Is Latin America the new Europe?

The United States’ alliance with Europe is a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Europe is the first place Washington looks to for assistance whenever a difficult challenge needs to be confronted, whether it be combating global terrorism, defending human rights, or overthrowing violent dictators.  Likewise, because of their historical role in establishing the prevailing system of global governance and the combined size of their economies, America and Europe often set the global agenda and decide on standards and norms the rest of the world is then compelled to follow.  In short, the two collaborate together to promote one another’s interests and protect the foundations of their power.

But America and Europe haven’t always been this close.  For the majority of its history the relationship between the United States and Europe was one of mutual distrust and oftentimes outright hostility.  Americans today, knowing no other relationship with the Old World, view this as the natural state of affairs, but in fact it was something that took decades of rapprochement to accomplish.  Underlying this reconciliation were two key factors.  The first was the changing distribution of power around the turn of the 20th century.  The long dominant British Empire was facing new competition from rising powers such as the United States, Japan, Germany, and Russia, in addition to its traditional rivalry with France.  Confronted with this influx of new claimants to great power status, Britain was forced to prioritize which countries it would oppose and which it would embrace.  Even the mighty British Empire did not have the resources to fight all these challengers at once, a fact the Admiralty warned the Foreign Office of in a 1901 memo.  It read,

Great Britain unaided can hardly expect to be able to maintain in the West Indies, the Pacific, and in the North American stations, squadrons sufficiently powerful to dominate those of the United States and at the same time to hold command of the sea in home waters, the Mediterranean, and the Eastern seas, where it is essential that she should remain predominant.

Consequently, London initiated a rapprochement with the United States in the late 1890s and a few years later entered into a formal alliance with Japan in 1902.  The result was that Britain was able to focus its attention on the threats to its power in Europe, namely from Germany and Russia.

The second reason for the U.S.-Europe reconciliation, at least at first with the UK, was because of their shared race.  At this time, Theodore Roosevelt and many elites on both sides of the ocean were believers in the popular Teutonic myth that argued Aryan blood was the only civilizing force in human history.  This blood had been diluted in most cultures but remained intact and pure in the Anglo-Saxon lineage.  As the last carriers of this legacy, British and American citizens had a duty to civilize the rest of the world (e.g. White Man’s Burden).  This common race-tie reinforced the belief that Englishmen and Americans were simply estranged members of the same family; it followed then that the two countries should be cooperating rather than competing.  During the Venezuelan Boundary Crisis of 1895, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour spoke for his countrymen when he asserted, “The idea of war with the United States carries with it some of the unnatural horror of a civil war…The time will come, the time must come, when someone, some statesman of authority…will lay down the doctrine that between English-speaking peoples war is impossible.”  Not surprisingly, when the time came to pick sides in the emerging great-power competition, Britain chose to cozy up to the United States.  Or in the words of scholar Stephen Rock,

British leaders began to cast about for friends that might enable them to preserve their most important interests.  For reasons of geography, race, and ideology, the United States, despite its long tradition of Anglophobia, seemed better suited to this role than any other power.

From this initial détente grew a larger U.S.-Europe rapprochement.  Gradually, over the next half century, more and more European states saw the benefit of aligning themselves with the U.S. until, by the time of the Cold War, it was simply second nature.  While these allegiances were always initiated by strategic concerns (WWI, WWII, Cold War, etc) they were informed and maintained by the recognition that the U.S. and Europe are essentially two sides of the same cultural and ideological coin.  With so many people in the U.S. being of European origin or descent, it was only natural for the two sides to see each other as simply estranged kin.  This is one reason why the alliance between the U.S. and Europe has survived for so long following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Their shared culture and ancestry has kept the two sides close despite the absence of a significant strategic threat.

While the history of U.S.-Europe relations is fascinating on its own, the most interesting part for me is trying to apply its lessons to the future of U.S. foreign policy.  In particular, the U.S.-Europe narrative has convinced me the United States is well situated to carry out a comparable evolution of relations with Latin America; the similarities between today and the turn of the 20th century, while not perfect, are compelling.  To begin with, the strategic environment facing the U.S. today shares many similarities with the one Britain confronted more than 100 years ago.  Washington, like London did, faces the end of a unipolar moment and the rise of several great powers whose ascent it cannot stop.  Forced to choose which rising states it will seek to contain and those it will either embrace or ignore, Washington has so far decided to focus on countering China while promoting the rise of India.  U.S. policy toward other growing powers, such as Brazil, Russia, and Turkey, has been far less coherent.

Most significant though has been the changing demographics of the United States. According to the 2010 census, there are more than 50 million Hispanics living in the United States, comprising roughly 16% of the population and making Hispanics the largest minority in America.  What’s even more astounding is the growth this represents; in 2000 there were only 35 million Hispanics in the U.S., giving a growth rate of 43% between 2000 and 2010.  Furthermore, in 2011, more nonwhite babies were born than white babies.  Given these trends, Census data now predict the United States will have the largest number of Spanish-speaking people of any country in the world by 2050.  If shared race/culture made the U.S.-Europe alliance possible, the same could be true for a U.S.-Latin American alliance.  Every year, the American people look a little more Latin and a little les European.  This shift can be seen in the change in number and percent of foreign-born people in the United States that come from Latin America vs. Europe.

Change in Number
Change in Percent

A similar trend can be seen in the overall population of the country as indicated by the responses of those people who claimed an ancestry in the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

Change in Ancestry

Unfortunately this data is a bit dated as for whatever reason the 2010 census did not contain updated data in these areas.  That said, I feel safe in assuming the trend exhibited here has only accelerated.

Overall, the strategic and demographic conditions exist for a new U.S.-Latin America relationship to develop. Washington needs allies for what is likely to be a prolonged competition with China, and a rising Latin America with many prospering, democratic countries could be a valuable military, economic, and diplomatic partner now and in the future.  Of course not every country in Latin America would currently be receptive to such a relationship, either because they dislike the United States or because they fear taking sides in the U.S.-China struggle, but with enough patience and diplomatic skill, Washington could slowly turn the region into an active partner equal to or greater than Europe in strategic importance.  And to be honest, it may have no choice but to try given the potential size of the Chinese threat.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Census data from:


Quotes from:

  • Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), page 171.
  • Stephen R. Rock, Appeasement in International Politics (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000), page 35.

Other material:

  • Frank Bass, “Nonwhite U.S. Births Become the Majority for First Time,” Bloomberg, May 17, 2012.
  • Jesus Ruiz Mantilla, “Más ‘speak spanish’ que en España,” El Pais, October 6, 2008.