“ The day Latin America spouses the rule of law it will become a powerful player in world affairs ” these were Brent Scowcroft’s words in October 1989 in San Jose Costa Rica while attending the celebration of the 100th anniversary of democracy in the tiny central American nation. We were talking about the impact that the Initiative for the Americas launched by President George HW Bush would have on the region. I thought it would be a gamechanger that could unleash the creative forces of a continent that had missed every other opportunity to develop. He was skeptical as he seemed to know that the missing piece would take many centuries and much suffering to materialize.
Time has proved him right. Latin America is in worse shape today than at the time the Initiative for the America’s was launched. Yes, progress has been made in building a larger middle class in reducing poverty. But poverty reduction was not achieved through the development of trade related skills in the population so as to promote wealth creation. This was rather a collateral effect springing from public transfers to the lower income population. As a result, when a mayor calamity occurs like the covid19 pandemic and public resources run low, transfers will dry out and poverty will increase. Then there is the growing inequality that limits aggregate demand growth. Finally there is corruption which not only destroys institutional development but opens the doors to organized crime.. And as covid19 munches up economies south of the Rio Grande the region will most probably descend to the abyss of political instability. With the growing menace represented by transnational organized crime Latin America seems to be heading to yet another or several lost decades.
An international system founded on the principle of rule of law and the active presence of the United States in geopolitical junctures were perhaps two of the most prominent tenets of Scowcroft’s vision for the world. He knew the world to be in perpetual natural disorder and to nest anarchical tendencies. He thus thought the best way to correct this continuing flirt with chaos would be to tie nations together through national interest and to strengthen international institutions as springs of guidance and stability. He knew that over half the nations of the world are institutionally fragile and thus easily penetrated by dark matters such as authoritarianism and crime. The cure for this would be development understanding this as a process of insertion of the rule of law and US engagement. As aptly put by the Atlantic Council the institution he helped strengthen” His thinking was guided by key principles, including the importance of history in shaping international affairs, the necessity of strong US international leadership to ensure that a world of natural disorder does not become chaos, the importance of gaining domestic and international support for US leadership, and the utility of working through allies, coalitions, and international institutions.
Scowcroft’s passing leaves the US weaker in its tactical abilities as the network of respect he commanded always drew towards America in times of crises. This soft power he had will not be present in a time when America seems to be flirting with isolationism and nationalism while unable to build a bipartisan policy towards rivals that not only question its leadership but the principles of freedom and rule of law as it is the Case of China; Russia, Iran and Turkey. These are times for strategic thinkers and master operators like Brent.