Low expectations were set early for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent weeklong trip to Latin America and the Caribbean that involved visits to Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Jamaica.

Critics of the Trump administration have suggested that any growth in the diplomatic relationship between the United States and other Western Hemisphere countries is a waste of time, given Trump’s caustic comments on immigrants and his general distaste for trade deals. Tillerson’s own position within the administration has often come under attack, whether it be through personal disagreements or private embarrassment resulting from Trump’s verbalisms.

In a speech at the University of Texas at Austin immediately preceding the Feb. 1 trip, Tillerson may have discovered a diplomatic formula for the region that plays to his own strengths and sidesteps his boss’s weaknesses: noting that, instead of trade deficits, the United States actually has a $14 billion trade surplus with the hemisphere.

Indeed, the United States is doing a booming trade with the rest of the Western Hemisphere in oil products and natural gas, with Tillerson declaring that North America is experiencing an “energy renaissance.”

Selling a mutually beneficial energy and trade policy to Latin America may be the best way to strengthen relationships with states in Latin America and to downplay the diplomatic difficulties that result from the administration’s bombastic rhetoric.

The focus on energy and trade policy may also allow the administration to marry its realist views on the impending “great power competition” with China and Russia to many of the typical issues in the State Department’s purview, including supporting democracy.

Tillerson is attempting to portray energy development as a central pillar of Latin American development, arguing that “building greater prosperity by integrating the wealth of energy resources within the hemisphere is an opportunity that is unique in the world to the Americas.”

Unlike President Gerald Ford who, back in the 1970s, attempted to set the United States alone on the path to energy independence as a means of economic independence from unreliable actors in the Middle East, Tillerson painted a picture of energy interdependence in the Americas that would build stability while reducing poverty in the region.

Nor does it hurt U.S. diplomacy when all recent evidence points to an “energy dominant” U.S. economy for decades to come. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently estimated the United States would become a “net energy exporter” as early as 2022, which should give political leaders new confidence about the ability of the United States to leverage its resources for geopolitical gain.

Democracy has deepened its roots in Latin America in the last 30 years, and the continuing social and economic implosion in Venezuela is offering the United States one of the few opportunities in recent years to push back against competing narratives and economic models. Throughout the trip, Tillerson used Venezuela as a punching bag and an object lesson in how countries should not operate. He also highlighted how the corrupt government in Caracas has been propped up with loans from China and Russia for more than a decade.

Late in the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden led an effort to persuade Caribbean states to transition away from Venezuelan energy supplies. Many Caribbean and Central American nations are attempting to get out from under an onerous dependency on Venezuelan fuel imports set up through Petrocaribe, a program established during the Hugo Chavez regime.

Chavez developed the plan of subsidizing fuel exports in 2005 as a way of creating client-state relationships in the region at the expense of American influence. The United States hopes to encourage many Petrocaribe members to leave the program by shifting their dependence away from oil and toward natural gas imported from the United States. That movement helped fulfill both the goals of increasing energy interdependence and lessening reliance on a country whose socialist objectives do not align with our own.

Tillerson was particularly negative toward China’s economic approach to Latin America during the University of Texas speech, arguing in a fashion similar to that of President Trump that China’s economic policies are “carried out by imported Chinese labor, onerous loans and unsustainable debt” to extract resources from the region. In the end, he argued, Chinese investment would lead to less prosperity, not more, and the United States should be an alternative model for slow and steady growth.

Tillerson’s energy and trade goals may not serve as a panacea to the rhetoric stemming from the top of the administration, but they at least set out a vision of mutually beneficial partnerships that will boost economic prosperity abroad while staying true to American interests.


Image credit: Krysja