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Putting the Honduras Debate in Perspective

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The intense debate in Washington and elsewhere in the Americas about Honduras, and especially about how the United States should respond to the forcible deportation of President Manuel Zelaya, illustrates how hard it is to overcome long-standing expectations about US behavior in the Americas.

As long ago as the mid-1970s, I argued that the "hegemonic presumption" of the United States was ending. The phrase referred to a bundle of attitudes and expectations in the Americas: that the United States was the only major power; that Latin American countries should follow the US lead; that the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank should be instruments of US policy; that extrahemispheric actors are unwelcome intruders in the Americas; that political movements which challenge US dominance -- or even US ideology -- are threatening; and that the United States can and should control its environment by eliminating challenging movements through covert or overt intervention.

This presumption seemed to be ending then because it could no longer be supported by the objective realities of power. In truth, however, hegemonic attitudes and policies lingered on, as was evident in Central America and the Caribbean during the 1980s, with reference to the "Washington Consensus" on liberalizing economies in the 1990s; and more recently with regard to the "war on terrorism," the "war on drugs" and the war in Iraq.

Administrations of both parties in Washington clung to the notion that Latin American countries should take a US-centric view of the world and of appropriate policies. Many US observers, including US government officials, were repeatedly surprised when one Latin American country or another resisted Washington's views; the Bush administration's dismay that Chile and Mexico would not support the US-UK position on Iraq at the United Nations was a classic illustration.

Time and again, when a Latin American country presses approaches that are directly antagonistic to US positions, questions are raised in Washington about whether the United States is "losing Latin America," why, and whose fault this is. Partisan strife on other issues, and the recurrent US tendency to use Latin America (and especially Central America) as an arena to score points in other games, heighten this tendency. The crossfire about Honduras exemplifies this unfortunate tendency.

In fact, some in the United States and some in Latin America and the Caribbean do still expect (and some hope) that the United States will intervene forcefully in Honduras and in other countries where Hugo Chávez exerts his influence in an anti-American direction. The expectation that the United States will act, unilaterally and decisively, regardless of inter-American institutions or prevailing Latin American opinions, arises from long history, reinforced by recent experience.

What Honduras shows is that the administration led by Barack Obama recognizes that it is not in the interest of the United States to perpetuate and reinforce this expectation. The new US authorities understand that the United States no longer has the means to exert quick control in such countries as Honduras, and that trying to do so could undermine more promising multilateral avenues for achieving US objectives.

Although the United States is still the only superpower in the hemisphere, and is more powerful than every other nation in the Americas, the influence of the US government in the region has declined compared to what it was at the end of World War II, the height of the Cold War or the immediate post-Cold War moment. Those were extraordinary periods when extrahemispheric powers were effectively excluded from the Hemisphere and when countries within the region, even the larger ones, were constrained from pursuing their own interests if they differed from those of the United States. Today, however, Latin American countries increasingly act as countries do elsewhere in the world, defining and pursuing their own interests.

The challenge for US policy in the Americas is to identify, nurture and pursue shared interests with the countries of the region and to reduce and manage conflicts of interest. It is in this context that multilateral institutions and diplomatic initiatives are so important. Relying on multilateral procedures rather than on unilateral dictate requires patience and perseverance, but it will be a more reliable way both to protect US interests and to promote inter-American progress.

Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, is president emeritus of the Pacific Council on International Policy and a non-resident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.