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The World : For the OAS, 50 Years of Irrelevancy May Be Over

November 06, 1994|David Brindley | David Brindley is a research assistant in the foreign-policy studies program at the Brookings Institution. He has traveled extensively throughout Latin America

WASHINGTON — Last March, the Organization of American States resembled a boxing ring more than an arena for hemispheric cooperation. Bernd Niehaus, Costa Rica's foreign minister, was a shoe-in for the organization's highest office. Until the hemisphere's heavyweights--the United States, Brazil and Mexico--put up Cesar Gaviria, then president of Colombia, who has considerably more stature than the relatively unknown Costa Rican. A fight broke out between the heavyweights and featherweights--the Central American and Caribbean states that backed the Costa Rican.

The heavyweights, at a distinct disadvantage, leaned on the smaller states to support Gaviria. Yet, the featherweight coalition of 20 votes--of a total of 34--held firm. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, Gaviria dispatched his foreign minister to the arena, armed with free-trade agreements with Colombia for swing voters. The OAS elected Gaviria to a five-year term as its secretary general. Its smaller members cried foul, resenting the continued dominance of the heavyweights in hemispheric relations.

Like the United Nations, the OAS is mapping its way through the uncertain landscape of the post-Cold War era, made all the more difficult because the regional organization has been largely irrelevant for most of its half-century existence. Nevertheless, the fight over the secretary-general post augurs well for the OAS and for regional cooperation: the heavyweights are finally taking the organization seriously, at least as a potential arena for cooperation.

Within the OAS, the United States wields a double-edged sword. When it wants to, it can--and does--dominate the institution. In finances alone, the United States contributes nearly 60% of the general budget, thus controlling the purse strings. It also holds de facto veto power: When the organization acts contrary to its interests, Washington tends to walk away, creating a vacuum in its wake.

Multinational organizations built on the principles of juridical equality do not operate effectively when dominated by one member. In such cases, other members tend to unite to restrain the dominant member. Practically speaking, U.S. domination has spurred other OAS members to restrict its action, preferring non-intervention over collective action to solve regional problems like drug trafficking and refugee flows.

Conversely, the OAS suffers most when its largest member ignores it. The organization nearly went bankrupt when U.S. payments fell into arrears in the 1980s. Also, when Washington is distracted by world events, it indifferently carries out its obligations in the region.

But the United States has increasingly shown a willingness to work with multinational organizations in dealing with international problems. Ambassador Harriet C. Babbitt, the Clinton Administration's representative to the OAS, says the U.S. commitment to use the organization is "much greater than ever before." Indeed, the United States has convened a meeting of all the heads of state in the region, excluding Cuba, for the first time in more than 25 years.

In his inaugural address--delivered on the same day that President Bill Clinton announced his intention to invade Haiti in order to restore democracy--Gaviria asserted that the strengthening of democracy in the hemisphere is the major topic on the inter-American agenda. The convergence of opinion was not coincidental.

The spread of democracy is a prominent feature of the post-Cold War era. In Latin America, formal democracy has been restored in every country except Cuba. The expansion of democratic institutions does not mean, however, that democracy has taken root in the region. Quite the contrary. The Chiapas revolt in Mexico signals an uncertain future for emerging democracies. The OAS, attuned to the difficulties of the self-governing task, is establishing mechanisms to strengthen democracies.

OAS members approved a resolution automatically convening a meeting of foreign ministers to decide upon a collective course of action in the event of a coup or other interruption of democratic government within any member state. The Santiago resolution, as it is known, is the first OAS sanction of collective action to intervene in the domestic affairs of a member country.

Force as a means of ousting an undemocratic regime will most likely remain unacceptable to the majority of OAS members. Not only is force risky and costly, but it also breaches the staunchly guarded sovereignty of member states. In its stead, the organization advocates the use of preemptive measures--such as expanded use of mediation and election monitoring--to promote democracy.

The end of the Cold War has brought forth a world characterized by uncertainty. We can be certain, however, that the world remains multilateral and increasingly interdependent. If a new world order is going to arise, it will have to be on a multilateral basis; it will have to seek common values and goals, and it will have to include cooperation across borders.

In the Western Hemisphere, the OAS offers an unrivaled forum for cooperation. Even if imperfect, it is the only arena in which all the countries of the hemisphere, in good standing, can meet to discuss regional policy and mutual problems. In so doing, the OAS facilitates productive exchange and cooperation on common problems.

We can also be certain that U.S. involvement is essential to hemispheric cooperation. Our regional partners have responded to the changes in the world by looking north, and much depends on U.S. action. Gaviria's election in the OAS demonstrates that the Adminstration is taking the OAS seriously as a forum in which to pursue its interests. Preparations for the historic hemisphere meeting, to be held in Miami next month, should not overlook the benefits the OAS can offer in expanding cooperation. The United States needs to acknowledge the needs of other members and fully cooperate, on the multilateral level, to pursue its own interests in a new world.*

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