Latin America is changing. Do we have the tools and intellectual framework to deal with it?
From Brazil to Mexico, Latin America has found new diplomatic muscle, asserting itself into international issues and all the while deepening ties with new trade partners from China to Russia. At the same time, despite increased rhetoric of regional solidarity and independence from the U.S., the region is at its most divided, ideologically and in its economic trajectories.
All this presents a challenge, not just to U.S. policymakers, but to policy analysts and scholars alike. For the first time, Latin America is becoming a complex international relations topic.
In the past, Latin Americanists (a term I apply loosely to people who work in or on the region) have tended to focus on domestic and development issues. Discussions of U.S. policy, by policymakers and analysts alike, have followed a different path for Latin America than for other regions.
In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries Latin America was largely seen as the backyard of the United States. During the Cold War, the region was the staging ground for proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in which broader ideological battles were projected onto (and inflamed) internal social, political struggles. With the third wave of democratization and the fall of the Berlin Wall came the heady days of collective action for democracy and the promise of economic integration.
That ended. And with the rise of the anti-globalization governments aspiring to build a multipolar world by cozying up to rogue regimes (read: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez), the rise of China and India with their voracious appetites for natural resources, and Brazil’s aspirations to find a political role commensurate with its size, economic potential and independent world view, we’re no longer dealing with your grandfather or even father’s region.
Latin America has entered the realm of foreign policy in which the U.S. is not the primary axis around which countries define their economic and political interests or defend themselves. That’s not to say that, as one unfortunately titled article in Foreign Affairs said, the U.S. is “losing Latin America.” Yes, U.S. influence has waned in the region, giving political and economic space for these diverse relations in the region. But despite all the talk of other countries eclipsing it in the region, it remains a powerful force in defining the agenda, both positive and negative, for the region.
What is significantly different is that the U.S. now has to grapple with multiple, competing issues, a far more diverse region (in terms of orientation and interests), greater potential for intra-regional friction, and more contrarian countries—even when they may agree on broad points of principle.