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Our Own Backyard No More December 6, 2008

Posted by SV in China, Immigration, President Obama, Russia, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On Friday, 5 December 2008, the Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko traversed the Panama Canal, the first time a Soviet or Russian warship has crossed the canal since WWII.  Though the Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis stated that the only signal of this was that “the canal is open to all the world’s ships,” it is really indicative of the waning of American influence in Latin America.  This comes after the Russiasn Navy conducted joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, an action clealry intended to signal Moscow’s growing assertiveness and Venezuela’s desire to thumb its nose at the United States.

So why is a Russian destroyer crossing the Panama Canal or joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises a cause for concern?  The US has essentially been neglecting Latin American relations while other great powers are conducting their own “charm offensives” among the governments south of San Diego.  While the anti-immigrant movement and anti-NAFTA rhetoric within the US is part of the problem, most of the blame lies with an inattention to our neighbors to the south.  Not only has Russia been active in the region with such welcoming countries like Cuba and Venezuela, but China has also been investing heavily in many of the Central and South American countries, especially Panama.

Though it may sound good that the canal is “open to all,” that means it no longer serves US interests primarily and, in fact, could be closed to the US in the event of a conflict.  China is not making diplomatic trips and investing in Latin America because of their good nature, it is attempting to tear down the fence around our backyard and redefine where the property line runs.  These Russian and Chinese actions spell what could be the death knell of the Monroe Doctrine if significant action or responses are not taken in the next administration.  Powers from outside the Western Hempisphere are being allowed to get involved in Latin American affairs, and the US response is nonexistent.

The truth is that this is not the end of a waning American influence across the world.  As US primacy recedes, our rivals will attempt to take as much of it as they can.  If Russia can conduct military exercises in the Caribbean, it is only a matter of time before it sends forces to the Mediterranean (it announced on Friday it would send its sole aircraft carrier to the Atlantic and Mediterranean for “combat training”).  If China can gain influence over the operation of the Panama Canal, it should be relatively easy for Beijing to gain de facto control over some of the other “keys that lock up the world,” such as the Straits of Malacca off of Singapore or the Suez Canal (should Mubarak’s government ever fall).   Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is going to be left with the task of reasserting American primacy in Latin America and working to keep key nations like Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in the US camp.

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