Weak, but still strong

Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence
Tom Long
2015, Cambridge University Press
260 pages, hardback

THE traditional understanding of relations between the United States and Latin America was coloured by the notion of hegemony, by which the former dominated the region so comprehensively that the countries there were unable to pursue truly independent foreign policies.

This position, based on a realist understanding of international relations and hence a vision of raw power in an anarchic world, was for several generations an accurate reflection of inter-American affairs, heightened as it was by the Monroe Doctrine and long Cold War. However, there is little doubt that this perspective has largely been redundant since the late 1990s as relative US power has declined, even if the 9/11 attacks saw something of a reassertion of US security priorities in the hemisphere that has been both militarised and often unilateral.

On the one had, leftwing governments came to power throughout much of Latin America and were less willing to accept US leadership or bullying and more enthusiastic than their Cold War predecessors about regional co-operation. On the other, the decade-long commodities boom that lasted from 2003 to 2013 offered these resource-rich countries significant room for manoeuvre to pursue autonomous economic and social agendas.

At the same time, the US turned its attention elsewhere and began to reduce its level of intereference in Latin American affairs while increasing its interventions in the Middle East. US foreign policy is also fickle, often responding to domestic and short-term political priorities as opposed to longer-term strategic interests, as well as being fragmented. Institutional rivalries and the differential power of competing lobbies add to a picture that is often far from clear.

While the presidency of Barack Obama began to experiment clumsily with a more multilateral approach to foreign policy, this is being reversed as we speak by Donald Trump and the US is seeking the comfort of a more natural unilateralism. However, as the concept of US hegemony has been called into question, so has the focus increasingly turned to the ability Latin American countries to carve out independent foreign policy positions in the shifting multipolar order.

Tom Long’s valuable study contributes to this endeavour, by exploring how Latin American countries have used a diverse toolbox of strategies to influence the outcomes of US foreign policy. This is a perspective that fits more naturally with the institutionalist position within international relations in which smaller, weaker states are able to inflate their power in a context of multilateral institutions. What makes it so interesting, however, is that the case studies employed by Long as evidence refer equally to the era in which the Cold War exaggerated US power as to what came next.

Long explores the power of Latin American states to influence and change US perspectives in four main cases: Operação Pan-americana, an initiative of the Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek in 1958 aiming to bring the US and Latin America closer by tying the fight against underdevelopment to the fight against communism; the 1977 treaty between presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos transferring control of the Panama Canal from the US to Panama; the momentous decision by Mexico after 1988 to put a troubled history of relations behind it and pursue a free trade pact with its North American neighbours (NAFTA); and the collaboration between presidents Bill Clinton and Andrés Pastrana that would result in Plan Colombia, a security arrangemement premised on political and social programmes that had as their objective resolving the country’s civil war, which met the then needs of both Colombian and US policymakers.

The author examines these cases in detail to conclude that they illustrate how Latin American leaders “can, through certain strategies and under certain conditions, influence US foreign policies despite their positions as weaker partners in asymmetrical relationships.” [p217]

His work supports an “internationalist” approach to the study of US-Latin American relations which argues that Latin American actors were not superpower puppets but able to influence the course of events in their own region as well as US behaviour. It also develops the argument that weaker states in asymmetrical relations can exercise a greater degree of influence in international affairs than a focus on the purely material capabilities of the individual actors might suggest.

It is a good time to explore such arguments, for Latin America once again finds itself having to confront the unilateralist instincts of the North under the unpredictable, obnoxious Trump. Circumstances may have changed radically since the 1990s and the region is much more united and powerful than it has ever been, but it will still need all the insights it can get if it is to shape a truly autonomous course in international affairs. – GO’T