Carlos Fortin, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami eds., El no alineamiento active y América Latina: Una doctrina para un nuevo siglo. Editorial Catalonia. 2021.
Price: USD $23.99 | 577 pages
In less than a week, leaders from across the Western Hemisphere will meet in Los Angeles for the Ninth Summit of the Americas. Not every country will be in attendance. With the Biden administration’s decision not to invite Nicaragua or Venezuela to the Summit, the Cuban government has signaled that it will decline to attend regardless of whether it receives an invitation. Citing the exclusion of these three non-democratic states, leaders from Argentina, Honduras, Mexico, and other countries have threatened to skip the event.
The Biden administration seems to have been caught flat-footed by the reactions of regional leaders, sending envoys to Mexico City to win President López Obrador’s favor and accusing the Cuban government of fomenting a boycott.
To understand why so many countries will be absent from the proceedings in Los Angeles, U.S. policymakers, their counterparts in capitals overseas, and Latin America observers more generally would do well to read El no alineamiento activo y America Latina: Una doctrina para el nuevo siglo, edited by Carlos Fortin, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami. Released in late 2021, the edited volume includes contributions from leading academics, politicians, and members of civil society throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Fortin, Heine, Ominami, and their contributors chart a new course for the foreign policies of Latin American governments, one that rejects permanent alignment with any one global power, opting instead for individual deals with the United States, China, and other countries based on shared interests.
The book has its roots in the Trump administration’s failures in the region. Trump was frequently absent from discussions of policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, most famously when he skipped the 2018 Summit of Americas in Lima, Peru. When he did show up to discussions, he mainly served to exacerbate tensions. His admonitions to Western Hemisphere leaders not to do business with China went unheeded, and the Trump administration neither recognized the real economic needs that China served, nor provided meaningful U.S. or multilateral alternatives. When leaders did follow the United States’ instructions to decouple with China, they often hurt their own interests (25-26).
In Heine’s estimation, the Biden administration has retained most of Trump’s “with us or against us” approach toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Given this policy stagnation in the United States, he and his colleagues recommend that countries prioritize their own interests over those of great powers, while respecting values of international law and multilateralism. Unlike the Cold War Non-Aligned Movement, which focused primarily on defending members from the great powers, active non-alignment seeks to deepen relations with larger countries, recognizing the benefits of globalization and the need for global cooperation on issues such as climate change.
The contributors lend tremendous intellectual weight to the project, and the diversity of perspectives represented is evidence of the broad appeal of active non-alignment. In her chapter, Barbara Stallings of Brown University compiles ample evidence of the benefits that China offers to the region, building a case that Latin America and the Caribbean cannot simply side with the United States on the issues of Chinese trade and investment (88-95). Esteban Actis and Nicolás Creus of the Universidad Nacional de Rosario (Argentina) analyze Latin America’s position between China and the United States, hypothesizing that the greater U.S.-China tensions are, the less either country can influence Latin America (103-105). However, as both they and Jorge Castañeda note, the United States benefits from its proximity to the region, especially to Central America and the Caribbean Basin (106, 193-194).
El no alineamiento activo does two things at once: one descriptive and the other normative. As a description for why Latin American and Caribbean leaders feel compelled toward active non-alignment, the book excels, especially with the approach of the Summit of the Americas. Many leaders in the Americas are uncomfortable with the White House forcing them to choose between the U.S. and China; in recent weeks, they have shown the same discomfort with the choice between dictatorships and democracies.
As a normative exercise, recommending that countries leaders adopt a strategy of active non-alignment, the book is on more contested ground. The values of respect for international law and multilateralism are laudable, and they offer room for countries practicing active non-alignment to criticize actions like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But countries practicing active non-alignment may also refrain from criticizing human rights abuses within other countries’ territories, cloaking their silence in respect for sovereignty. As the run-up to the Summit of the Americas has shown, much of the hemisphere is more than willing to turn a blind eye to these abuses in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
Whatever the normative value of active non-alignment, one thing is clear: More and more countries are adopting it as a foreign policy strategy, at least in part. Perhaps the most interesting question is how the United States will respond.
Robert (Bo) Carlson is the Editor of Global Americans. He previously held roles at the OAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and has written for The National Interest and The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @bocarlson1.