Fluid Diplomacy: Harnessing Water Security for U.S.-Latin America Engagement (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Sol Halle, Fall 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

Binary, zero-sum thinking has curtailed the ability of the United States to sustainably and comprehensively engage with Latin America. When American policymakers devote attention to the region, remnants of Cold War-era rhetoric have pushed Washington to pursue foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere that frames Latin American countries through the undescriptive and harmful prism of East/West. More often than not, historically tainted labels that come attached to this binary fail to recognize Latin American countries’ agency. Consequently, the U.S. government lacks a consistent, cohesive, and effective Latin America strategy.

As the multipolar world order continues to crystallize and Latin American countries engage in active non-alignment, it is imperative that the United States reframe its relationship with the region. Despite the frustrations a non-aligned approach may give Washington, Latin American countries’ strategies demonstrate the sort of flexibility that the United States should be embracing. Increased Chinese and Russian engagement with the region has raised concerns for U.S. leaders and policymakers. However, as it seeks to counter both powers’ growing influence, Washington should actively avoid policies that would try to reproduce a bipolar world order. Bipolar, zero-sum framing, in which the United States and its allies (us) are pitted against China and/or Russia (them) and only one side can win, risks increasing the possibility of escalation and leads to weak partnerships with other nations that do not advance U.S. interests. Dividing the world on the basis of an “us vs. them” dichotomy is overly simplistic and ultimately counterproductive.

State maintenance in the 21st century will come to be defined by access to water. As such, this paper argues that collaboration on water security issues can help the U.S. government reframe its relationship with Latin America and aid in the mitigation of water scarcity. The latter is a complex and intricate “non-traditional security challenge.” Pursuing water security-related policies with Latin American partners will aid the United States in moving away from traditional, binary-thinking and increase diplomatic links to the region, while additionally providing new methods to tackle climate change.

Water scarcity’s interconnected relationship to other crises will require policymakers to craft fluid and dynamic foreign policy abroad. Due to the impacts of globalization, there is no such thing as a localized water crisis anymore.