Nicolas Albertoni, a Fulbright-Laspau Scholar at University of Southern California (USC), is one of our twenty Global Americans 2018 New Generation of Public Intellectuals. A passionate advocate for international politics, Albertoni is the author of two books on regional integration and development in Latin America: Instrucciones para inventar la rueda (2014) and Entre el barrio y el mundo ¿Mercosur o el modelo Chileno? (2011). His research interest includes international political economy, comparative politics and regional integration.
Global Americans had the opportunity to learn about Albertoni’s professional background, his studies, his contributions to further Latin American economic integration, and his views on the role of his home country, Uruguay, in the future of international trade and regional policymaking.
Nico, congratulations on your nomination and on your accumulated accomplishments as a Fulbright-Laspau scholar. What made you decide to study in the United States?
The main reason is my research. My research interests are focused on Latin America, but I decided approximately five years ago that one of the best ways to understand Latin America, which is such a diverse region, is by studying it from the outside.
One’s perspective of Latin American politics—as well as the economic challenges faced by the region—changes when we are immersed in this bubble and it’s interesting to observe these dynamics from the outside. Trying to understand our challenges and the complexity of Latin America from the outside, at least for a few years, will help me go back to my region and to my country with a better, more informed perspective.
And have you confirmed that hypothesis? Has your experience in the United States given you a different perspective of Latin America and its regional politics?
Definitely. One of my main takeaways so far is the realization that sometimes the challenges that we think are unique to Latin America are in fact issues that are also present in the United States and around the world. Many of the challenges that I can see in Latin America that I thought were exclusive to my region are worldwide. Sometimes we think that our problems need “Latin Americanized solutions,” to put it one way, but the solutions to our problems often come from the outside, not only geographically, but in terms of thinking outside the box.
It’s very likely that other regions faced the same problems a few years ago and we can use similar solutions. So yes, living outside the region has been helpful.
What would you say is one shared challenge between Latin America and the United States?
I’ve lived in both the East and the West coast in the United States, and looking into poverty and inequality—of course the level of inequality is very different if we compare it to Latin America, which is still the most unequal region in the world, more so than even Africa—but social inequality in general is a big challenge throughout the Americas. In terms of income there is huge disparity, both in the United States and Latin America. We also have some similar social problems. I would say that social challenges—more specifically inequality—is one of the things that we should approach together as a challenge of the Americas as a whole and not as separate sub-regions of the same continent.
You have written two books on regional integration and development. Since writing those books, has your perception on the issues you wrote about changed? If so, how?
The first thing I would highlight is that these books were written with a regional perspective and focused on my home country, Uruguay, as a case study. The second thing is the subject matter of the books—they’re focused on development, regional integration and trade openness, as well as reforms, not only in terms of trade but also related to education and other social policies as factors of development. Having said that, not too many things have changed in my personal thinking as an advocate for openness.
When a country is open economically, that openness affects the political arena because it helps to challenge the country itself and its own government. The country will have better tools to face whatever challenges it faces at the moment. Only with an open economy can a country compare itself with other countries and learn from them. But you only realize that when you´re willing to open your economy. Before that, you will not know what do you must do to be more competitive internationally. This is probably one of the most relevant indirect effects of economic openness.
We have seen that when government adopt protective economic measures for economies, it becomes a disincentive to new businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as to the passage of reform and to responsible, progressive development in general. This is of course a debate that we still have in Latin America, whether to open our economies or not, and I think it´s time to elevate the debate in the sense that openness is not only important in and of itself. We are still in the “open or not” debate (with a few exceptions like Chile and Costa Rica), but throughout Latin America we’re still having the same debate as we did in the seventies and eighties. Our willingness and ability to elevate this debate and become more proactive in our discussions is fundamental for our development.
Speaking of this challenge of switching the debate and focusing specifically on Uruguay, do you perceive the country as being or becoming a more active player in the region? Not only in terms of trade, but engaging in other causes and cross-regional challenges?
Unfortunately, no. Venezuela, for example, could be an interesting example of Uruguay proving itself on the regional stage as a leader. It hasn’t done that. In terms of institutions and politics, Uruguay has always been very strong, yet in the specific case of Venezuela we have decided to not become involved with issues outside our country. And there is a very thin line, and particularly in this case, where silence can become complicity, especially in the historical context of Latin America. This silence is a big mistake in my opinion because it is not only a matter of becoming involved or not, it is turning a blind eye to doing something a humanitarian crisis.
Aside from the case of Venezuela, which is a very challenging topic in Uruguay, we have very strong institutions and a strong political system. We are still one of the most equal countries in Latin America, but we could definitely become a stronger actor in regional politics and relations. We also need to stop comparing ourselves to the region and start looking to the rest of the world. This is one of the main strategies, I would say, that Chile or Costa Rica have adopted as they have developed and progressed. That’s something that I’m also trying to contribute to the public debate in my country.
Let’s talk about your current research project, which uses social network analysis to explain the interaction between domestic and international institutions in making trade policy preferences. Can you talk a little bit more about that research? What have been your findings so far?
Of course. This is my main project right now as a doctoral student at USC: the use of social networks to explain new questions related the political economy of international trade. My main concern is escalating trade conflict around the world right now. We know from the literature that domestic and international players influence the government into modifying economic policies. We also have an implicit assumption in motion that what another trading partner is doing could affect a government’s domestic policy decisions. Whatever happens in the international arena could, for example, influence a country’s decision whether or not to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). But there are not a lot of studies dedicated to explaining how the international network in which we operate affects domestic policy decisions.
This is precisely what I’m focusing on right now. If one country is closely tied to a country that tends to be more protectionist, this could have a direct effect on the former country’s economy. And I would like to show why these trading networks are important for Latin America, for example in the context of the re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). We could observe, for instance, how small and medium economies can become big players in the international trade arena, given that big players are becoming increasingly protectionist. So in summary, the countries you are related to affect your policy decisions, and for a region that is still debating the ideal level of integration, this preliminary finding could become more relevant for future decisions and future development conditions, not only at the theoretical level but also at the policy level to work towards enabling relationships with new countries, strengthening institutions, and regulating trade, among other key development factors.
From the perspective of multilateralism, which you consistently defend, given the continuing U.S. retreat from multilateral cooperation (the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], the Paris Agreement, the UN Human Rights Council), what are the short and long term consequences of not participating in these multilateral forums?
The first issue is how to face this isolation; this is a conversation that will rage on in the United States as these policy decisions continue to develop. Focusing on the TPP agreement, the decision of the United States to back out of the agreement portends huge changes in the dynamics of the Trans-Pacific relationship, even though the agreement was still carried out by other 11 countries. It will be very interesting to observe how these relationships play out between the small and medium sized economies of the Pacific. Of course you have Japan and Canada as big players, but it will be interesting to observe how, without the U.S. as a main trade partner, these countries carry out new trade relationships, possibly posing a risk to U.S. leadership in the political-economic context. Another very relevant issue is the role of small and medium economies in these new dynamics. We just wrote something about this with my coauthor, Jorge Heine. The U.S. will continue to dominate other spheres, such as security, but at the trade and economic level at least, the challenge will become mainly for the U.S. to confront its weakening leadership as it continues to risk alliances with an isolationist view.
What are your plans after finishing up your PhD at USC?
My main idea is to go back to the region. My plan is to go back and contribute with this research by putting all these ideas into practice and into real policies. Fortunately, what I’m researching now is a debate we need to have in my country, as well as at the regional level—how to have a better economic integration and how to develop better trade relationships. I think I can start contributing at this level, with a good balance between academia and policymaking. As a great book by Alexander George says: “We need to bridge this gap” between theory and practice.
Global Americans has included you in the 2018 New Generation of Public Intellectuals, along with other prominent young voices from around the region. As someone who wants to put into practice the theoretical research developed during your PhD and before, what does it mean to you to be a leading member of a new generation of public intellectuals?
It is a great honor, but also being considered a part of this generation I think should motivate all of us to start thinking as a generation and not as individuals. The theories that we are working on, in think tanks, universities, or wherever we are working and studying, is a motivation to continue sharing information among our peers, specially those who want to become involved in politics and policymaking. In Latin America, making the decision to dedicate your career to policymaking and politics is still a huge risk, but that risk also serves as motivation. This recognition means another level of support to continue dedicating our lives to solve our shared challenges and keep thinking about new solutions.
Thank you Nicolas!
Thank you and thank you for all the support!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.