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Britain’s New Outreach To Latin America – Analysis

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By Peter John Cannon

In his first major speech after becoming Foreign Secretary, William Hague promised that the UK would “to reinvigorate our diplomacy with Latin America and Southeast Asia”. (i) This was part of a move towards reaching out to ‘new’ and ‘emerging’ powers, shifting the focus of British foreign policy beyond the traditional alliances with Europe and the United States.  This was followed by a major speech on the relationship between the UK and Latin America at Canning House, the first occasion when a Foreign Secretary had given the Canning lecture. (ii)

While emphasising the historic links between Britain and Latin America, reminding his audience that “Britain came to be more closely associated with the (Latin American) independence movements than any other world power” and that “Britain’s involvement with Latin American independence is not simply a mine of stirring anecdotes, but a rich part of our history,” he went on to argue that “that Britain has a track record of underestimating Latin America and neglecting its opportunities.” Hague quoted a former British ambassador to Brazil, who wrote fifty years ago: “in all too many circles in the UK…there is small imaginative conception of the fact that… no part of the world is developing more quickly than Latin America… Unless we are prepared in these days of rising competition to allow ourselves to be frozen out of this market by our more enterprising rivals, we must encourage in ourselves a more competitive outlook and adopt more positive policies”.

United Kingdom
United Kingdom

But this would change: “It is this neglect that the current British government is determined to address.” Hague argued that “now is the time for Britain at last to think afresh about Latin America and the opportunities it presents for political cooperation and trade and investment that will benefit all our citizens.” He promised: “Britain’s retreat from the region is over, and it is now time for an advance to begin. We will seek intensified and equal partnerships with countries in Latin America and we will give much increased Ministerial attention to them.” Recalling the famous comment by 19th century foreign secretary and prime minister George Canning, “I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old”, Hague promised that “as his heirs a new British government will once again refresh and intensify our relationships with a transformed New World, this time to broaden the horizons and the prosperity of the Old.”

Nick Clegg’s visits to Mexico and Brazil

A major focus of Hague’s speech was trade, with Hague lamenting the fact that Britain, which was once the leading investor in and trading partner of Latin America, now lags behind not only the United States but also many of its main European competitors. Trade has become a major, arguably the major, theme of the Coalition Government’s foreign policy, with the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister arguing that British ministers and diplomats should “unashamedly” seek to “support UK business in an interventionist and active manner.” (iii)

Trade therefore became the main theme of the new Government’s visits to Latin America. Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne visited Mexico, one of the leading emerging economies and diplomatic powers in the region, in November 2010, to “highlight the potential for business opportunity” and “support increased trade and investment”. He also visited Panama and Guatemala. (iv)  This was followed by a more high-profile visit by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg this March. Nick Clegg and Mexican president Felipe Calderon agreed to double bilateral trade between the UK and Mexico by 2015, to reach a target of £4.2 billion. (v) Clegg’s visit was part of what British officials described as a “year-long charm offensive”. (vi) In this, he was successful, becoming the first British politician to address the Mexican senate, which he did in Spanish. (vii) He went on to make a foreign policy speech at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City, hailing a new “axis of openness” and renewed ‘multilateral liberal interventionism’ in international affairs.

Nick Clegg’s visit to Brazil, the leading power in Latin America, in June was also focussed on trade. In his keynote speech in Brasilia, he announced a deal for more than £2.5 billion dollars in bilateral business between British and Brazilian companies, including a between British Telecom and Gerdau, the Brazilian post office. (ix)   In a speech in Sao Paulo, Clegg called for “a new partnership for prosperity between Brazil and the UK”, “built on trade, on sharing knowledge and expertise”. (x) At a European Union level, EU free trade agreements have been signed with Colombia and Peru, in addition to the existing agreements with Mexico and Chile. (xi)

The other side of foreign policy

While increased trade with Latin America is welcome, not least considering Britain’s past strong commercial links with the region, it is not enough. The Government recognises that business and trade cannot be the only focus of British foreign policy towards Latin America.  It is also questionable whether it should even be the main focus. Some Whitehall officials see building up British relations with Latin America as more important given the instability in the Middle East, another area of diplomatic priority. One UK Trade & Investment official said at the time of the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Mexico: “One or two of our traditional markets are proving a tad more difficult so if we could get more from Latin America, that would help.” (xii)

Yet what the ‘Arab Spring’ has surely demonstrated is that a foreign policy built primarily on trade and commercial links is inadequate. The idea of British foreign policy being primarily about promoting British exports and negotiating bilateral trade deals already looks outdated, as it has little to offer as an answer to the pro-democracy uprisings and conflicts which have broken out across the Middle East. The ‘mercantilist’ approach assumed a world which would largely be stable and safe. Instead, British foreign policy had to be rapidly re-thought. Trade and commerce are important, but values have to come first. This is not merely the case in areas such as the Middle East, but also applies in Latin America. With the power of the West being increasingly challenged by nations such as China and Russia, Latin America should be seen as a source of democratic allies who can help to uphold democratic values in the international system.

Giving priority to promoting British commercial interests is unlikely to impress Latin American governments or win over many hearts and minds. As well as appearing purely self-interested, it also risks giving the impression that the UK sees Latin America as a market rather than recognising its broader strategic importance, which again is unlikely to win over leaders who are conscious of their own growing importance in world affairs. (xiii) Latin American leaders are being wooed by the governments of China, Russia and even Iran, who are all increasing their presence in the region. (xiv) This makes it even more important that the UK and other Western democracies maintain their presence and their diplomatic efforts.

Looking beyond trade

There are signs that the Government recognises the importance of values in its policy towards Latin American nations. In his speech to the Mexican senate, In his speech to the Mexican Senate, Nick Clegg hailed Mexico as “a country that understands the importance of openness and pluralism”, and argued that Mexico and the UK were: “Both plural, democratic, internationalist in spirit. Committed to human rights and freedom of expression. Fellow proponents of the new politics.” (xv)  Similarly, in Brazil, he argued that the UK and Brazil “stand on the same side” of the divide between ‘closed societies’ and ‘open societies’ which were “internationalist in spirit, committed to fairness, freedom and democracy.” (xvi)

The British Government needs to ensure that its actions are consistent with these principles. When he was in opposition, William Hague drew criticism for visiting Cuba and meeting members of the Cuban government without meeting any figures from the Cuban opposition. (xvii) It would be damaging if any such action was repeated now that William Hague is Foreign Secretary, which could undermine the EU common position on maintaining diplomatic pressure on the Cuban regime. (xviii)

There are areas other than trade and commerce where the UK has much to offer in its relations with friendly Latin American nations.  One area is security and defence co-operation.  It was notable that the aspect of Nick Clegg’s visit to Mexico which dominated Mexican media coverage was not the trade deals, but his statement of support for the Mexican government’s campaign against the drug cartels. After Clegg told Mexico’s president of his “admiration for the bravery that you and your government have shown in fighting against organised crime and drug trafficking.” This led to the headline “United Kingdom endorses the fight against crime” in the newspaper El Universal and “British government offers to support the anti-narco fight.” (xix)

The British Government has offered assistance to the Mexican government in the drugs war, including expert visits from the National Police Improvement Agency and the Metropolitan Police and specialist assistance from the Serious Organised Crime Agency.  The UK has also worked through the EU-Mexico Strategic Partnership to build up the capacity of the Mexican federal police in intelligence, surveillance and forensics. (xx) In January, the UK also signed a memorandum of understanding with Bolivia on cooperation against drug trafficking and drug crime.  This included work to tackle money and assets laundering, increased sharing of expertise and the donation by the UK of a testing laboratory. (xxi)

Defence is another potential area of cooperation. In September, the UK signed a defence co-operation treaty with Brazil. Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, signed the treaty with the Commander of the Brazilian Navy, Admiral Moura Neto.  This followed joint UK-Brazilian amphibious exercises. Fittingly, they met aboard HMS Ocean on the 150th anniversary of the death of Lord Cochrane, the 19th century British admiral who went on to command the Brazilian navy in its war of independence against Portugal. (xxii)

The limits of British influence

Positive though these developments are, the limits of Brazil’s friendship with the Britain was starkly illustrated when in January, just three months after the signing of the defence treaty, Brazil refused to allow the Royal Navy’s Falkland Island protection ship HMS Clyde to dock in Rio de Janeiro. This was the first time that Brazil has refused permission for a British ship to dock in such circumstances. HMS Clyde was forced to divert its course to Chile. (xxiii)  This was a clear example of the increasingly anti-Western foreign policy direction taken by Brazil, despite the country being seen as a democratic ally. (xxiv)

It was also a reminder of the UK’s diplomatic isolation on the issue of the Falklands, which has been exacerbated by an increasingly anti-Western and ‘anti-imperialist’ trend across Latin America, with a determination to demonstrate the region’s ‘independence’ and ‘solidarity’ against external powers. Now is therefore far from an easy time for Britain to seek to extend its influence and improve its relations with Latin America. Even Britain’s outspoken support for Brazil being given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (a key Brazilian aim), on top of the recent defence treaty, did nothing to deter the Brazilian government from such a hostile action. (xxv) Any temptation coming out of the Foreign Office to go down a path of appeasement on this issue, and seek negotiations and compromises – as was attempted in the 1960s and 1970s – in order to curry favour in Latin America must be resisted. There is little value in trying to extend the UK’s influence by sacrificing our principles and the rights of our own citizens.

While the diplomatic climate is tough, it is encouraging that the British Government recognises that Latin America increasingly matters internationally and is attempting to build up British influence.  For British foreign policy in Latin America to have any chance of success, it must go beyond trade and the promotion of British exports and include cooperation in defence, security and development. It must be based on British values of democracy, in recognition of the fact that Latin America should be a source of democratic allies willing to preserve democratic values in international affairs. Other powers such as China, Russia and Iran are busy trying to build up their influence in the region and to promote authoritarian and anti-Western trends, and they are ready to step into any area which we vacate. We should not simply use our relations with the ‘New World’ to ‘broaden the horizons and the prosperity of the Old’, as Hague put it, but also to safeguard democracy in the New.

Peter John Cannon is the Latin America Section Director of the Henry Jackson Society

(i) William Hague, ‘Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World’, speech at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1st July 2010, http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=22472881
(ii) William Hague, ‘Britain and Latin America: historic friends, future partners’, Speech at Canning House, 9th November 2010,
http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=149252682
(iii) William Hague, ‘Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World’, speech at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1st July 2010,
http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=22472881
(iv) ‘Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne visits Mexico’, Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release, 20th November 2010, http://ukiniran.fco.gov.uk/en/news/?view=PressR&id=173208682
(v) ‘Mexico, Britain Aim to Double Bilateral Trade by 2015’, Latin American Herald Tribune, 29th March 2011, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?CategoryId=14091&ArticleId=390470
(vi) ‘Nick Clegg to lead UK charm offensive in Latin America’, Allegra Stratton, The Guardian, 28th March 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/mar/28/nick-clegg-latin-america-business
(vii) Nick Clegg, ‘New politics at home, new partnerships abroad’, speech to the Mexican Senate, 29th March 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/new-politics-home-new-partnerships-abroad
(viii) Nick Clegg, ‘An Axis of Openness: Renewing Multilateralism for the 21st Century’, speech at Chapultepec Castle, 29th March 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/deputy-pms-speech-mexico-foreign-policy
(ix) ‘New era for UK-Brazil relations’, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister press release, 22nd June 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/new-era-uk-brazil-relations
(x) Nick Clegg, ‘Innovative Business in the Green Economy’, speech in Sao Paulo, 21st June 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/innovative-business-green-economy
(xi) ‘Colombia and Peru closer to implementing the free trade agreement with the EU’, MercoPress, 27th March 2011, http://en.mercopress.com/2011/03/27/colombia-and-peru-closer-to-implementing-the-free-trade-agreement-with-the-eu
(xii) ‘Nick Clegg to lead UK charm offensive in Latin America’, Allegra Stratton, The Guardian, 28th March 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/mar/28/nick-clegg-latin-america-business
(xiii) Laurence Allen & Guy Edwards, ‘Rearranging the Deckchairs’, World Today, March 2011, http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/publications/twt/archive/view/-/id/2135/
(xiv) Peter John Cannon, ‘Iran’s outreach to Latin America’, Henry Jackson Society, 9th March 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=1407
(xv) Nick Clegg, ‘New politics at home, new partnerships abroad’, speech to the Mexican Senate, 29th March 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/new-politics-home-new-partnerships-abroad
(xvi) Nick Clegg, ‘Innovative Business in the Green Economy’, speech in Sao Paulo, 21st June 2011, http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/innovative-business-green-economy
(xvii) ‘Labour is right on Cuba’, Chris Bryant, 4th February 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/04/cuba-human-rights-labour
(xviii) Peter John Cannon, ‘No new era for Cuba’, Henry Jackson Society, 23rd July 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=1664
(xix) ‘Nick Clegg in Mexico: Bilingual, and bi-opinioned’, The Economist, 6th April 2011, http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2011/04/nick_clegg_mexico
(xx) Peter John Cannon, ‘Mexico’s War’, Henry Jackson Society, 21st September 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=1736
(xxi) ‘Memorandum of understanding on co-operation in the fight against illicit drug trafficking and related crimes’, Home Office, 20th January 2011, http://www.parliament.uk/deposits/depositedpapers/2011/DEP2011-0323.pdf
(xxii) ‘Defence Minister signs cooperation treaty with Brazil’, Ministry of Defence news article, 17th September 2010, http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/DefenceNews/DefencePolicyAndBusiness/DefenceMinisterSignsCooperationTreatyWithBrazil.htm
(xxiii) Robin Yapp, ‘Royal Navy’s Falklands ship turned away by Brazil’, Daily Telegraph, 10th January 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/8251130/Royal-Navys-Falklands-ship-turned-away-by-Brazil.html
(xxiv) Peter John Cannon, ‘Brazil’s turn against the West’, Henry Jackson Society, 2nd June 2010, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=1602
(xxv) Peter John Cannon, ‘No change yet in Brazil’s foreign policy’, Henry Jackson Society, 14th June 2011, http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?id=2253

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The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

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