Explaining and Predicting: Shifting Dynamics in NATO and Latin American Security

Amidst the prevailing uncertainty, one thing seems clear: the fabric of international security relationships could be on the cusp of unraveling, with Latin America forced to forge a new path.


Donald Trump’s Michigan primary win on 27 February marks a further step towards an all-but-certain Republican nomination and the possibility of a Trump presidency. For this reason, Trump’s recent remarks towards NATO allies — suggesting Russia target those not meeting spending thresholds — force a discussion in Europe and elsewhere over how the United States will conduct its foreign policy in the future. Trump’s comments certainly suggest a departure from traditional American foreign policy. Ostensibly focused on European nations, the remarks cast a long, uncertain shadow over the Munich Security Summit and beyond. Latin American countries, historically intertwined with U.S. security policy, for better or for worse, now face a future where alliances could become as uncertain as the political whims dictating them.

This piece explores the potential ripple effects of a breakdown in Transatlantic relations on Latin America’s security strategy, pondering whether these nations might seek new partnerships or fortify existing ones outside the traditional U.S.-centric framework. Amidst the prevailing uncertainty, one thing seems clear: the fabric of international security relationships could be on the cusp of unraveling, with Latin America forced to forge a new path.

How might Trump’s statement impact the perception of U.S. security policy in Latin American countries?

Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO allies seem to arise from military spending obligations and a distaste for multilateral organizations. On the bilateral front, however, the Trump administration sought to militarily reward like-minded governments in the region. It designated Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil a major non-NATO ally and tried to sell weapons to Argentina during Mauricio Macri’s term in office. It also used the military to pressure rivals like Venezuela.

Latin America has a history of border disputes. As a result, some countries might be weary of Trump’s apparent indifference to authoritarian governments invading neighbors. Trump has taken a hard line against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in general, but how he would react to a deepening of the Venezuela-Guyana border dispute is an open question. 

However, an engaged United States military may not be desirable to all actors in the hemisphere. Historical American involvement in the region has led to a general distrust of the United States and a weariness towards its military presence. More recently, Trump’s erratic musings have raised eyebrows: he considered using missiles against targets in Mexico and has spoken publicly about deploying troops in Mexican territory to combat cartels. He denied any role in an attempted coup carried out by U.S. citizens in Venezuela during his term but also openly alluded to using the “military option” against the Maduro government. This does little to strengthen regional confidence.

How could a possible shift in NATO dynamics influence Latin American countries’ approaches to international alliances and defense strategies?

The responses would of course depend on the type of relationship each country enjoys with the U.S., with NATO, and with other great powers. Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil have been designated major non-NATO allies of the United States. This status does not include security guarantees, but it does give them special access to economic and military programs. The U.S. has a particular interest in ensuring the continuation of military partnerships with Colombia, and despite his ideological differences with the U.S., Colombian President Gustavo Petro has signaled a willingness to continue such cooperation. Mexico’s shared border with the US presents special security challenges and opportunities, but the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has maintained a fairly traditional (and cooperative) Mexican position on this matter. Chile and Peru also enjoy close military cooperation with the U.S., and Argentina’s new government is resuming such contacts.

Beyond Latin American cooperation with the US, there have been numerous attempts to form more regional political and security blocs. However, these have become ideological battlegrounds. In 2019, right-wing leaders withdrew their countries from UNASUR, which houses the South American Defense Council, for being too close to Venezuela. PROSUR was created as an alternative to UNASUR, but critics like Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez accused the new group of being a conservative version of its predecessor. Neither organization enjoys much stability. Argentina and Brazil rejoined UNASUR in 2023, but Argentina is likely to leave the organization again under President Javier Milei and Chilean president Gabriel Boric suspended his country’s participation in PROSUR last year. 

In other words, the recent past shows that rather than being able to establish alliances on the basis of common interests and external threats, regional coordination on defense issues is subject to the ideological whims of the governments of the day.

How might Latin American leaders reassess their security cooperation with Europe and NATO?

Europe’s relations with Latin America in recent decades have centered on economic and cultural cooperation and under the umbrella of respect for multilateral institutions. The 2023 EU-CELAC summit highlighted issues such as food security, human and labor rights, and climate change, with little mention of security or military cooperation.

However, NATO’s interest in expanding its partnerships on global issues, including cybersecurity, geopolitical rivalries, and terrorism, has seen it become increasingly active across the globe, designating Colombia its first Latin American partner in 2017.

Latin American countries have also deepened relations with the European Union over the past several months. The EU has launched its Global Gateway initiative, which plans to invest 300 billion Euros in the region, aimed at issues such as infrastructure, education, research and healthcare. In November, a joint EU-LAC summit in Colombia launched the Digital Alliance, a partnership on internet governance between the regions. This February, European and Latin American representatives met in the Dominican Republic to discuss cybersecurity cooperation. These measures are widely seen as geared towards countering Chinese investment projects, but it also remains to be seen whether similar EU-LAC partnerships will extend to physical security in a world with an isolationist United States.

Given the concerns raised by European leaders about Trump’s willingness to let Russia act freely, how might Latin American nations view their own security interests in relation to potential shifts in global power dynamics?

A disinterested U.S. policy toward Latin American security would likely see competitors such as Russia and China, even Iran, fill in the gaps. Russian officials conducted a charm offensive last week as they visited countries they see as like-minded — Nicaragua, Cuba, and Brazil. China has grown not only as an economic actor, but as a security partner in Latin America in recent years, and the ‘BRICS’ economic bloc has also made a concerted effort to expand its footprint in the hemisphere. Iran has long had a presence in Venezuela and Bolivia has shown interest in purchasing Iranian weapons.

In such a world, Latin America is increasingly finding itself balancing between competing powers and competing motivations. Where security may become more volatile without concrete backing from the U.S., economic opportunities would proliferate as the great powers are played against one another. For example, Latin America could benefit from U.S. efforts to delink critical products and industries from China, with American investment and purchasing redirected to the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, this will be part of the discussions held between Chilean authorities and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin as she visits Santiago later this week.

In terms of security concerns within the region, even prior to the uncertainty about NATO, alternatives such as the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) were developed by Latin American countries less disposed to North American participation in the region. Other alternatives have been floated, such as Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s idea of a regional bloc concerned with protecting the Amazon.

Considering the discussions on strategic autonomy in Europe, how might Latin American countries explore or enhance their own regional alliances and defense capabilities in response to the evolving dynamics within NATO?

The appeal of ”strategic autonomy” — a Europe that is a more capable geopolitical actor and less dependent on the United States for its security — grew during the Trump administration, whose “America First” approach to foreign policy led many Europeans to question Washington’s reliability and commitment to European security. Given the comments made by President Trump about the United States’ role in NATO, countries such as Germany and France have taken more of a leadership role within the alliance. A major outstanding question is whether European governments will manage to live up to their 2 percent budgetary commitments.

Just as countries are stepping up in NATO, an isolationist U.S. could create a space for Brazil to assume its long-desired leadership role in Latin America. While declarations of good intentions have always been made, there have been long-standing political and cultural impediments to regional cooperation. With the U.S retreat, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sees an opportunity to lead the region and perhaps the Global South, restoring Brazil’s global leadership role. For this to succeed, however, regional cooperation agreements must look beyond ideological differences and personalistic projects, which so often have sunk past efforts.

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