What will Obama's legacy be in Latin America?

His strategy would prove meaningless for as long as the region remains secondary in his administration's foreign policy

On November 18 and 19, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Panama, as part of the Obama Administration's engagement throughout the Western Hemisphere. While in Panama, Biden will tour the expansions of the Panama Canal and meet with Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli.

The trip, which was initially scheduled for September of this year, was postponed in the midst of the chemical weapons crisis in Syria--not to mention the budget and debt ceiling crises here in the United States.

To be sure, the Obama Administration should be praised both for its rhetorical commitment to and for its engagement efforts throughout the region. But it is equally important to recognize that these efforts leave something to be desired.

The administration has articulated four priorities in its foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean: "promoting economic and social opportunity; ensuring citizen security; strengthening effective institutions of democratic governance; and securing a clean energy future." These priorities are certainly in line with the region's--and the United States'--current needs.

What remains unanswered, however, is what the Obama administration's legacy will be in the Americas.

That is not to say that the region has been ignored--far from it. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has visited the region a total of 10 times--more than tripling the same figure under his predecessor over the course of his eight-year presidency.

And, even given Obama's individual efforts and those of Secretary of State John Kerry (and former Secretary Hillary Clinton), Joe Biden seems to have taken on the role of de facto envoy to the region, with numerous visits of his own.

So the outward commitment to the region isn't in question.

Still problematic, however, is the administration's lack of measurable foreign policy achievements in the region.

Generally, the White House has focused on establishing a number of initiatives aimed at improving regional relations and combatting global climate change--such as the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Project and the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, respectively.

But even such projects, however well-intentioned, are beginning to lose their allure.

100,000 Strong remains an initiative in name only, with no funding to advance its goals. The several business-related efforts President Obama introduced at last year's Summit of the Americas have yet to create any measurable change in the region's business environment. Though his new security initiatives in Colombia and the Caribbean Basin certainly are on the right track, they remain modest.

None of this is intended to imply that the Obama Administration has had no effect whatsoever. Its response to the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti was swift and impressive. The several billion dollars the White House committed to disaster relief proved a game-changer for the Caribbean nation, whose widespread poverty and institutional fragility rendered the country largely incapable of mitigating the crisis without such robust U.S. assistance.

Even given such successes, however, the White House must keep in mind that is has large proverbial shoes to fill.

President George H. W. Bush offered what was at the time an innovative vision for free trade in the hemisphere. President Bill Clinton championed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States' most recent iteration of immigration reform, and the highly effective Plan Colombia security partnership. President George W. Bush implemented Plan Colombia, doubled the budget for the region, implemented numerous free trade agreements, and signed the Merida Initiative to further Mexican security.

Measuring up to these achievements will be no easy task--but President Obama has three more years to do it.

It has historically been difficult for presidents and legislators to dedicate significant attention to the region--and that has certainly not changed. With global crises unfolding at what seems to be an ever-increasing rate, it seems that there is always a higher priority than our closest neighbors.

Edward Snowden's NSA allegations sealed the fate of the planned state visit of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Had a glimmer of hope remained for immigration reform despite the House's intransigence, the chemical weapons crisis in Syria and the budget crisis in our own legislature ensured the issue would lose its place on this year's legislative agenda. Even Biden's trip, though since rescheduled, was literally pushed off the schedule in the midst of pressing developments elsewhere.

But amidst all of these developments, we're in the middle of a truly exceptional time within the hemisphere. With North America on its way to energy security, groups of Latin American countries gaining a commercial presence in global markets through initiatives like the Pacific Alliance, and Brazil's ascendance as an increasingly appealing commercial political actor on the global stage, Latin America holds a host of exciting opportunities moving forward.

But we can only take advantage of those opportunities with a clear and forward-thinking view of the region.

And such a view will help us mitigate the region's challenges as well-not least among them the imminent collapse of the Maduro government in Venezuela and ongoing security threats posed by transnational criminal organizations. In short, Latin America cannot be pushed aside.

In his campaign, Obama anticipated that his administration would require a "clear and comprehensive strategy" to "engage people in the region"--and in saying so, he hit the nail very nearly on the head.

What he missed was that such a strategy, however clear and comprehensive, would prove meaningless for as long as the region remains secondary in his administration's foreign policy-or, in other words, for as long as that rhetoric remained unaccompanied by a concrete regional foreign policy. And the administration has little in the way of tangible policy achievements to show for all of its efforts to engage with the hemisphere.

Only once the White House implements a substantive foreign policy will President Obama determine his distinct legacy in Americas.

*Caral Meacham is the Director of the International Program at CSIS in Washington.

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