Latin America Is Off the Global Stage, and That’s OK
The region doesn’t have a seat at the geopolitical table, but at least it’s off the menu.
If you are not at the table, you are on the menu—or so the diplomatic saying goes. And when the great powers sit down to dinner, Latin American countries are more likely to be food than guests. Legend says they once considered giving Brazil a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, but the invitation never arrived. Today, Brazil will not sit there anytime soon, and although Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico take part in the G-20, their participation has been as uncoordinated and ineffectual as the forum itself.
But there’s a long history of the great powers finding Latin America a tasty snack. In the 19th century, Austria, Prussia, and Russia supported the restitution of Iberian rule; the British blockaded almost every port on the Atlantic coast; and the French invaded Mexico while the United States tried to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. In the 20th century, when the Europeans took off, the United States became a better neighbor, but the Cold War soon reintroduced some hot Latin American dishes of the day, particularly after the Cuban Revolution.
But well into the 21st century, what if Latin America is so unimportant it isn’t even on the menu? Compare it with other decolonized, developing regions. Today, Africa is home to a fifth of humanity, and demographic trends suggest it might become a serious driver of global economic growth in a couple of decades. On the flipside, extreme poverty makes it a ticking bomb, with millions of people just a boat away from aging Europe. This means that, for better or worse, Africa is becoming increasingly geopolitically relevant in the eyes of the great powers.
This assessment applies even more clearly to Asia and the Middle East. Asia is the current driver of global economic growth and hosts the only challenger to American hegemony, which is winding up in quarrels with all of its neighbors. The Middle East has the largest energy reserves in the world and remains the epicenter of violent political conflict. In contrast, Latin America is declining in both economic weight and political relevance. It offers less promise and poses a smaller threat, and therefore is unlikely to be either courted or feared. Yet, you may think, it could still be eaten.
What in Latin America could still make the great powers’ mouth water? Early in the unipolar moment, the region was still relatively special to the United States thanks to the combination of energy, migration, and cocaine. Oil from Venezuela, migrants from Mexico, and drugs from Colombia were the main concerns. Today, the United States is close to self-sufficiency in both energy and drugs, and Mexico is retaining not only its own population but Central American refugees as well.
Direct intervention has long become unnecessary. Historically the United States has intervened, either overtly or covertly, to prevent extra-regional powers from meddling in the Western Hemisphere. But this is not the case with China—and is unlikely to be. In 2016, one of us published a collective study showing how Beijing filled the void left by a diminished U.S. presence in the region without threatening U.S. strategic interests. Since then, despite heightened rhetoric about a “troika of tyranny” (of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela) backed by Beijing, or perhaps because of it, China has turned inward and backed off on its economic statecraft.
To be sure, nine Latin American countries have “strategic partnerships” with China, 19 have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, and the U.S. Southern Command has recently identified telecommunication projects in 16 countries that could allow Beijing to spy on American activities. But the contrast with other world regions where China has made huge strategic inroads—such as Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia—is staggering. Latin America and the Caribbean is still home to nine out of the 14 countries in the world that recognize Taiwan—including Nicaragua, a member of the troika.
When the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama switched recognition to China in recent years, the U.S. reaction was fierce enough to deter further defections. Some close partners in the region, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, have started to turn their back on China, and the three largest Latin American economies, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have been increasingly wary of engaging in closer relations if it comes at the expense of U.S. fondness. If Venezuela remains the exception to this general realignment, its economic and humanitarian meltdown indicates to the Chinese that opportunities in Latin America are not worth the risk. Toxic food, as it were, does not make for an attractive menu.
Of course, the bipolar world we are entering poses specific challenges, not the least of which being that Latin America has been serving up the food on Chinese tables and providing the raw material for the cutlery. Mounting tensions with the United States shed a new light on the strategic importance of the region as a source of commodities—e.g., soybean, iron ore, or copper—and as a market for Chinese manufacturers. After the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China was able to maintain free trade agreements with Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru, but negotiations with countries like Mexico and Panama stalled as trade became a battleground of great-power competition.
Similar challenges are dawning financially. Although Chinese investment has failed to keep up with that of the United States, China did become an important source of credit for Latin America in the past 20 years, its banks offering more loans to the region than the Word Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank combined—two traditional lenders through which Washington disciplined its so-called backyard in the past. Yet things have changed lately, with China lending less and more strategically to its state-owned enterprises and energy and infrastructure projects, sometimes through the Inter-American Development Bank itself—whose funding increased fourfold. This might explain Trump’s obdurate insistence in picking the new chief of the institution himself against the unwritten rule that established, at the foundation of the bank, that the president should be a Latin American citizen.
Latin America can still be internationally relevant in specific arenas, and particular cases may become problematic, but with a dwarfing economy and squarely under U.S. hegemony, the region may be less relevant globally than at any point in the past few centuries.
And yet, who said irrelevance is bad when it means being scratched off the menu?
Andrés Malamud is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal. Twitter: @andresmalamud