An eternal rule in hospitality is that awkward discussions must be avoided at all costs – at least until it is time for dessert. You don’t want your guests to have a bad taste in their mouth before dinner is served.
The same rule could well be applied in politics, as leaders often focus first on “common ground” with their counterparts rather than taking on a confrontational stance face-to-face.
Last week, as US president Joe Biden welcomed his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro – a former leftwing guerrilla and frequent critic of US international engagement – at the White House, the two men did just that, touting their commonalities and glossing over differences.
The meeting came as a series of diplomatic visits shone light on Latin America as a strategic region, with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov touring Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba – and as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Mexico’s parliament, pleading for support.
In regional heavyweight Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has meanwhile been pushing for a coalition of non-aligned nations to resolve the Ukraine crisis, and courting Beijing as an economic partner.
So what was the most solid common ground President Biden, as host, could find for his guest? Climate change.
The most significant message out of Washington during Petro’s visit was not directed to Petro, but to the entire Latin American region, with the Biden administration pledging up to $500 million — pending congressional approval — to an international Amazon conservation fund set up by Brazil back in 2008 and which had failed to attract much interest, let alone donations, in recent years.
The Amazon rainforest spans across nine South American countries, so the impact of the fund has truly a regional dimension. And Biden’s commitment is a ten-fold increase from what the US pledged just two months ago, when it was Lula’s turn at the Oval Office.
The announcement signals that the Biden administration is listening carefully to the messages coming from Latin America, where fighting climate change has long been a priority for governments on both left and right. Leaders from the region tend to see the climate issue as their platform in international summits.
A ‘pendulum’ strategy
Timed to coincide with Petro’s visit, the funding pledge also hints that the Colombian leader has found his opening in the current competition between the world’s superpowers.
Like many countries in Latin America, Colombia has received considerable investments from Chinese companies in recent years, mostly in the transport and mining sectors. A Chinese consortium will build the subway system in Colombia’s capital Bogota – one of the most strategic infrastructure projects in the country over the next two decades.
In January, a note from the Russian Ambassador to Colombia praised Petro’s decision not to send any Russian-made weapons owned by Colombia to the Ukrainian armed forces, a similar position to that of other countries in the region such as Argentina, Brazil and Peru who have resisted entering the coalition of Western powers in support of Ukraine.
“Petro understood that he can develop a ‘pendulum’ strategy, switching from one side to the other at the same time,” says Vicente Torrijos, a professor of international studies at the Colombian War College.
“That Colombia is able, without losing the benefits of being a strategic ally of NATO, to interact with Moscow and Beijing, it’s a very pragmatic vision of international geopolitics,” Torrijos told CNN.
On Thursday, Petro also called on Biden to launch “a new Alliance for Progress” to promote economic development through cleaner energy in the Americas – invoking the 1960s program led by former US President John F. Kennedy.
Becoming a voice for climate action internationally would align with Petro’s personal ambitions.
“Petro has the aspiration of leading the new phase of Latin America’s geopolitics. Speaking of generations, [Mexican president Andres Manuel] Lopez Obrador is on the way out, Lula already had his own moment, and on the other side [Chile’s president Gabriel] Boric is very young, very immature… so Petro sees that there’s a leadership gap in the Americas progressive front, and aspires to fill it,” Torrijos told CNN.
And Biden can also tout a considerable concession from his meeting with Petro, who had always refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine – until now.
The joint statement signed by both leaders last week “condemned all forms of authoritarianism and aggression in the world, including Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity contrary to international law,” a considerable change in rhetoric from Petro’s normal discourse.
“Both leaders are showing some real pragmatism, and Petro knows he can be pragmatic when he wants to,” said Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political consultancy in Bogota.
“Petro has shown he wants to be an international leader and to represent Latin America in these big contexts, and the Biden administration was ready to recognize him as such. In that sense, condemning the war on Ukraine was not a price too high to pay,” Guzman told CNN.