Nikolas Gvosdev discusses possible changes in U.S.-Venezuela relations in the wake of Chavez’s death:

In an ideal world, Capriles would be much more likely to pursue close relations with Washington, reversing Chavez’s support for other leftist, anti-American leaders throughout the region — indeed, around the world — and terminating the lifeline Chavez extended to the Castro regime in Cuba by providing cheap energy and vital economic subsidies to Havana. But by embracing Capriles too closely, Washington could doom his chances of victory at the polls, allowing Maduro to rally the Chavez base with the specter of a U.S.-sponsored attack on the Bolivarian revolution.

The warning against smothering the Venezuelan opposition with American support is a good one. It’s also unclear whether Capriles can prevail in an election that follows so soon after Chavez’s death. The more that the election appears to be a referendum on Chavez, the more motivated and energized his supporters will be, and the more incentives his allies will have to use their political and media influence to dictate the outcome. Even if Capriles would like to pursue close relations with the U.S., it is doubtful that he would be able to declare his intentions until later, and that is assuming that he is able to win. Should Capriles lose again, hawks here at home will probably demand that the U.S. take punitive actions against Venezuela and insist on providing more overt displays of support for the opposition. As Gvosdev suggests, the best course of action for the U.S. is to refrain from interfering in the election, and then try to develop a more constructive relationship with whichever new president emerges as the winner.

One of the bigger flaws in U.S. foreign policy is the tendency that many Americans have to identify U.S. relationships with other countries with individual leaders, no matter whether it happens to be a leader that is deemed pro-American or anti. This inevitably warps the understanding of the two countries’ common interests, because the focus on the ideology or personality of the individual leader causes us to ignore or overlook where the two countries’ interests overlap and where they genuinely diverge. That causes many Americans to conflate U.S. interests with the continued political success of the “pro-American” leader, as Saakashvili’s fans did during the Georgian parliamentary election, or to conflate them with the success of the political opposition to an unfriendly regime, as many hawks did in response to the last Iranian presidential election. It’s important to recognize that changes in local political leadership usually don’t have dramatic or sudden changes in any country’s foreign policy for good or ill, so as a rule the U.S. shouldn’t be particularly invested in or committed to one election outcome rather than another.

The dangers of personalizing foreign policy can cut both ways. If one leader is vilified for his hostility to the U.S., a pro-American leader can be credited with beliefs and qualities that he doesn’t have, which in turn can blind us to the flaws of the new leader and warp the relationship with the other country in equally harmful ways. Many Americans prefer foreign leaders to be either a Chavez or a Saakashvili, and both types of leaders give Americans the opportunity to project their own preoccupations and ideological obsessions onto other nations. Perhaps these types are appealing to so many because leaders that define themselves or allow themselves to be defined by their view of America remind many Americans of the way they thought the world worked during the Cold War. Saakashvili and Chavez gave Cold War nostalgics an excuse to revert back to patterns of thinking and behavior that haven’t been relevant in twenty years. That has encouraged them to make the internal political disagreements of other nations into contests about America, when they often have nothing or almost nothing to do with us.