Is non-alignment possible for Latin America?

On a continent where integration is often discussed, but never achieved, a group of political scientists and former diplomats propose ‘active non-alignment’.

Expert comment Updated 3 March 2023 Published 2 March 2023 4 minute READ

Last January, Commander of US Southern Command General Laura Richardson explained that the Argentinian, Brazilian, Colombian and Chilean governments rejected a US offer. That offer: if they donated their ageing military equipment, some made in Russia and Germany, to Ukraine, Washington would replace it with superior American weaponry.

This rejection together with Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s peace proposal for Ukraine that he announced last January illustrates how Latin America as a region is looking for a non-aligned position. Their effort will likely be a growing source of frustration for governments in the US and Europe.

Can Latin America and the Caribbean negotiate equidistance with the United States and China that allows governments to build a foreign policy that serves its interests in the midst of a growing ‘new Cold War’ climate that threatens again to polarize global alliances?

Waning US interest and the rise of China

Latin America and the Caribbean spent most of the 20th century under the hegemony of the United States, even as US attention shifted elsewhere and narrowed its focus within the region. Since the 1980s, Washington has turned its attention more towards the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, while within the US, investments and political relationships in the Americas become concentrated on Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil.

China is now the most important or second-most important trading partner in many Latin American countries, overtaking the US and the EU. 

Against this backdrop of waning US interest, since 2000, China has ramped up its investments in commodities and more recently in other sectors such as infrastructure across Latin America and the Caribbean. China is now the most important or second-most important trading partner in many Latin American countries, overtaking the US and the European Union (EU). 

With these increased commercial and investment relations has come greater diplomatic and development engagement. 21 countries in the region are part of the ‘New Silk Road’ initiative, among them: Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Peru.

The idea of active non-alignment

The war in Ukraine, energy-related geopolitics, technological confrontations over issues like the production of microprocessors and the control of communication markets are leading Washington and Beijing to attempt to gain allies and alienate their opponent.

Today alliances are flexible and political and economic loyalties are driven more by pragmatism than ideology.

Unlike during the Cold War, the international system is no longer bipolar, but has increasingly become multipolar after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today alliances are flexible and political and economic loyalties are driven more by pragmatism than ideology. 

In their Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order: The Active Non-Alignment Option, former Chilean ambassador Jorge Heine and political scientists Carlos Fortín and Carlos Ominami argue how and why Latin America and the Caribbean  must avoid being caught between the growing competition between China and the United States.

Their argument rests on the need to independently establish governments’ foreign policy priorities, based on the calculations that Asia is fast becoming the main pole of world economic growth. Such a view also calls for Latin American and Caribbean states to explore and deepen relations with others, not only with Europe but also with other regions traditionally outside their field of interest, like sub-Saharan Africa.

Pros and cons of non-alignment

Such an orientation for Latin America and the Caribbean’s foreign policies is not without its drawbacks. The active non-alignment advocated by Heine, Fortín and Ominami risks diluting regional coherence to negotiate mainly with the US, China, and Europe on issues such as norms of international trade, the relationship between global economic governance and national autonomy, and between foreign investment and technology transfer.

Non-dependence on the US and a broader array of close economic and diplomatic relations globally can help create the platforms to address modern global threats.

As commercial and investment relations with China are based overwhelmingly on commodity exports and commodity-linked investments, doubling down on the relations with Beijing also risks becoming even more trapped on natural resource-based production, weakening incentives and investment for industrial and high-tech economies. 

A China- or even Asia-concentrated commercial strategy would also reduce the opportunities for intra-regional trade by both orienting economic development around commodities and reinforcing regional divisions, with South American economies and foreign ministries more oriented toward Beijing while Mexico and Central America are still largely locked in North American markets and initiatives.     

But there are also opportunities and mutual interests in maintaining balanced relations not just between China and the US, but also with other states and regions. Non-dependence on the US and a broader array of close economic and diplomatic relations globally can help create the platforms to address modern global threats, such as future pandemics, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and regional conflicts, including transnational crime.

Former Mexican foreign affairs minister, Jorge Castañeda, argues that active non-alignment could be built around climate change, democracy, human rights, international justice, corruption, and cross-border tax evasion. Latin American countries could also be in a more powerful position influence international organizations when it comes to creating global regulations.

Those who have endorsed the debate generated by Heine, et al. argue that to be effective and positive, such a shift in the region’s foreign policy must be centred on fundamental principles of good governance, inclusive economies with effective norms, and procedures to promote human rights and environmentally sustainability.  Creating these basic agreements and instruments to guide a new more multipolar foreign policy would also help strengthen multilateral cooperation and institutions.

Integration or competition?

Celso Amorim, former Brazilian foreign and defence minister during the earlier presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), thinks that Latin America and his country can ‘act independently’, but that ‘regional integration is needed, at two different levels (…) in fields such as health, outer space cooperation, science and technology’. However, defence, ‘is difficult, given the geographic proximity of certain countries to the United States’.

Key issues are the relationship with the United States, uncertainties about its future foreign policy, and how Washington would react to active non-alignment. Leslie Elliot Armijo (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver) believes the US needs Latin America even more given the US’s ‘relative decline’.

This would give the region the opportunity to negotiate advantages with Washington. For example, US companies speculate about moving factories from China to Mexico or other countries in the region, but this requires skilled labour and legal and political stability.

Key issues are the relationship with the United States, uncertainties about its future foreign policy, and how Washington would react to an active non-alignment.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, integration has long been considered a strategic goal but one that has remained elusive. For this reason Castañeda recommends starting with cooperation around soft power issues. One key strategy needs to be economic diversification.

Part of this cont.

Part of this will require greater integration and harmonization of the multiple trade initiatives and blocs in the region, like NAFTA, Mercosur and Caricom. Both of these pragmatic recommendations can serve to ease the process of meaningful integration around concrete shared interests and by doing so, better position states within the region, and the region itself, away from any alignment on either side of the growing geopolitical divide between Washington, DC and Beijing.

Amitav Acharya (American University) considers that ‘building a unified and supportive Global South is highly unlikely, because pragmatism and national interests are the priority’. Subregional entities or ‘regionalized orders’ made up of state and non-state actors could be created. In line with this, Juan G. Tokatlian (Torcuato di Tella University) highlights in the Heine, et al. volume that ‘the degree of diplomatic fracture is such that to think of a collective aggregation of interests and goals is unrealistic. (…) It is more reasonable to lean on a multilateralism of small numbers’.

Active non-alignment has many controversial angles, not least going against the current request of weapons to Ukraine.

For the moment, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean maintain their traditional relationship with the US and Europe, while pursuing agreements with China, in an exercise of flexible pragmatism. But this formula can be contentious if tensions between the United States and China intensify, and consequently the pressures to align with one or the other around technological disputes, investments, and loans.  

Active non-alignment has many controversial angles, not least going against the current request of weapons to Ukraine. It also pushes Latin American countries to face the challenge of competing in the strategic framework of integration, a well know-problem in the EU. But the concept, grounded in historic diplomatic thinking in the Americas, has helped to focus attention and reflection on Latin America’s future, potential trade-offs, and how the region can remain relevant in the 21st century.