CANADA'S recent decision to join the Organization of American States (OAS) may prove to be a boon for George Bush's Latin American policy, even though both the OAS and Canada have frequently been at odds with the United States over policy toward the region. Paradoxically, Canadian membership may provide a bulwark against the string of US foreign policy blunders that have occurred in Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador. As the ``new kid'' in the hemisphere, Canada's foreign policy is likely to emphasize the primacy of trade and investment (not political ideology), multilateral diplomacy (not unilateralism), and democracy and human rights (not domino theories and ``roll back'' doctrines of national security).
Canada's international trade patterns and US hegemony in Latin America were frequently cited by Canadians as reasons why they were not a permanent member of the OAS. Canadians argued that OAS membership would jeopardize Canada's trade benefits as part of the Commonwealth and subject it to another form of US domination.
How could Canada's national interests be served by becoming entangled in political struggles in a region historically dominated by the US? External Affairs Minister Joe Clark put this issue to rest when he told reporters in San Jose, Costa Rica, last November that Canada's independence won't be compromised by joining the OAS, citing Canada's refusal to join the US economic boycott of Nicaragua and sever Canada's diplomatic relations with Cuba.
The fact that Canada has never used trade embargoes and military force to further its foreign policy objectives in Latin America is a welcome counter-weight to the traditional levers of power exercised by the US. In this sense, Canadian foreign policy has more in common with the objectives of the Latin American and Caribbean members of the OAS. What drives Canada's relations with the rest of the world is economic and social well-being, not military power.
US-Latin American relations are built around the inherent asymmetries in power between the US and the small, relatively powerless nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. It was only after the Rio Treaty was signed in 1947, binding the Latin American states and the US to a self-defense pact, that the US was willing to go along with the nonintervention provisions in the OAS Charter.
As the 1989 invasion of Panama shows, however, these provisions did not prevent the US from violating its pledge, using the claim of ``self defense'' tucked into other parts of the charter. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has indicated that Canada will not sign the Rio Treaty on grounds that the non-intervention language in the OAS Charter is a guide for the behavior of hemispheric states.
Will Canadian membership in the OAS alter the historical pattern of economic and political dominance of the region by the US? Both the OAS and the US stand to gain from a country that has historically emphasized multilateral solutions to hemispheric problems such as debt, drugs, democratization, and disputes.
Canada, more than the US, recognizes the reality of economic interdependence when dealing with Latin America. Announcing his government's decision to join the OAS, Prime Minister Mulroney said ``interdependence is making us all partners in each other's burdens, participants in each other's prosperity, and architects of each others dreams.''
Latin America is Canada's third largest market. Its exports to the region exceeded $2.1 billion in 1988. Canada has been critical in efforts to relieve Latin American debt. Through bridge loans and rescheduling, Canada has been of major importance in reinvigorating the region's devastated economies. On the basis of the OAS budget formula, Canada will be obligated to pay $7 million into a treasury that is starved for funds due to arrearages (the US owes the OAS close to $50 million) and other difficulties.
Canada's readiness to contribute to the revitalization of the OAS augurs well for both Latin America and the US. Canada can help depolarize the OAS by providing a different outlook on hemispheric affairs. Canada and the Latin American countries, always fearful of American domination, have consistently tried to engage the US in multilateral organizations rather than a national t^ete-`a-t^ete. With Canada's chair at the OAS now occupied, the hemisphere is likely to witness more diplomatic initiatives.
The US and Latin America should embrace Canada's decision to join the OAS in an era in which inter-American dialogue has frequently been superseded by arrogance and the use of force. The Canadian maple leaf is a welcome addition to the OAS's Hall of the Americas in Washington.