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Biden Is Setting Himself Up for Embarrassment in Los Angeles

The upcoming Summit of the Americas could be the gravestone on U.S. influence in the region.

By , a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the first North American Leaders’ Summit since 2016 in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the first North American Leaders’ Summit since 2016 in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the first North American Leaders’ Summit since 2016 in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 18, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

With just one month to go before the Western Hemisphere’s elected heads of state travel to Los Angeles for the 9th Summit of the Americas, the United States is woefully underprepared. As of early May, the U.S. State Department still has not sent out invitations. And the event’s agenda remains to be defined beyond the general platitude-laden title of “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future.”

The threat is not simply that this year’s summit will be a flop—yet another example of feckless U.S. policy toward Latin America. Rather, the real risk is that—after nearly three decades of summitry—this year’s event may be interpreted as a gravestone on U.S. influence in the region.

When the Summit of the Americas process was first initiated by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994, it was greeted with optimism. Observers assumed that elected regional governments’ shared commitments to democracy and market economics would finally lead to convergence and consensus on regional issues. Although past summits have featured their fair share of pretentions, sideshows, and silliness, they were (for better or for worse) the premier hemispheric event in which the United States was still the primary actor.

With just one month to go before the Western Hemisphere’s elected heads of state travel to Los Angeles for the 9th Summit of the Americas, the United States is woefully underprepared. As of early May, the U.S. State Department still has not sent out invitations. And the event’s agenda remains to be defined beyond the general platitude-laden title of “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future.”

The threat is not simply that this year’s summit will be a flop—yet another example of feckless U.S. policy toward Latin America. Rather, the real risk is that—after nearly three decades of summitry—this year’s event may be interpreted as a gravestone on U.S. influence in the region.

When the Summit of the Americas process was first initiated by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994, it was greeted with optimism. Observers assumed that elected regional governments’ shared commitments to democracy and market economics would finally lead to convergence and consensus on regional issues. Although past summits have featured their fair share of pretentions, sideshows, and silliness, they were (for better or for worse) the premier hemispheric event in which the United States was still the primary actor.

The first summit kicked off a plan to establish a free trade area that would encompass the Americas, from Canada to Chile. Although that hemispheric vision failed to materialize, it led to a series of bilateral free trade agreements between the United States and various Latin American countries. The 2001 summit in Québec City reaffirmed the Western Hemisphere’s commitment to defending democracy to prevent future elected autocratic presidents from  crushing checks and balances, such as then-recently ousted Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, and it led to the signing and creation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Lima, Peru, later that year.

But 17 years later, then-U.S. President Donald Trump failed to attend the eighth summit in that same city—the first time a U.S. president had missed the event. To make up for the diplomatic snub, Washington offered to host this year’s meeting in Los Angeles. Now, though, it’s not only unclear what the summit can accomplish but also whether other governments should even bother to attend.


The United States is heading into the semi-regular, red carpet confab with an empty diplomatic bench. Twelve ambassadorial slots in Western Hemisphere countries are unfilled, leaving more than a third of U.S. embassies in the region without a presidential representative. In seven of those (Belize, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago), White House nominations are parked in the Senate while awaiting action, stymied by a handful of obstructionist senators. The reasons for the holdups are not clear.

This is also the case for U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Organization of American States (OAS), the region’s preeminent multilateral body. This vacancy is of particular importance because the OAS’s Summit of the Americas Secretariat is traditionally central to planning the event. Surely the White House would want a presidential appointee in the driver’s seat there. But even Biden’s nominee to the OAS has yet to see a coordinated executive push to help him past his legislative limbo.

Instead, until now, the Biden administration’s regional initiatives have consisted primarily of high-level diplomatic visits, empty promises, and a cascade of sanctions.

In June 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Central America to develop and eventually unveil a “root causes strategy” and aid package to address what the White House identified as the underlying drivers of Central American migration: lack of economic opportunity, insecurity stemming from crime and violence, and the ravages of climate change-driven weather events on food security and housing.

Despite the attention and pledged assistance, migration to the United States from the region has spiked in recent months. Over three weeks in April, U.S. border authorities encountered an average of 7,800 migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally per day compared to a daily average of only 1,600 crossings from 2014 to 2019. In April, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Biden administration officials traveled to Panama to attend a regional ministerial conference on migration as the administration continued to wrestle with how to unwind Trump-era punitive immigration policies, such as Title 42.

The White House has also failed to develop a clear response to concerns over rising Chinese—and, to a lesser degree, Russian—influence in Latin America. Although it has not invoked the resurrection of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine as the Trump administration did—endorsing abusive U.S. interventionist policies of past centuries—the Biden administration’s less offensive vision for the region has not delivered substantive alternatives to China’s economic overtures.

In late September 2021, senior Biden administration officials conducted a listening tour of Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador to collect a list of those countries’ infrastructure needs for potential funding. But the White House did not come back with any concrete promises. According to the mandate of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), the development agency that would provide the funding, only Ecuador would qualify for the support envisioned. Colombia and Panama’s levels of economic development were above the threshold for IDFC support. They were perhaps just convenient allies to include in a much-publicized tour.

In this vacuum of concrete regional initiatives, the Biden administration’s go-to response has been to increase sanctions on corrupt public and private sector individuals. Despite early promises to revise the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policies on Cuba and Venezuela, they remain in place. In fact, the Biden White House has only built on them, implementing more individual sanctions, mostly in Central America but also on officials in Cuba. Nowhere have these been successful in sparking regime change or even an improvement in human rights conditions.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has issued a flurry of sanctions—now totaling at least 300—on individuals engaged in corruption and human rights abuses in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most of those are levied under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which grants the president the authority to revoke visa rights and freeze targeted individuals’ U.S.-based assets. The Biden White House has made Global Magnitsky sanctions a key tool of its hemispheric policies, even imposing them on high-level officials in the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments. This does not help the White House secure the partners it needs for its root causes strategy to gain traction in those countries.

Partially because of this binary corrupt-versus-clean view of the region, neither Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei nor Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele was invited to Biden’s virtual democracy summit in December 2021. It is unclear if they will be on the guest list for the Summit of the Americas this year. Traditionally, all elected heads of state received the “golden ticket,” but leaders like Giammattei and Bukele have complicated the meaning of that criteria. Even if invited, there is the question of whether Giammattei and Bukele would attend the summit after being stood up six months earlier.

Refusing to invite both leaders to Biden’s democracy summit has created a dilemma for the White House. It makes it difficult to defend inviting them to the Summit of the Americas, but excluding them risks undermining the event’s status as a hemispheric meeting. It also creates a two-tiered club of nondemocrats in the hemisphere: the hard-line autocratic regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela versus the backsliding governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. The lack of hard definition for when a government falls into the latter category makes it somewhat arbitrary, especially when a number of countries are on that cusp.


It is probably too late to turn the Los Angeles summit into a meaningful event on par with its 1994 debut, but Washington still has time to avoid international embarrassment. The responsibility to change course lies not just with the White House and the State Department but also with the U.S. Senate.

First, the United States’ full diplomatic infrastructure in Latin America must be put into place. U.S. embassies and the OAS are staffed by highly capable, professional U.S. foreign service officers. But there is no replacing a presidentially appointed (and congressionally confirmed) ambassador in those positions—not just for symbolic reasons but also for their direct line to the White House. Potential and key allies in the region—such as Brazil, Chile, and the Dominican Republic, in particular—deserve such appointments. Foreign governments and citizens attach great symbolic meaning to an empty U.S. ambassadorial seat in their country.

The United States’ full diplomatic infrastructure in Latin America must be put into place.

In the same vein, a White House appointee in the OAS is essential to the body’s continued relevance to hemispheric solidarity and the liberal international order. The OAS’s centrality to upholding those values and thwarting threats to them has come under increasing pressure as the autocratic regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua openly flout the body and its principles by seeking to remove themselves from its purview. The vacant U.S. seat sends a depressingly sad signal about the White House’s commitment not just to Latin America but to multilateralism in general.

As tempting as it is to blame the Senate and a cabal of obstructionist senators for these vacancies, the truth is that the responsibility of making a public, consistent push to move ambassadorial nominations forward rests with the Biden White House. The summit provides a perfect substantive political moment to do so. Without such an effort, too many members of the Senate are more than happy to let the nominations die while nominees’ careers, lives, and families—not to mention U.S. policy—are held hostage to inertia and unaccountable obstinance.

Second, within the platitudes of the summit’s current public agenda, there are some important, potentially productive topics for discussion—but they need to be defined soon. Coordination on nearshoring supply chains and building green, sustainable economies (for example) are practical and important topics for the region’s economies and citizens and would do well to be featured on the summit’s agenda. Yet the U.S. State Department must make these topics more than catch phrases by developing concrete collective policy proposals for attracting investors and engaging with the businesses, governments, and multilateral banks key to green economies.

For the summit to make this leap into relevance, however, the Biden administration must first define a sufficiently detailed, enticing agenda to attract the heads of state to travel to Los Angeles—not to mention formally invite them. The White House must also work to secure an active, in-place team of ambassadors across Latin America. A poorly attended, platitude-driven, and substantively empty summit would be worse than a bad party. It would serve for many, including China, as an embarrassing coda of U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House. He is currently writing and editing the book Human Rights in a Changing World Order, to be published August 2022. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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