THERE IS LITTLE PRESIDENT BUSH can do at today's Summit of the Americas in Argentina to reverse the impression that Latin America remains on his diplomatic backburner and that Washington's influence in the region, while still considerable, is waning. The once-ballyhooed Free Trade Area of the Americas is a political nonstarter in much of South America, where a growing number of nations, disillusioned with Washington's free-market orthodoxy, have elected leftist-leaning governments.
Against this backdrop, many wonder what the Bush administration can possibly offer at the summit to placate its disgruntled hemispheric neighbors and improve the image of the United States in the region. What can be done to counter the charm offensive of Venezuela's oil-rich leftist leader, Hugo Chavez?
Such worries are outdated, reflecting the dysfunctional nature of the U.S. relationship with Latin America. There may be a lot of noise -- there are plenty of anti-American demonstrations being held in Mar del Plata -- but relations with much of Latin America are reaching a healthy maturity. The United States can disagree with these nations on such issues as the Free Trade Area of the Americas or the war in Iraq, but Washington can continue to have a broader constructive relationship with them.
Not long ago, when radicalism in South America and civil wars in Central America raised the specter of communism in America's midst, every minor disagreement between the U.S. and a Latin American nation was blown out of proportion. Such nations were expected to fall into lock-step behind the U.S. In the 1990s, free-market euphoria and the consolidation of democracy raised unrealistic expectations about the region's transformation -- and about the political convergence between north and south.
Plenty of administration officials are no doubt still stuck in the old paradigm, thinking it impertinent for Latin countries to deviate from the U.S. position in a way they don't think it's impertinent for, say, Malaysia to do so. That thinking led Washington to appear complicit in the attempted 2002 anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela.
Elsewhere, however, hemispheric ties may be benefiting from the benign neglect that flows from the Bush administration's Middle East focus. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, for example, has led the opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the fight against rich-nation farm subsidies at the World Trade Organization. But the Bush White House has treated Brazil with respect (in fact, Bush is scheduled to go there on Saturday).
This model of engagement can work with other Latin nations. Mature democracies can disagree, and they can agree not to allow their disagreements to consume their relationship. Overreacting to Chavez's antics only builds his street cred in Latin America.
None of this is to say that the president should overlook the region's severe problems -- starting with rising inequality, poverty and corruption. Without claiming to offer any panacea, the United States should continue to preach the merits of free trade and the rule of law. But Washington needs to do so in a manner that is respectful of nations' sovereignty.