Why the United States Needs to Win Friends in Latin America
One lesson to take from the Roman Empire is that a nation cannot ensure its own survival by stubbornly seeking to push other nations and cultures aside. Rather, the wise nation learns to co-opt other cultures and blend them with its own. Religious and cultural adaptation took advantage of syncretism as a means of unifying the empire under a cultural banner without entirely destroying local cultural institutions. To have imposed a single "Roman" way upon local cultures without some accommodations would have been senseless and ignorant of the weight of history. Resistance to cultural imposition and syncretism is an indication of instability and a possible symptom of potential rebellion.
Today, as the United States finds itself in a Romanesque position of global hegemony, it would be wise to adopt a little syncretism of its own, particularly with an eye towards Latin America.
Strategically, the United States depended throughout the 20th Century on cooperation and trade with Europe. Whether that cooperation took the form of NATO or long-standing trade relationships, eyes were focused on trans-Atlantic friendship.
Europe, however, is a fickle bedfellow. The initiative to unite the continent under the European Union has drawn European intellectual energies inward. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there are signs that Europe sees itself as a natural successor superpower.
The inherent shortcomings of European political union are many. Among other problems, it is opposed most strongly by its healthiest and most economically free prospective member states like Ireland and the United Kingdom, in large part because the EU is an experiment in bland socialism. A quick review of the EU constitution is impossible (the document weighs in at more than 200 pages), but it includes a devil's casserole of policies that will stifle economic freedom and growth.
The result is that much of political Europe has grand but misguided intentions that more likely than not to hinder the continent's future. None of this necessarily makes Europe a hostile opponent of the United States; in fact, trans-Atlantic cooperation should remain a priority for both partners.
But the United States needs to look to the south and realize that our future lies as much with Latin America as with Europe.
Thanks in no small part to NAFTA, the United States now conducts more trade with Mexico than with Germany, the UK, and France combined. Immigration to the United States comes more from Mexico than from any other country, and more from Latin America than from any other region.
With the anticipated Free Trade Area of the Americas, the United States is placing a smart wager on the future of cooperation with Latin America. While Europe is also looking southward in its own way with promises to support development in Africa, the United States is entering into a mutually-beneficial relationship that assumes the importance, first and foremost, of economic growth and prosperity for all of the cooperative trading partners.
Knowing this, then, the United States would be well-advised to take a cue from the Roman lesson and adhere firmly to some syncretistic principles:
- Religious toleration. Latin America and immigrants from that region are almost universally Catholic. As the Latin American population grows in the United States, which is itself majority-Protestant, religious toleration for all faiths will remain as important a force as ever.
- Adoption of Latin American cultural characteristics. The Latin American cultural influence is often viewed with anxiety by those who think of "Americans" as those of European descent. While it's a fixture of human nature to fear "others", Americans of European descent would be well-advised to realize that the Latino population is growing much faster than other groups. The United States is bound to become more Latinized; those who fear that cultural influence should take a cue from the Romans and co-opt that culture into the one they view as their own. Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants were similarly feared when they first arrived en masse, but Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan and Rudolph Giuliani hardly qualify as cultural subversives.
- Wholesale adoption of Spanish as a second language.