Seizing the moment in Latin America

As any reader of my blog has probably realized by now, U.S.-Latin American relations are an area of interest for me.  The following piece is something I wrote a few months ago, before I started this blog.  Normally I try to avoid reusing old material wholesale, but recent events (as outlined in this FP article) have made me realize the continued relevance of what I wrote and made me want to share it with a broader audience (especially to encourage criticism). I hope you enjoy it!


The death of Hugo Chavez, in conjunction with Raul Castro’s announcement that he will retire in 2018, offers the United States the rare opportunity for a fresh approach to Latin America.  The death of one of the United States’ sharpest critics, and the planned obsolescence of another, gives Washington the ability to move past old ideological struggles and start a new conversation on U.S.-Latin American relations rooted in future prospects rather than past grievances.  In the short term, this offers the United States the opportunity to reaffirm U.S. influence in the region as a positive force while attempting a “reset” in relations with several critical states.  Long term, the ability to incorporate Latin America into a revitalized West, so as to bolster our ability to compete with China in the 21st century, could become a distinct possibility.

With his election to the presidency in 1998, Hugo Chavez catalyzed a new brand and era of anti-Americanism that quickly spread to nearby countries.  Using Venezuela’s vast oil resources to bankroll his foreign policy, Chavez succeeded in linking together a disparate network of states that are critical, if not outright hostile, to U.S. interests.  Moreover, through initiatives such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Petrocaribe, Union of South American Nations, and The Bank of the South, Chavez provided alternatives to the prevailing, Western-dominated system of international governance and financing, even attracting countries traditionally on good terms with Washington.  Chavez’s desire to be a counter to U.S. power, coupled with the rise of Brazil, the perseverance of the Castro regime in Cuba, and Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, left American influence in Latin America at its lowest level since the Monroe Doctrine was issued.

While it is unclear if Venezuela itself will move past Chavismo (the election of Chavez’s appointed heir, Nicolas Maduro, is likely), many academics and politicians, both inside and outside the region, have questioned whether Venezuela can afford to continue Chavez’s policies.  Venezuela’s economy is facing serious hardship, with high inflation, growing debt, frequent shortages of staple goods and electrical blackouts, and rising levels of violent crime.  Consequently, whoever succeeds Chavez will likely have to focus on domestic issues at first.  This is made even more likely by the fact that neither Maduro nor Henrique Capriles, his challenger, will command the outright loyalty Chavez cultivated amongst his followers, and either victor will need to restructure a government built to respond to the wishes of Chavez alone.  Therefore, we can expect a period of internal adjustment following the April 14th election; there is a significant chance that Venezuela will play a reduced role in regional and global politics as it focuses on its domestic issues.  This leaves a potential opening for the United States to initiate a new Latin American policy that will protect its interests for decades to come.

With such an overwhelming geographic and economic advantage relative to potential rivals both inside and outside the region, the United States has long taken Latin America for granted.  Previous challengers for global primacy, such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, all lacked the proximity and resources necessary to launch a robust challenge to U.S. influence in Latin America.  Today’s aspiring challenger, China, also currently lacks the ability.  However, given the size of China’s population and the future potential size of its GDP, Beijing may one day be able to overcome its distance from the Western Hemisphere and issue a robust challenge to Washington for influence in the region.  As the scholar John J. Mearsheimer noted in his influential book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,

What makes a future Chinese threat so worrisome is that it might be far more powerful and dangerous than any of the potential hegemons that the United States confronted in the twentieth century.  Neither Wilhelmine Germany, nor imperial Japan, nor Nazi Germany, nor the Soviet Union had nearly as much latent power as the United States had during their confrontations.  But if China were to become a giant Hong Kong, it would probably have somewhere on the order of four times as much latent power as the United States does, allowing China to…likely be a more formidable superpower than the United States in the ensuing global competition between them.[1]

The potential for a significant Chinese challenge in Latin America is troubling.  Hemispheric hegemony has been a powerful asset for American foreign policy.  John Quincy Adams – one of America’s first grand strategists – famously explained his vision for the future of American power when he stated, “the United States and North America are identical.”[2]  To Adams, America’s expansion from 13 states along the eastern coast to a continental nation was a preordained conclusion; nothing would deter history’s natural course.  “From the time when we became an independent people,” declared Adams, “it was as much a law of nature that this should become our pretension as that the Mississippi should flow to the sea.”[3] Territorial expansion, Adams concluded, would further America’s commercial and military power, allowing it to achieve the greatness for which it was destined.  Among his many achievements directed toward this goal, it was Adam’s drafting of the Monroe Doctrine that solidified hegemony in the Hemisphere as a core principle of American foreign policy.  This in turn, has allowed the United States to go from a great power, as Adams envisioned, to a global superpower; by keeping rival powers out of its backyard, the United States has had greater freedom to act abroad without fear for the immediate security of its homeland.  This is a source of strength China would seek to undermine.  Much as Washington is currently attempting to prevent Chinese hegemony in Asia, a China that is hegemonic in Asia would attempt to destabilize American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

Of course it is unclear whether China will ever attain the power necessary to vie for influence in Latin America.  Such a position would first require Chinese hegemony in Asia, which is far from a certain outcome at the moment, given the balancing coalition the United States has initiated with its “pivot” to Asia.  However, given Washington’s inability to contain China like it did the Soviet Union during the Cold War[4] and the chance that a sluggish U.S. economy and persistent budget deficits weaken U.S. power projection capabilities in the Pacific, Washington might one day face a China that is stronger than any coalition the United States can assemble in Asia.  In other words, the United States might one day face a China that has obtained hegemony in Asia.  This means viewing the U.S.-China struggle as a global, rather than regional, competition.  And, given its strategic significance, Latin America will feature prominently in such a contest.

The future of U.S.-Latin American relations is important not only because hegemony in the Western Hemisphere is a cornerstone of American strength, but also because Latin America can help revitalize the West. The broad geopolitical and ideological alliance known as the West has been key to American power since the end of World War II.        Bound together by shared ideology, past triumphs in war, and high standards of living, the West dominates global affairs in almost every realm, working together to create global rules and norms that perpetuate its power.  As a result, while the United States often acts alone and is thus analyzed based on its own abilities, it also has a large number of powerful allies who have an interest in seeing the U.S. remain the most powerful country in the world.  Consequently, just as a hegemonic China would seek to undermine U.S. influence in Latin America, Beijing would also seek to weaken the West by fracturing its unity and attacking the sources of its military, economic, and cultural power.

However, there is a strategy that can help Washington maintain its strength in the Western Hemisphere while simultaneously bolstering the West: bringing Latin America into the West.  Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski offers a somewhat similar strategy as his vision for a future U.S. foreign policy.  According to Brzezinski, “The United States’ central challenge over the next several decades is to revitalize itself, while promoting a larger West and buttressing a complex balance in the East that can accommodate China’s rising global status.”[5]  In Brzezinski’s mind the U.S. can only balance China in the East if its base of power, the West, is strong.  He argues,

To respond effectively in both the western and eastern parts of Eurasia, the world’s central and most critical continent, the United States must play a dual role. It must be the promoter and guarantor of greater and broader unity in the West, and it must be the balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the East. Both roles are essential, and each is needed to reinforce the other.[6]

For Brzezinski, expanding the West means “a step-by-step process of welcoming Turkey and a truly democratizing Russia” into the club, so as to make the West “the world’s most stable and democratic zone.”  Brzezinski believes expanding the geographical reach of the West “would enhance the appeal of the West’s core principles for other cultures, thus encouraging the gradual emergence of a universal democratic political culture.”  Failure to do so would result in a “progressively splintering and increasingly pessimistic West” that “would not be able to compete with China for global relevance.”[7]

While Brzezinski is correct to emphasize the expansion of the West, his list of countries to court – Turkey and Russia – is too short.  Geographically speaking the move makes sense.  Turkey and Russia both lie on the fringe of the historic heart of the West – Europe – and occupy key points that could expand and strengthen the West’s presence in the Middle East and Asia.  Yet, the West has always been about ideology rather than geography.  After all, Australia and New Zealand are considered parts of the West, and many extend the distinction to Japan and South Korea as well.[8]  This is why certain countries in Latin America should be included in Brzezinski’s concept of expansion.  Every country in Latin American has a substantial European inheritance, and many have fully embraced the principles of capitalism, personal freedom, and democracy.  Prominent examples include Chile, Mexico, and Brazil.  These countries are large and prospering, with growing voices in both the developing and developed world.  In many ways, they have more in common with the current group of Western countries than either Turkey or Russia, both of which have troubling issues concerning the freedom of their societies.  In terms of adherence to the principles of liberal democracy, certain countries in Latin America are far ahead of both Russia and Turkey, making them natural allies for the United States.

For Washington, bringing Latin America into the Western fold is a plausible policy with many attractive attributes.  Doing so would expand the economic and military power of the West, bind Latin America to the continued dominance of Western ideology and to the current international system, and prove the West is an inclusive group that is open to all countries willing to embrace democracy, individual liberty, and capitalism.  This last point in particular is important.  Barring a dramatic democratization in Beijing, managing China’s rise will require not only copious economic, military, and diplomatic resources but also moral ones.  Expanding the West to include Latin America can help with this burden.

This is why the recent death of Chavez is so important.  As the diplomatic force and financing behind many of the recent anti-American initiatives in Latin America, Chavez’s loss will be hard for any single statesman or country to replace.  Furthermore, when viewed within the broader context of Raul Castro’s planned retirement, the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, a significantly more pro-U.S. president in Brasilia, and the continued economic success of U.S.-aligned countries like Colombia, Chile, and Mexico, the region is well primed for a new relationship with the United States.  In particular, with Chavez gone, and no guarantee of continued diplomatic and financial support from Venezuela, it may be possible to engage in bilateral “resets” with many of Chavez’s surviving disciples, such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.  To complement these bilateral rapprochements, a broader Latin American policy aimed at bringing the entire region into closer and more amicable relations with the United States could be designed and implemented (for instance re-launching the abandoned Free Trade Area of the America).  Together, these actions would help reaffirm U.S. influence in the region as a positive force while laying the groundwork for a larger shift in U.S.-Latin American relations, including bringing the region into the West.

Toward this end, specific attention should be paid to the U.S.-Brazil and U.S.-Mexico relationships.  As the two largest and most powerful Latin American countries, their participation in any future U.S.-Latin American relationship is a necessity.  As such, Washington will face the delicate balancing act of acknowledging the growing desire of Brazil and Mexico to chart their own courses while working to show them that close cooperation is better than nonalignment or indifference.

In sum, Latin America is of significant strategic value to the United States, and recent events have handed Washington the opportunity for a fresh approach to the region.  Bringing Latin America into the West, while not the easiest or most immediate strategy, would go a long way toward maintaining the United States’ sources of strength in the Western Hemisphere and the West.  That is not to say integrating Latin American into the West is all that needs to be done to ensure U.S. primacy in the 21st century.  Yet a Latin America at home in the West would be a remarkable and powerful accomplishment.  In 2011, a senior Brazilian diplomat told Financial Times that, “China is a very good counterweight to the US.  It doesn’t take the moral high ground.”[9]  If, decades from now, such a statement were unthinkable, it would signify a noteworthy victory for the United States in its bid to remain the most powerful country on earth.

[1] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 401.

[2] William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 169.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The global trade in goods, services, and capital is much freer now than it was during the Cold War, and China represents a significant cog in the newly globalized economy.  It would be extremely costly, and hence unlikely, for the world to divide itself into blocs of allies that trade primarily with one another like was done following World War II.  Every major U.S. ally today engages in robust trade with China.  We can’t ask them to stop.

[5] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Balancing the East, Upgrading the West,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 1 (2012). (accessed October 1, 2012).

[6] Brzezinski, “Balancing the East, Upgrading the West.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brzezinski himself includes Japan and South Korea in his definition.

[9] John Paul Rathbone, “China is now region’s biggest partner,” Financial Times, April 26, 2011.

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