Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What the World Gets Wrong About Latin America’s Foreign Policy

Assumptions about the region’s homogeneity and limitations on the international stage don’t hold up, writes one expert.
Chile's President Gabriel Boric, right, with European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen in Santiago on June 14.Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images
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The Global North has three major misconceptions about Latin America’s foreign policy. First, the region is assumed to be a homogeneous and turbulent group of small countries with no ability to influence the major issues of global politics. Second, there’s a sense that given a permanent climate of conflict and political-institutional instability in most of these countries, their leaders’ attention is focused almost exclusively on domestic politics, while their interest in international politics is basically limited to surviving among the tensions and interests of the great powers on which their economy depends. Finally, there’s a misunderstanding that Latin American countries have not been able to consolidate a regional integration scheme capable of surviving the ups and downs of politics and the change of political coalitions. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Latin America is far from homogeneous—rather, it’s a diverse area where regional, medium, and small powers coexist. And while the foreign-policy aspirations of Latin American countries don’t always correlate with reality, that hardly means there’s zero influence. Despite significant constraints, Latin American countries can exercise real influence on the international stage, as explained by Tom Long, professor of International Relations at the University of Warwick, in his book A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics.

Of course, Latin America is a region with critical challenges. Underdevelopment, transnational violence such as human and drug trafficking, and structural poverty reflect material limitations that, in many countries, seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Yet in spite of these challenges, some countries have proved themselves able to lead foreign policy initiatives capable of affecting the behavior of global actors.

Take Brazil’s participation in the BRICS bloc. In this group of countries, representing more than 3.5 billion people across different emerging-market economies, Brazil has been an important leader in attempting to reshape the current liberal global order through symbolic initiatives such as a proposal to unseat the U.S. dollar as the main trade currency. The bloc’s stated ambition to move past what it sees as a Western-dominated world order has prompted many to consider its goals merely aspirational—but if a planned expansion goes ahead, its economic and political power would be significant indeed.

However, there’s room for reflection for Brazil here. Why should its foreign policy be predominantly associated with a group that includes many effectively or increasingly autocratic states, with an extensive recent history of inexcusable human rights violations (including one member that is currently in the process of invading a democratic country)? Having successfully managed a recent, trying yet successful, transition of power, Brazil holds perhaps the strongest democratic credentials among the BRICS member states. As a result, it stands in the emptying center between autocracy and democracy worldwide.

What about the idea that Latin American countries can only survive by tying themselves to the interests of the great power economies that determine their development and growth? The reality here is more complex. In recent years, many countries in the region have been able to develop strategies of political autonomy that challenge the interests of the great powers. For example, Chile has recently taken a clear, unequivocal stance against the war in Ukraine, whereas the rest of the region has remained reluctant to do so, to varying degrees. Some may argue that in rejecting war in Ukraine, Chile is submitting to the interests of NATO, especially the United States. But NATO has no monopoly on right or wrong—and in other regards, Chile has contradicted the U.S., for example protesting the placement of Cuba on the United States’ list of countries that sponsor terrorism. In the context of a war of aggression, Chile is willing to condemn Russia, while in the case of a surprise move against a small state, Chile is willing to contradict the United States. Thus, Chile has demonstrated its political autonomy by positioning itself as a country that protects international law and human rights while reserving the right to disagree with essential partners.

Finally, there is the issue of a lack of a regional integration scheme. While it is true that Latin America has an extraordinary record of creating integration institutions that die, become inactive, contradict each other or are recycled under new names, it is necessary to look at this record in perspective. Multilateralism and integration are in constant change all over the world, and countries will not necessarily follow the patterns demanded by the economic, political and military great powers. Small and medium countries can coordinate despite these structural disparities. That might mean opting for more formal and rigid integration schemes, but there’s also value in more flexible or ad-hoc integration. This type of integration shouldn’t be seen as superficial, secondary or a betrayal of decades of Latin American integration. On the contrary, Latin American countries can and must coordinate their interests to address the great challenges of our generation with a significant degree of political autonomy and soft power. 

Examples of various kinds of successful ad-hoc integration in Latin America abound. The leaders of Colombia and Brazil have formed a strategic alliance to protect the Amazon. Mexico has developed programs to strengthen international cooperation to minimize the use of maritime containers for drug trafficking and other transnational organized crime activities. Chile and Peru have begun intense work to mitigate the effects of Venezuelan migration. The bi-oceanic corridor project to improve physical integration in South America has critical economic potential due to the connection of trade port terminals. And finally, the lithium triangle between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, which concentrates 58% of the world’s resources, will be a promoter of development and growth given the prospects of a battery-driven world.

Latin America is a region that was born, lives and will continue to develop in the midst of struggle. This seems to be part of the region’s identity. Far from lamenting this fact, many small and medium countries, especially those interested in leaving behind their smallness, have opted for cooperation, coordination and integration to strengthen their interests and agendas. Soft power and political autonomy are the great tools that this region has at its disposal. Therefore, the vision of its leaders and citizens will be vital in projecting the voice of Latin America to the world.

Sepúlveda is director of the Centro de Estudios Nueva Política Exterior in Chile

Tags: BRICs, foreign policy, Gabriel Boric, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, regional integration
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