Current perspectives on Latin America and the Caribbean’s role in the world tend to focus on a limited set of questions. The first relates to internal dynamics: Why can’t Latin American countries achieve their full potential and always end up fall behind? The second plays more on the broader place of the region in world affairs: why care about what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean?
In our recently published book, Latin America and the Caribbean in the Global Context: Why care about the Americas? we turn this question around. Rather than assuming Latin America and the Caribbean’s marginal role in global politics, we ask why, and to what extent, does the region—collectively and its individual countries—matter in world politics, now and in the future.
The central argument of the book is that by the second decade of the twenty first century the region and its role and importance to the international system had changed dramatically for the better. With that in mind, we seek to explain how this transformation came about, how it has proceeded so far and the likely impact of the larger countries from the region on the international system.
Unlike the bulk of literature on the region, we look at how Latin America interacts within the international system, rather than just serving as a recipient of or theater for decisions and actions taken outside the region or as a sub-system operating within its own environment separate from the global environment.
To this end, we do something few analyses have done when examining Latin America and Caribbean international relations: we apply the intellectual tools of conventional international relations theory to view four key themes: political economy, security, transnational issues and threats, and democratic consolidation. We examine a combination of global, regional and sub-regional levels to assess Latin America’s insertion into a globalized world, in historical, contemporary, and future contexts. The full picture breaks down the evolving power relationships in the hemisphere and the ways in which conflict and cooperation play out through international organizations and relations, as was the case of the Contadora and Esquipulas accords that negotiated a resolution to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s without the active participation of the United States. Or the human rights movements that pressured Latin American autocratic governments to change their behavior, culminating in democratic transitions and treaties such as Resolution 1080 and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Our book contends that, in general, most Latin Americans seem to have learned from history and are ready to take advantage of the modern interconnected capitalist system and their place in it. The participation of Mexico, Chile, Colombia and Peru in the Pacific Alliance, or the role of Chile, Mexico and Peru in the development of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are cases in point. Whether they succeed or fail matters greatly, especially to the U.S. who, for the time being, seems to be disengaged geopolitically from the region to deal with serious threats coming from elsewhere.
Of course, Latin America and the Caribbean are not yet free of past troubles and still face major obstacles in the quest to play a major role on the world stage, individually and collectively. The region remains plagued with high rates of poverty and continues to present the worst patterns of inequality in the world. At the same time, Latin America and the Caribbean’s economic development faces headwinds due to its heavy dependence on the primary products and its limited diversification into basic industries, high technology, and key sectors such as banking, insurance, and research and development.
When viewed from this perspective it also becomes clear that the principal obstacles to Latin America and the Caribbean’s growth are internal and political in nature. Underdevelopment—economic, social, political, and even in foreign relations—is deeply rooted in social and political exclusion, criminal violence and weak political institutions that ultimately erode not only economic competitiveness but also its democratic practices and institutions. These hurdles will stifle or thwart Latin America and the Caribbean’s capacity to play a greater role in the global system in the next half of the twenty first century.
But with all these global and regional shifts and constraints within the region, the original question still looms: why care about the Americas?
In our book we argue that, in this new international environment, Washington can achieve more clout on the world stage if it gains the cooperation and support of other countries in the region, especially if—as in the case of Brazil and Mexico—they happen to be among the biggest economies or—as in the case of Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Peru or Panama—if they can offer a collaborative advantage. Countries such as Chile and Colombia can serve as useful partners to Washington in confronting organized crime, working toward energy security and negotiating with other powerful blocs such as the EU in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Whether future U.S. administrations seek a broad cooperative foreign policy with Latin America and the Caribbean, a limited partnership, a unilateral stance, or indifference remains to be seen. But helping to build a stable, robust economy and security environment to its south will help Washington more effectively project its power worldwide. And in these troubled times, that’s no small matter.
Betty Horwitz earned a PhD in International Studies from the University of Miami.
Bruce Bagley is a professor in the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami.