Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.
This week, we want to make sure Shannon O’Neil is on your radar.
Shannon is a Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Two Nations Indivisible, which analyzes the political, economic, and social transformations that Mexico has undergone over the last three decades and why these changes matter for the United States.
She has lived and worked in Mexico and Argentina, and travels extensively in Latin America. She was a Fulbright scholar, a Justice, Welfare, and Economics fellow at Harvard University, and has taught Latin American politics at Columbia University. Ella es muy inteligente.
FPI: In terms of foreign policy, how are we getting Latin America wrong? How are we getting it right?
What we’re getting wrong is a general assumption that it’s still a very poor place. That it’s still a place dominated by endemic poverty and inequality…that if you went down there you’d see people riding burros.
Most Latin American nations are now middle-income countries. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t still inequality and poverty. But go to big Latin American cities and you’ll see new model cars, stores, and buildings that aren’t just for the wealthiest. There’s a burgeoning middle class that brings more opportunities and challenges for both domestic and foreign policy. Now many of these nations are trying to figure out a way to move from emerging market status to mature economy status. That’s a difficult jump. But they have already made or are making that first jump. I think we’ve missed this shift – meaning our assumptions and perceptions are decades old.
Where we’re starting to get it right — whether by benign neglect since we’ve been overwhelmed with other nations or from real vision – is that these nations are much more engaged with the broader world. Since the end of the cold war they have gained an autonomy that was difficult to have when everything was seen through a prism of East vs. West, of Soviet vs. America. As a result today, the region is not just US-focused. And I do think U.S. policy makers see Latin America much more today through their own domestic politics rather than just through the prism of global forces or ideologies –we see beyond the 1970s and 1980s lens.
FPI: When it comes to Latin America, the first thing that comes to mind for many is immigration. Should it be the first thing? What’s your diagnosis on US immigration policy?
Well, that’s where we’ve been getting it wrong as well. The debates we are having in the US have to do with realities that are 10 years old.
It’s just not the reality today. There used to be record high numbers of Mexicans coming over the US border in the 90s and early 2000s, which had to do with our economy, their economy, and also the demographic bubble. There were many people turning 18 that were looking for jobs in a weak market there and a strong market here. When you fast-forward today, it has fundamentally changed. We have a more fragile economy, whereas theirs is doing better. But most important is that their demographic bubble has now past. Over the last few years, U.S.-Mexico migration has been net zero, meaning the same number coming in and coming out. And with the changing demographics, it will likely never return to earlier levels. So this worry that our southern border will be over-run by migrants is just no longer justified.
FPI: You’ve outlined 5 common myths about Mexico. What’s the biggest?
For Mexico the biggest misconception is that it is just a poor country (the same mistake made about the region generally). Alongside tens of millions of poor are now a similar number in the middle class. The other mistake made is that what happens there doesn’t really matter for the United States, or is somehow less influential than events in the Middle East and elsewhere. But Mexico is part of Americans day to day lives – from the parts in our cars to the food on our tables, the energy that lights our houses to the drugs sold on our streets. What happens there matters here.
FPI: Relatively speaking, Latin America doesn’t get much press. What are some key issues in the years ahead that the FP community and media should have their eyes on?
Latin America has the problem of being, generally, a good news story. It’s important, but not urgent. An old professor used to joke the best thing in terms of visibility for Latin America would be a jihadi movement moving in. It’s a nuclear free zone, so there aren’t issues of proliferation, and there aren’t major armed movements aside from FARC, though there are organized crime issues in Mexico and Colombia.
Also, while there’s been growth in the region, they haven’t grown in double-digit rates. Only Panama can boast China-like levels. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for U.S. companies and U.S. trade.
As more of the world’s problems require bilateral or multilateral solutions, these countries will matter more diplomatically, as they can play a constructive part in the global sphere, whether it’s in international financial architecture or global trade or climate change.
FPI: Any good films, documentaries, or books you would recommend for people interested in Latin America?
The funniest but also thoughtful film I have seen recently is “Nosotros Los Nobles” or We Are the Nobles, about a Mexican family in which the father rose from rags to riches, but his three children have become spoiled. To teach them the value of work he pretends to lost all his money, and so they are forced to work – leading to a good number of laughs but also interesting commentary on class and values in Mexico.
FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interruptors?
Being a woman in the industry can be hard. The stereotype is not always, but often, true: women will often know more about a topic but be less willing to provide their thoughts. And men who know the same amount will be more comfortable about speaking on a topic or pitching an op-ed. So it’s a challenge for women to say, “You know, if I know a decent amount about a subject, I have enough to say about it.” You don’t need to have studied something intensely for five years to have an opinion on it. Madeleine Albright says interrupting, but interjecting is another good word for it. You have to go out of your comfort zone.