As Latin America tries to get a better grip on the precise contours of the post-Great Recession world order, a few assumptions have calcified into conventional wisdom. The first assumption is that the United States is no longer the hegemonic actor in the Western Hemisphere. Plagued by low growth, partisan gridlock, and the need to put out foreign policy fires elsewhere, the Barack Obama administration has put Latin America very low on its priority list. At the same time, the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies, as well as the BRICS grouping, has made those countries attractive partners to Latin American countries.
The second assumption is that just as American power and ideas seem on the wane, American theories of international relations are antiquated. Latin American scholars reject the notion that the region will prosper under the aegis of a “liberal Leviathan” based in Washington.1 They equally reject the more conflictual realpolitik espoused by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer. Rather, these scholars embrace the idea that a “new regionalism” in Latin America will foster a new era of post-American peace and prosperity.2 The past decade has witnessed a boomlet in regional institutions similar to that experienced in the Pacific Rim. These institutions will ostensibly serve as the foundation for future Latin American comity.
There are several excellent reasons, however, to believe that the current thinking among Latin American commentators is unduly optimistic. First, it overlooks the benefits that a unipolar distribution of power confers upon the entire system, and the costs that can emerge when the hegemonic order is challenged. Second, the projected benefits of the new regionalism rely on the notion that these multiple organizations will complement one another. It is reasonable to assume, however, that they might act as substitutes instead, thereby eroding the quality of all regional institutions. Unless the policy preferences of the Latin American region align perfectly—and there is no evidence that this will happen any time soon—waning American influence will not midwife a new era of peace and prosperity.
The Good Reasons for Optimism
In fairness, there would seem to be many valid reasons for regional experts to be optimistic. After centuries of wanton North American interventions in the region, a new norm appears to be emerging in which Washington refrains from militarily intervening in Latin America. While the U.S. has weighed in diplomatically during recent upheavals in Honduras and Venezuela, the days when it would unilaterally dispatch an expeditionary force to quell an unfriendly regime have long since passed. As both the opportunity for and willingness of Washington to use force in the region abates, the specter of intervention will ebb as a constraint on Latin American geopolitical configurations. At the same time, the shared legacy of resentment against U.S. interventions can help foster the shared understandings necessary to create sustainable regional institutions.
Similarly, the historical absence of interstate war in the hemisphere offers at least one hint of why regional analysts might be optimistic about future cooperation. It is accepted wisdom that, compared to most areas of the globe, Latin America has witnessed far fewer interstate conflicts than other regions, and the actual wars have been minor.3 Indeed, as Princeton professor Miguel Angel Centeno noted a decade ago, “Since the early nineteenth century, the continent has been relatively free of major international conflict. Even if we include civil wars, Latin America has enjoyed relative peace.”4 Given this security climate, it is not surprising that regional scholars would be more optimistic about the viability of a post-American paradise.
Moreover, it is understandable that Latin Americanists reject mainstream international relations theory in thinking about the future of their region. As non-Western powers have gained in terms of relative power, they have challenged the Western orientation of international relations theory.
Some have gone further, arguing that they can and should draw from their own histories to articulate a different approach. In the Pacific Rim, Chinese international relations scholars now extol the tianxia era as a model for the future of global order.5 Both South Korean leader Park Geun-Hye and Chinese president Xi Jinping have argued for new paradigms of thinking about international relations beyond traditional realism.6 It is not surprising that current Latin American leaders try to echo them—as well as predecessors like former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or former President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez.
The growth of Latin American regional institutions also offers a source of optimism. Since the Cold War’s end, a panoply of regional structures has been created. These range from strictly economic arrangements like the Pacific Alliance to more political organizations like the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations—UNASUR), Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) and Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas—ALBA). These institutions have also had real-world effects. Mercosur, for example, has played a crucial role in preserving democratic regimes among its membership.7 The growing density of these regional organizations allows for a greater regularity of contact among both heads of state and staffers. This can act as a further brake on conflict and provide additional outlets for regional governance.
The Better Reasons for Pessimism
Despite the reasons for optimism, there are better reasons for pessimism. History provides ample reasons for why Latin America would resent U.S. hegemony. Nevertheless, there is significant evidence that American hegemony acted as a powerful booster for international security and stability.8 Beginning with economic historian Charles Kindleberger, a wide range of international relations theorists have posited that a liberal hegemon is a necessary and sufficient condition for the creation of an open global economic order.9 In a unipolar system, the lone superpower can provide an array of public goods in exchange for the cooperation of other states.10 Dartmouth professor William Wohlforth has made the strongest set of theoretical arguments for this position during the post-Cold War era. He argues, contra balance-of-power theorists, that unipolarity is the most stable and peaceful of all possible international systems because it eliminates unproductive great power rivalries.11
The post-Cold War era offers strong evidence for reduced security rivalries and greater stability in a hegemonic world order. The Human Security Report Project has tracked a marked and secular decline in interstate violence since the end of the Cold War.12 There has been a further decline in other forms of violence, such as civil war and extrajudicial killings. Consistent with the logic of hegemony, global military expenditures declined dramatically following the end of the Cold War. Global expenditures on defense as a percentage of global output averaged 5.1 percent between 1972 and 1990. In the decade after the September 11th attacks, defense expenditures as a percentage of global output averaged only 2.5 percent.13 Latin American defense spending as a percentage of output was even smaller during this period. The peace dividend from hegemony was significant.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the perception of waning U.S. hegemony has been widespread. It is therefore worth noting that this perceived decline has been matched by a dramatic increase in Latin American defense spending. By one measure, absolute defense spending in Latin America practically doubled between 2006 and 2011.14 By 2012, defense spending accounted for approximately 4 percent of total GDP—significantly higher than in the rest of the world.15 In 2013, Latin America increased its defense expenditures, even as the rest of world decreased its military spending.
To be sure, much of this defense spending is in response to U.S. preferences, such as combatting narco-trafficking. Yet the region’s increased military budgets are somewhat puzzling, given the ostensible absence of tensions among the countries. They suggest that even if war is comparatively rare in Latin America, security dilemmas and militarized tensions are more common.16
Beyond the insecurity posed by a multipolar world, however, is the uncertainty that comes from an institutionally thicker world.17 This sounds paradoxical. Nevertheless, the proliferation of nested and overlapping regimes does not necessarily lead to an increase in rule-based outcomes. Institutional thickening allows different governments to engage in forum-shopping to find the regime most friendly to their preferences. Forum-shopping weakens the power of pre-existing focal points, raises the costs and complexity of monitoring and compliance, and creates conflicting legal obligations at the regional level. This situation endows great powers with fewer constraints and greater capabilities to affect outcomes. In the process, institutional proliferation erodes the causal mechanisms through which regimes ostensibly strengthen international cooperation. Paradoxically, after a certain point, the proliferation of global governance structures shifts the international system towards a more Hobbesian environment.
This dynamic appears to be taking place in Latin America. For example, Venezuela used the weakness of UNASUR’S election monitors to legitimize its 2013 elections, undercutting the Organization of American States’ (OAS) monitoring efforts.18 The dynamic is also playing out in economic integration. As the idea of a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas recedes from view, Brazil has been trying to build up Mercosur as the primary regional integration vehicle. It has gone so far as to push for Venezuela to be admitted into the group a few years ago, despite that country’s political economy being far more authoritarian than that of the rest of the members. The only other country in the region that approximates Brazil’s economic weight is Mexico, which has been one of the drivers behind the Pacific Alliance, a trade grouping that also includes Chile, Peru and Colombia. A cluster of Central American countries led by Costa Rica are also looking to join. As the Pacific Alliance has gained momentum,19 tensions between that grouping and Mercosur are already evident. The former presidents of Brazil and Chile have protested in El País that the Pacific Alliance would divide the region.
U.S. Hegemony May Not Be Over Yet
As the U.S. shadow recedes from Latin America, there has been a surge of enthusiasm about the future of Latin American regionalism. The slow accretion of regional structures and the relative comity among Latin American countries point to a future of peace and prosperity. These assumptions fuel the belief that the region can transcend the more pessimistic international relations paradigms developed in North America. While this is a possible outcome, it is more likely that waning U.S. hegemony will exacerbate rather than ease intra-Latin American disputes. The combination of military build-ups and the fragmentation of regional governance hint at a more realpolitik world than many would like to believe.
Ironically, the best hope for Latin America might be the United States. Despite the “perceived” nature of American decline, a closer look at post-2008 dynamics reveals a persistent U.S. economic and military hegemony.20 If the U.S. continues to exercise hegemony in the Western Hemisphere while refraining from military intervention, Latin America can reap the benefits of hegemonic stability without the costs associated with the past.