On September 4, I attended a talk at UNM by Michael Hammer, Ambassador-Designate to Chile and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, entitled “U.S. Foreign Policy and Why it Matters to You”. Hammer gave an overview of the main duties of the State Department and discussed its ‘strategic priorities’ in advancing U.S. interests abroad. He highlighted several U.S. programs, including economic partnerships such as free trade agreements, jobs diplomacy to advance the interests of American companies abroad, empowerment of women and girls, and digital diplomacy. He finished by telling the audience members why they might want to work for the State Department, citing the foreign language skills that its employees develop, the experience of living in new cultures, and the variety and change of moving to new posts every 2-3 years.
Throughout his talk, Hammer emphasized the State Department’s commitment to promoting U.S. interests abroad. All of the priorities that he mentioned were expressed in terms of protecting U.S. national security, creating jobs in the U.S., and forging ties with other nations in order to enhance shared interests.The rhetoric of self-interest was juxtaposed with the stated priorities of promoting ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in Latin America and around the world.
As a student of Latin American Studies who has grown up during the age of the so- called ‘War on Terror’, I am skeptical of this rhetoric. The war in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the School of the Americas are just a few examples of the discrepancy between U.S. foreign policy and its oft-stated goals of democracy and human rights. This week marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. In this case, U.S. self-interest was carried out in opposition to democracy and human rights. Similarly, in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti, Argentina, El Salvador and many other Latin American countries, democracy and human rights were inconsistent with the self- interest of the U.S. government.
A more recent example of this inconsistent rhetoric is clear in Hammer’s discussion of economic trade deals, which similarly highlighted the conflict between U.S. self-interest and human rights. Over the last two months, hundreds of thousands of Colombians have taken to the streets in protest of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Some of the demands of small farmers result from their inability to “compete with low-price food products imported under free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union,” among other demands (See article on Truth.org ). The Free Trade Agreement was approved even though Colombia is considered to be “the most dangerous place on earth to be a union member” (See article on ITU website). However, when Hammer discussed free trade in response to a question from an audience member, he emphasized that the “net benefit to the United States far exceeds any negatives.” In other words, U.S. self-interest (and arguably the interests of the Colombian government) takes precedence over the interests of large sectors of the Colombian people whose economic well-being and human rights are severely threatened.
U.S. national interest also takes the form of military intervention, or more euphemistically military “cooperation”, in Latin America. A prime example of this is in Honduras, where U.S. funding and training of the Honduran police and military is promoted in order to advance its commitment to fighting drug trafficking. However, these U.S. policies are highly controversial, given the horrible human rights record following the 2009 coup d’etat. As Hammer stated, “We have to deal sometimes with governments who do not have pristine human rights records, in fact, they have pretty bad human rights records and what we do as diplomats, what we do as an administration, is try to urge them along, both in terms of private conversations with them in terms of trying to encourage an improvement in human rights.” On the ground, this ‘urging along’ has been ineffective. On the night of May 26, 2012, Ebed Yanes, a 15-year-old boy was killed at a Tegucigalpa checkpoint on his way to visit his girlfriend. The soldiers that killed him were in a special forces unit that the U.S. had trained, funded and vetted to ensure that they were complying with human rights standards (See article in Huffpost). And this is not an isolated incident. Honduras’s recent decision to militarize the police has not changed U.S. funding and support. As History Professor Dana Frank (UC Santa Cruz) points out in a recent article, “The United States...is pouring funds into...Honduran security forces, countenancing a militarization of the Honduran police that has long been illegal here at home, while dismissing Congressional pushback about human rights issues in Honduras” (See article in Miami Herald). In Honduras and elsewhere, the “War on Drugs” continues under U.S. leadership despite widespread human rights violations.
The discrepancy between the stated goals of the State Department and its effects in Latin America are clear. Why does U.S. foreign policy matter to me? Instead of asking why U.S. foreign policy is in my self-interest, I pose what I believe to be a more pertinent question: Why does U.S. foreign policy matter to those who are most heavily impacted by it, such as Colombian small farmers, Honduran youth, victims of U.S.- sponsored violence and even U.S. military personnel who feel the impacts of war? This is where U.S. self-interest falls short.