries. They had gathered on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, an every-few-years meeting that would begin in the city the following day. With a flare of trumpets, the band launched into “El Rey,” the Mexican ranchera classic of wounded machismo. “I don’t have a throne or a queen,” the lead mariachi sang, “or anyone who understands me. But I’m still the king.”

Or anyone who understands me. The song could have been the theme to President Joe Biden’s week.

If a group of unusually prescient political scientists had wanted to design a mechanism to measure the decline of U.S. influence and stature, it might have created the Summit of the Americas. First hosted by Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994, that inaugural meeting marked a moment of U.S. ascendancy, as America stood atop a unipolar world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latin America was also going through a transformation, no longer a region of military dictatorships: Nearly every country had a democratically elected government, and many were eager to work with Washington.

But last week in Los Angeles—the first time the gathering had been held in the U.S. since the original event in Miami—the summit came across as a showcase of U.S. dysfunction and lowered ambition. The planning was chaotic and even the guest list became a needless source of controversy: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican leader popularly known as AMLO, refused to attend because the White House did not invite the dictator presidents of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—a violation, in his eyes, of the principle of hemispheric solidarity. At times there was more attention on those who were absent than on those who were present. “We’ve got the mariachis,” a tech executive at the twilight cocktail party quipped to me, “but we don’t have AMLO.”

In the afternoon the day of that rooftop gathering, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at an event touting the Partnership for Central America, an initiative she helped create to address the root causes of mass migration to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In its first year, she said, the group had channeled more than $3 billion of corporate investment into projects that included increasing access to the internet and banking services. What she didn’t mention was that the presidents of all three countries had boycotted the summit.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Richard Feinberg, a former National Security Council official who came up with the idea for the original summit and helped organize it, told me that senior Clinton-administration officials spent almost a year in intensive consultations with other governments, fine-tuning policy proposals and working to address issues raised. Extra work was done to massage egos and make sure that the two largest Latin American countries, Brazil and Mexico, understood that they would play a meaningful role.

None of that seemed to occur with this year’s meeting, which close observers said was marked by poor planning and a lack of preparation. Despite daunting challenges, such as countering the growing influence of China and Russia and addressing deep poverty that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, the proposals that would normally have been hashed out in detail months ahead of time were, in many cases, slapped together late in the process and not shared in advance with other nations. The whole enterprise evoked the image of a privileged but lazy student who figures he can get an A on the test even if he doesn’t study or do his homework. On the final day, a South American diplomat summed up the meeting in a word: “improvised.”

The guest-list flap was a glaring example. The White House said that the summit was for democratic governments only, and yet it engaged in weeks of hand-wringing over the participation of the autocratic leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, waiting until just days before the summit to definitively say that they would be excluded. AMLO, playing to his own leftist base at home, declared that he would not attend.

When he was vice president, Biden made 16 trips to Latin America as Barack Obama’s liaison to the region. He was now reduced to begging for countries to attend his summit: AMLO ignored multiple entreaties to soften his stance; Nayib Bukele of El Salvador refused to even take calls from U.S. officials in the days ahead of the summit; and Xiomara Castro, the Honduran president—whose inauguration Harris attended in January—stayed away as well. The leaders of Bolivia, Guatemala, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines also opted out.

“The administration did an own goal by its late planning, allowing this brouhaha about who came and who didn’t to be the dominant story,” Steve Liston, a former State Department official who was involved in organizing several summits and is now a senior director of the Council of the Americas, a lobbying group that promotes free trade, told me. “It was as it appeared to be: put together at the last minute. And the main significance of that is that the region was left with the feeling that the U.S. didn’t care.”

The same applied to the smattering of low-wattage proposals that the administration brought to the summit. Gabriel Silva Luján, who twice served as Colombia’s ambassador in Washington and has attended three Summits of the Americas, including the first one, recalled how the first summit was energized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and hopes for a regionwide free-trade agreement. “If the first summit was a summit of hope that generated great expectations, this is a summit that generates great frustrations,” he told me, speaking by phone from Bogotá. “It doesn’t have a big dream, and that makes the summit very poor.”

The Biden administration’s main economic initiative was a list of vague promises to “foster innovation,” build supply chains, create clean-energy jobs, and other generic offerings. An official acknowledged that the plan, with the grandiose title of the “Partnership for Economic Prosperity,” was not even discussed with other countries before the summit.

On the summit’s final day, the U.S. announced a series of “bold actions” that several countries would take on immigration issues, yet many of them were not new and others were modest. The U.S. said, for example, that it would resettle 20,000 refugees from the hemisphere over a two-year period, but that number pales beside the more than 200,000 migrants who have been crossing the U.S.’s southern border each month.

The administration had ample time to prepare for the summit, even with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine holding its attention, and the complications of Latin America’s particular set of challenges, including populist leaders such as AMLO and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who have competing interests. Yet the summit made clear how much the U.S.’s ability to form coherent policies toward its neighbors is handcuffed by domestic issues.

The economic plan amounted to a recitation of progressive talking points that seemed aimed more at segments of the Democratic base than at hemispheric leaders or their populations. The insistence on addressing immigration reflected unresolved domestic debates. And even the guest list, despite the administration’s insistence that it was about bigger issues of democracy versus autocracy, was a response to domestic political pressures: Were Biden to have invited Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, there would be hell to pay in Florida and in Congress.

Biden is beholden to Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a hawk on issues related to the three countries; inviting any of those leaders would alienate a key vote in an evenly divided Senate.

Even U.S. warnings about democratic backsliding in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Brazil appeared to some to be driven by concerns over threats to democracy at home. “The way that officials talked about it,” said Liston, the former State Department official, “it was clear they were talking about January 6.”

“Take any issue. If you’re talking about trade policy, we can’t decide if trade’s a good thing or a bad thing. Do we want immigrants or not?” said Feinberg, the former NSC official. All of that leads to an incoherent mash-up of timid half-measures or initiatives that exist to either please or avoid riling up some interest group, regardless of their effectiveness or likelihood of success. “The root causes of a flaccid inter-American diplomacy,” Feinberg said, “is dysfunctional domestic politics.”

The last time I covered a Summit of the Americas, in 2012, I spent most of my time in the brothels that line the port of Cartagena, Colombia.

The summit that year was overshadowed by a scandal involving Obama’s Secret Service detail. An advance team of agents was sent home after some of them took prostitutes to their hotel rooms. When one of the agents refused to pay, the prostitute protested and word leaked out.

It became my job to look for the prostitute who had slept with the agent who was too cheap to pay. When I finally found her, she told me that she wanted me to understand that she was a high-class escort, not a streetwalker. She had dignity. She was an iPhone, she told me, not a Nokia.

Colombians saw in the tawdry affair an echo of the stereotypical gringo attitude toward Latin America: self-centered and callous. In the relationship between the Americas, the U.S. dictates the terms.

There was some of that as well in the reaction to the L.A. summit, with its slapdash planning and the way that U.S. domestic politics infiltrated the agenda.

Over the summit’s two and a half days, as the presidents in attendance gave speeches in the main meeting hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center, two summits seemed to be going on simultaneously. In one, Biden and his officials were pushing proposals that seemed geared more toward a U.S. audience than a hemispheric one. In the other, Latin American leaders emphasized an alternative set of issues: They spoke about poverty and inequality; the economic impact of rising inflation; the cost of food, fuel, and fertilizers; and rising debt burdens on their countries, which had to cope with a set of problems they had not caused, including climate change, arms trafficking, and the economic effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine. And many of them scolded Biden over his choice to exclude the region’s nondemocratic governments.

“When we disagree, we need to be able to speak to each other face-to-face,” said Gabriel Boric, the young Chilean president. He called for both the freeing of political prisoners in Nicaragua and the end of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Biden, in his speech, sounded the correct notes, saying that he planned to listen to other leaders and that he wanted them all to work together. “No matter what else is happening in the world,” he said, “the Americas will always be the priority for the United States of America.” As they say in Venezuela: “Del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho.” It’s a long way between words and deeds.

Clinton’s summit in 1994 featured a spectacular “Concert of the Americas.” The White House enlisted Quincy Jones to organize the event, and the program had more than 40 star performers. It featured a salsa jam session that included Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Liza Minnelli, Paul Anka, Gloria Estefan, Rita Marley, Kenny G, and others. Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas made appearances, and Maya Angelou read a poem.

Biden’s summit had its own dollop of culture. Despite taking place a short drive from Hollywood, however, it lacked the star power of Clinton’s. The opening ceremony featured just five musical numbers, most of them chosen to emphasize optimism and interdependence. The United States Marine Band accompanied a few singers and acrobats from Cirque du Soleil in a treacly version of “Lean on Me.” Sheila E. (who performed at the 1994 summit) gave a spirited rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

There was one exception to the night’s theme. Alex Fernández, the grandson of the ranchera icon Vicente Fernández, sang “El Rey,” the same song the mariachis had sung at the rooftop cocktail party: the ultimate ballad for loners.

Biden listened from the front row and smiled.