The new and not-so-new foreign policies in the Americas

When we started this website, the idea was to begin a broad discussion of Latin America's emerging foreign policy and its implications for inter-American relations, economic development and democracy and human rights. Here is the outline for a book chapter I'm working on on the topic of Latin America foreign policy—part of a larger book project by New York University and, later, my own book. Here I post the precis for comments. Any and all are welcome—in the spirit of the website and public debate. (Please forgive any typos.) The goal is to provoke discussion. Your comments will help.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

Abstract: Calculations of national interest and foreign policies are shifting in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those changes stem from the rise of the Global South, the perceived decline of U.S. power, and the proliferation of multiple connections and relations, including new regional multilateral groups. Those variables, however, are shaped by individual country legacies and a regional reflex toward national sovereignty and solidarity.

International relations and foreign policies are shifting in Latin America and the Caribbean, though still constrained by individual country legacies regarding external relations and a deep historical tradition of regional solidarity and defense of national sovereignty. The book chapter, by discussing those individual variables and the discussing a few specific examples, will examine how these new factors have shaped foreign policy in the Americas in the past 10 years and will affect it in the future.

The changes in regional calculations of national interests and the pursuit of foreign policy have been shaped by four—largely—related factors.

The growth of the Global South.  The economic and diplomatic rise of China, India, South Africa, Turkey, and Russia—to name a few—has had a number of affects. The first of this is—until recently—an economic updraft that has fueled Latin American-commodity based economies. The second has been a sense of global ideological diversification or multipolarity. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was overwhelming sense of unipolarity, of a world system dominated by the U.S. and western, post World War II created structures and norms—a sense particularly felt in the Western Hemisphere given the U.S.’s historic hegemonic role there. The economic and diplomatic rise of China—and to a certain extent the recent economic ascent of Brazil—injected a new sense of diversity and space in the world system that challenged the post-1989 unipolar weltanschauung. Third, with this global ideological diversification has come a a still-nascent structural rebalancing, with the nations of the south asserting a greater presence globally, whether in multilateral institutions and politics (as in UN votes or last ditch efforts to head off UN sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program), the growing network of south-south semi-formal alliances (BRICS, IBSA) or in planned investment and development banks and organizations (such as the proposed BRICS bank).

The perceived decline of U.S. hard power. While we may dispute the extent to which U.S. power has weakened in the region and whether it will persist, there is no argument that countries in the region are increasingly finding the space and voice to speak out and even resist U.S. policies. On the one extreme are countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador that have—in different cases—kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from the U.S. embassies, declared the U.S. development agency USAID persona non grata, reduced the presence of U.S. embassy officials or even declined to accept a U.S. ambassador, and—in the case of Ecuador—refused to renew a U.S. base there to combat narcotics trafficking. On the other are stalwart allies like Colombia challenging U.S. policy toward Cuba or publicly questioning the efficacy of U.S. anti-narcotics policy and refusing to continue the U.S.-support crop spraying program. In short, more than just the days in which the U.S. militarily or even covertly intervened at will to overthrow an unfriendly regime (Guatemala in 1954 or Cuba and the Bay of Pigs in 1961) having passed, even the basic tenets of U.S. policy priorities are being challenged, including by its allies. This is not to say that the region—despite common wisdom—remains solidly anti-American or that the carrots of integration and preferential access to U.S. markets and diplomatic exchanges have lost their currency. Rather, there is a greater need for give and take in the region than existed before. And that’s not a bad thing.

The proliferation of regional groups. Diplomatically and economically the region has become an alphabet soup of new regional groupings or plans for new associations in the past two decades. While some of these platforms include the U.S., others do not, and collectively they represent a trend to solve local problems locally. So, whether it is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC), or the pointedly (though increasingly hobbled) anti-American Bolivarian Alliance of our Americas (ALBA) there are now more forums for discussing intraregional disputes, railing against perceived and real U.S. transgressions, reaching out to extra-hemispheric partners beyond the traditional post World War II institutions formed by the Rio Pact, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the 30-year old pan-hemispheric Summit of the Americas.

Multiplicity and diversity of relations within the hemisphere and beyond. As Sikkink and Keck’s seminal work demonstrated, foreign relations today are driven a range of social, non-governmental, and commercial interactions and relations. No where is that more true than in the Americas; and that complex network of non-state relations has increased exponentially in the past 20 years whether through commercial/financial exchanges, identity-based politics, local interactions, immigration, political alliances…the list goes on. And those have often outstripped formal state relations, and often helped to move governments in directions that state bureaucracies would not normally steer themselves: commercial connections, student exchange agreements (Brazil-U.S.; anywhere in Latin America and China), greater adherence to human rights standards, lesser adherence to human rights standards (powerful Brazilian industries urging Venezuela’s accession to Mercosur), or foreign nationals residing in the U.S. voting in their home country elections, to name a few examples.

Despite these potentially liberating factors for countries’ foreign policies, two things have happened that have shaped their impact on policymaking. The first is that these new-world conditions have been filtered through the institutional culture and worldview of many countries and their policymakers. The second is that the rise of the South and the decline of U.S. leadership has meant that the region’s historic aversion to intervention—even around human rights norms—and its tendency to defend national sovereignty and to lean toward regional solidarity have been in the ascendant. These tendencies contrast with the regional commitments and actions to promote and defend human rights and democratic institutions that had evolved after the 1980s. This raises the question of whether those years were just an aberration and that the natural tendency within the region is toward non-intervention and solidarity and will stay that way or whether these two tendencies (defense of human rights and norms versus national sovereignty and regional solidarity) will always be in flux—a conflict inscribed in the founding documents of the Organization of American States (OAS) 70 years ago.

The chapter will use several countries and examples to highlight these trends. Very briefly and in a dangerously summary fashion is how they have played out in a handful of countries:

Chile: Chile’s successful democratic transition, after a particularly bloody and brutal dictatorship, its economic success and ability to reduce poverty after the Pinochet years, and the regional and even global popularity of a number of its post-transition presidents (Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet) would have seemed to place Chile in a leadership position in the region. Yet, a country that has always been reluctant to be a regional leader—and seen as somewhat of an outlier in the region—has focused more on commercial and economic aspects beyond its borders, negotiating free trade agreements with Vietnam, South Korea, Mexico, EU, Japan, among many others and founding (with Peru, Colombia and Mexico) the Pacific Alliance. But even when aggressively exercising its foreign policy apparatus for its economy, it has also avoided creating divisions with its less-free-trade neighbors, becoming an associate member of the increasingly dysfunctional Mercosur and its current foreign minister even arguing that the Pacific Alliance should slow down to let other members gain membership so as not to divide the region.

Brazil: Brazil has converted many of the factors mentioned above to assert its long awaited regional and global leadership. But even that has shown contradictions. For one, there has been a sharp contrast between the foreign policy ambitions of the two Partido dos Trabalhadores presidents. In President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s term, the outsized president and his team of partisan foreign service officers established an aggressive foreign policy. Those efforts including leading the group of developing countries in world trade organizations to demand the end of agricultural subsidies in the developed north (and when they didn’t concede, effectively ending the last round of World Trade Organization negotiations), de-railing the U.S. plans to establish a free trade area of the Americas (FTAA), creating U.S. and Canada-free UNASUR, an effort to marginalize the U.S. in South American diplomacy, and lobbying—eventually successfully—for the inclusion of Venezuela in Mercosur. Globally, Brazil under Lula also sought to expand its global role, negotiating trade agreements with African and Middle Eastern countries, publicly pushing for a permanent Brazilian seat at the UN Security Council, inserting itself in key multilateral discussions (including on Iran and Libya), becoming an active and enthusiastic participant in the BRIC and IBSA groupings, and stepping up its contribution to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the wake of the 2008 global recession.

But at the same time, other policies under Lula and those of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, underscored a deep seated tendency toward isolation as well. Despite the flurry of commercial agreements, Brazil remained wedded to Mercosur—even though its economic utility was clearly coming to an end—remained tied in the country’s traditional autarkic policy of economic development, and refused—despite its purported commitment to international norms and multilateralism—to step up to question or take action on human rights abuses in countries like Iran and Venezuela. Just how personally tied Brazil’s new foreign policy agenda was became evident after Rousseff came to power. Brazil’s first woman president did not share Lula’s external adventurism, and, as a result, the government, even before its current economic downturn, has tended to focus on more domestic issues and scale back on inserting itself in foreign negotiations or engaging so intensely in south-south connections.

Mexico: Mexico has traditionally looked north, to the U.S., and not played a role either globally or regionally. That has begun to shift, as Mexico takes on a bigger role in the OECD (former government official, Angel Gurria, is its head) and in the G20 and launched a trade discussions with the European Union. It has also started to look south with greater frequency, participating in the Pacific Alliance and joining Chile and Peru in the negotiations for the TransPacific Partnership talks, but most of this has—like Chile—been focused on economics. The two exceptions have been in the Latin American and Caribbean Community (CELAC)—where it had quietly lobbied Brazil and the UNASUR countries to expand the association northward—and in working with the U.S. and Central American countries on the issues of crime and narcotrafficking.

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