Heeding Sen. Lugar's warning on the cost of ignoring Latin America

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Twenty years ago this month, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) became the first Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman to address the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS). In his address, he warned against the United States adopting a complacent “no nukes, no terrorism, no problem” attitude toward Latin America.

Today, Washington is once again taking its closest neighbors for granted. Lugar cautioned that ignoring the region would harm our domestic interests, foreign policy goals and national security. Sadly, his warning has proven true.

Since that time, U.S. foreign policy has oscillated between neglect and transactionalism, driven by domestic politics. The MAGA movement intensified isolationist tendencies and economic protectionism, eroding our historical role as a global leader. Despite its efforts, the Biden administration often appears more reactive than proactive. These inconsistencies have confused allies and emboldened adversaries. 

Economic growth in the region has been poor, down from 2.3 percent in 2023 to 2.0 percent in 2024, according to the International Monetary Fund, fueling the immigration crisis that is straining our border resources. Trouble spots like Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have been allowed to fester, challenging U.S. national security interests. As America turned its gaze elsewhere, many Latin American countries grew closer to some of our fiercest competitors. Chinese foreign direct investment in Latin America increased from $10 billion in 1990 to $300 billion in 2020, limiting our ability to address vital regional issues like sputtering economies, illegal drug flows and immigration. 

Latin America is rich in critical resources essential for tomorrow’s global economy. Chile and Argentina have increased lithium production, crucial for electric vehicle batteries, from 5,000 metric tons in 1990 to 35,000 metric tons in 2020. Brazil is an emerging power in green hydrogen, positioning the region to play a pivotal role in the green transition. Latin America also has the potential to become a manufacturing powerhouse as the U.S. embraces near-shoring, driving economic growth in the region. Increasing living standards create a robust market for U.S. goods and services. 

The path forward is fraught with challenges. As Latin American nations increasingly turn towards Chinese markets, their ability to withstand political pressures will be rigorously tested. China’s significant financial investments in the region come with strings attached, aiming to build a new global economic order and sideline U.S. interests. 

This year’s election cycle across the Americas, culminating in the U.S. presidential election, presents opportunities and risks. In this election season, the Trump administration’s sharp turns against free trade and immigration have proved more durable than expected. President Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” is now seen in the region as an isolationist colossus. Trump’s embrace of autocrats like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin raises serious doubts about our commitment to democracy.

The world is a different place than it was during the Cold War or even the early 2000s. U.S. foreign policy cannot remain static. However, even in this new reality, the need to demonstrate the tangible benefits of alignment with the United States remains unchanged. This requires, for example, advancing the bipartisan Americas Act, which aims to rally countries across the Western Hemisphere by creating regional trade, investment, and people-to-people partnerships to stimulate growth and integration through viable long-term private sector development.

The U.S. must identify willing allies in the region and engage in deep, meaningful partnerships that showcase the benefits of being aligned with the U.S., rather than succumbing to the allure of authoritarian influence and investment. To do so, the region must receive the kind of priority attention in Washington’s foreign policy establishment that has been sorely lacking in recent years and find ways for like-minded countries to further integrate economies, infrastructure and foreign policy approaches. 

As Sen. Lugar warned 20 years ago, threats extend beyond nuclear weapons and terrorism. Ignoring our nearest neighbors carries deep, lasting risks. The stakes are high. Reengaging with Latin America isn’t just about heeding Lugar’s warning — it is a deliberate pivot towards a foreign policy rooted in American principles. Our ties with some Latin American countries are crucial tests of our resolve to uphold our fundamental democratic commitments and economic interests.

We need a contemporary foreign policy that recognizes new realities while defending the United States’ historic commitment to democracy promotion, economic wellbeing and international trade. Allies must be attracted by the awesome opportunities the U.S. has to offer, in the process, securing our stability and prosperity. Our future depends on it. 

Carl Meacham is Global Americans president and former Lugar senior staffer for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Robert Funk is vice president for policy at Global Americans and associate professor of political science at the University of Chile.

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