Latin America as the next Europe: The power of democracy

Back in May I wrote about the potential for the United States to forge a strong relationship with Latin America on the basis of growing cultural ties.  Using the example of the Anglo-American rapprochement at the turn of the 20th century, I argued that the growing number of Americans with Latin American heritage could make our southern neighbors natural partners in the decades to come.  The future of the U.S.-Latin American relationship, and Latin America’s position within the West, is one of my major academic focuses, which is why today I am continuing my work in this area by starting a series of posts that will look at conditions inside the region and why they promote the idea that Latin America is ready for a new reputation and increased attention.  Each post will examine a single issue that I believe will be significant in deciding the direction of the U.S.-Latin America relationship in the decades to come.  Today’s post will focus on democracy.

When looking at the relationship between the United States and Europe, it is clear that a shared belief in democracy and individual liberty is one of the key ties that binds our various countries together.  It was the common glue that led a united West to stand up to the Soviet Union.  It is the beacon we have shone brightly for decades in the darkest corners of the world, giving hope to the repressed and suffering.  It is something we have fought for, time and time again, and we work to remind ourselves that there is no issue more important to our identity, our past, and our way of life than freedom.  Since the fall of Hitler’s armies, our relationship has been defined by the simple fact that, while we occasionally disagree on various policies, democracies must stick together or risk becoming fractured and weak in a world that could, more easily than we would like to admit, return to its authoritarian past.  This, among other reasons, is why the alliance between the United States and Europe is so strong.

In fact, if you think of the countries with which the U.S. is either formally allied or maintains exceptionally close and cooperative relations, they are almost all democracies; U.S. foreign policy is heavily guided by ideology.  This is why Latin America is a ripe target for Washington’s attention.  If you look at Freedom House’s map of the world, you can see that Latin America, like Europe, is a cluster of free and partially-free states.  And this cluster, according to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, ranks as the third most democratic region in the world, after Western Europe and North America.  While not perfect and universal, democracy in Latin America is at a level that should prompt the United States to seek a partnership with the region similar to the one it has with Europe.  If democracy is what binds the U.S. to Europe, it can be what binds the U.S. to Latin America.

Indeed, one of the major accomplishments of the West has been its ability to expand. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West opened its arms to the newly democratized states of Eastern Europe.  When South Korea and Taiwan democratized, they too were welcomed.  The unifying factor in the West has never been wealth, location, or race, but rather ideology.  A common belief in democracy and personal liberty is what defines the relationships between all our countries.  This is a club to which Latin America could easily belong, and it would be in our interest to make such an accession happen.  Not only would it cement a relationship between the United States and an increasingly important area of the world (more on that in later posts), but stronger and more formalized ties with Latin America would send a positive message to countries that are struggling with their own transitions to democracy, as well as to those that criticize democracy as the privilege of the wealthy, that the West is indeed open to any and all who seek to join as long as they are democratic and respect individual liberties.  Reaching out to Latin America as democratic equals would be like hanging an “open for business” sign on the front door of the West.  And like any business, we should want more customers for what we are selling. It’s my advice that we start by looking at a region very close to home.

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