Latin America, Ukraine, and the Legacies of “Republican Internationalism”

The invasion of Ukraine is clear affront to the international principles that Latin American diplomacy has most cherished.


Photo: Delegates to the First Pan-American Conference, 1889 / Organization of American States

On Wednesday, March 2, the United Nations General Assembly met in a rare emergency meeting to vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An overwhelming majority of member states supported the measure, with 141 votes in favor, 5 against, and 35 abstentions. Those voting to denounce Russian actions included Brazil and Mexico, both current occupants of non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council (UNSC), who had previously voted for a UNSC resolution censuring Russia.

Four Latin American countries were among those that abstained. (Venezuela was ineligible due to its unpaid UN dues but has been one of Russia’s strongest supporters—something the Biden administration apparently seeks to change.) Understandably, those abstentions have attracted much attention. But it is notable that opposition to Russia came from across the political spectrum and is broader than votes on the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Much of the region’s opposition has been expressed in strikingly similar terms.

Arguments from the Mexican Ambassador to the UN, José Ramón de la Fuente, echoed such longstanding diplomatic concerns: “Mexico reiterates its respect for the sovereignty, the unity, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders. We condemn the acts of aggression to which it has been subjected.” It is notable that in several cases, including Brazil and Mexico, professional diplomats have invoked these norms and principles even as their presidents offered noncommittal statements of “neutrality” and calls for “dialogue.”

In fact, Latin American denunciations of great power interventions have been a constant for nearly two centuries, forming an integral part of what we term the region’s “republican internationalism.” This tradition began with independence in the early nineteenth century and grew more coherent during subsequent decades, shaping how Latin America engaged with the world.

Although several Latin American countries have notable interests with Russia, and their own histories of facing U.S.-led sanctions, the region’s traditional diplomatic principles line up squarely behind Ukraine. Latin American diplomacy is known for its emphasis on non-intervention, sovereign equality, and the rejection of territorial conquest. Even abstaining countries like Cuba have been compelled to justify their positions, invoking respect for international law while trying to shift blame to NATO, as Michael Bustamante of the University of Miami noted.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contravenes those principles. Indeed, the invasion resembles the very type of U.S. and European interventions that Latin American diplomats and international lawyers have long hoped to curtail. The Russian invasion is the product of pernicious dynamics of asymmetry. It scoffs at sovereign equality and non-intervention. It rejects norms for peace resolution and against territorial conquest. Finally, it spurns Ukraine’s right to determine its own form of government. The clash with Latin America’s republican internationalism is crystal clear.

Like Ukraine today, new Spanish American republics faced existential threats from great powers in the first decades of their existence. In the nineteenth century, Spanish America’s republican form of government clashed with prevailing, largely monarchical, norms of international legitimacy. Spain initially refused to diplomatically recognize the existence of these new states, launching several attempts at reconquest. Britain and France frequently recurred to “gunboat diplomacy,” bombarding and blockading Latin American ports to protect the interests of their nationals in the often politically volatile new states. French imperialism in the Americas culminated in the French invasion of Mexico and the installation of a Habsburg monarchy. The United States, a “sister republic,” expanded its territory and arrogated to itself a sphere of influence at Latin America’s expense.

Even when the great powers accepted the republics’ right to exist, they spurned the region’s assertions of autonomy and equality. Blinkered by power, pretension, and prejudice, European and (later) U.S. statesmen treated their Latin American counterparts as second-class citizens in international society.

In response, Latin Americans continually fought for a seat at the table to make sure they wouldn’t end up on the menu. Facing the threat of conquest, reconquest, and intervention, the new Spanish American states reclaimed a position of sovereign equality in an unequal, imperialist, and Eurocentric international society. In Pan-American institutions, the 1907 Hague Conference, and the international institutions created after the two world wars, Latin Americans won partial victories that embedded elements of republican internationalism in global institutions, rules, and practices.

The rejection of the Russian invasion by most Latin American and Caribbean governments comes despite an extensive Russian charm offensive involving propaganda, vaccines, and arms sales. It also follows years of fraying ties with the United States. Support and silence were, for the most part, limited to the usual suspects. Robust backing for the UN resolution in the Western Hemisphere contrasts sharply with the seventeen abstentions from Africa’s fifty-four states. But when the invasion is seen in terms of its contrast with Latin America’s republican internationalist traditions, the repudiation makes sense.

First, Russia’s hostility to Ukraine is premised on asymmetry. Russia expects that differences in economic and material weight should translate to Ukrainian obedience. That dynamic—a recurring, deleterious feature of small-state/great-power relations—has myriad echoes in Latin American relations with the United States.

Second, Russia denies Ukraine’s sovereign equality—something Vladimir Putin’s pre-invasion rant made explicit. Sovereign equality is fundamental for Latin American diplomacy, and Latin American successes helped embed the norm in international institutions, practices, and law—even the very definition of a sovereign state. Many Western Hemisphere states have been at pains to defend the principle in international organizations. The invasion, as Mexico argued before the UN Security Council, violated core tenets of the UN Charter.

Relatedly, the Russian intervention rejects Ukraine’s right to establish its own form of government, evidently aiming to install a puppet state. Such foreign-imposed rulers often sparked the fiercest republican resistance in Latin American history: the rules of both Habsburg prince Maximilian in Mexico and U.S. filibusterer William Walker in Nicaragua ended with the bullets of republican firing squads. Such interventions prompted the formulation of influential foreign policy doctrines, including the famous Estrada Doctrine, which calls for strict non-interference in the affairs of other states.

The corollary to sovereignty is non-intervention, a principle around which Latin American diplomacy has so often mobilized. Republican internationalism considers sovereignty as contingent on the consent of the governed which renders foreign intervention illegitimate. Russia’s violation is clear; Putin’s rationales of defending of ethnic Russians resemble the pretenses of diplomatic protection of citizens abroad that the United States and Europeans regularly used to justify interventions until the 1930s.

As Russia amassed its forces along Ukraine’s borders, Putin rejected calls for peaceful dialogue and diplomatic arbitration. Such calls came from Latin American states directly, including from Mexico’s representative at the UNSC. Latin Americans since Simón Bolívar have called (with some exceptions) for more binding forms of arbitration; this was an evergreen aspiration at diplomatic conferences in the Western Hemisphere for over a century.

These principles developed over two centuries and underpin many of Latin America’s signal contributions to international order. Republican internationalist principles shaped regional organization in the Western Hemisphere in profound ways, infusing the diplomacy of the broader Caribbean as well. Globally, many small and postcolonial states have appealed to principles and practices with Latin American roots. While the United Nations and its charter emerged in a large part from a great-power bargain in the aftermath of World War II, many of its tenets converged with diplomatic principles and practices developed during the preceding century. In turn, those principles helped shape international organizations in ways that partially ameliorated the hierarchies and inequalities of international politics.

In contrast, the invasion of Ukraine is clear affront to the international principles that Latin American diplomacy has most cherished. The denunciations of the past week grow from these deep roots.

Tom Long is an associate professor of International Relations at the University of Warwick and author of the new book A Small State’s Guide to Influence in World Politics. Carsten-Andreas Schulz in an assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Together, they are authors of “Republican Internationalism: the nineteenth-century roots of Latin American contributions to international order,” in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, and partners in the AHRC-funded project “Latin America and the peripheral origins of nineteenth-century international order.”

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