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Lessons from Latin America for the international order - new thinking is needed, argues expert

  • In Brazil, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua, politicians from the extremes of both right and left are sweeping to power as voters reject the key liberal tenets that have made the region a zone of expanding democracy since the 1980s.
  • Although Latin America embraced the principles of liberal international order (LIO) after the Cold War, liberal internationalism often co-existed with - and at times abetted - national illiberalism.
  • The liberal international order – the rules, institutions, and relationships that have loosely structured international politics since the Second World War – is under pressure from its own members and from Russia and China, but discussions of this crisis have largely ignored Latin America.
  • A better understanding of Latin America’s international context and historical role in global political and economic structures will shed light on current political pressures in the region

As the post-war international order, rooted in multilateral co-operation and underpinned by US leadership, comes under threat from the rise of authoritarian powers and a retreat into nationalism, scholars and diplomats are being urged to pay closer attention to the experience of Latin American states as a way to better understand the way forward for international relations.

In Latin America and the liberal international order: an agenda for research, Dr Tom Long, Assistant Professor in New Rising World Powers at Warwick University's Department of Politics and International Studies, argues that overlooking the unique status and experience of Latin American countries – neither ‘great powers’ nor recently decolonized states – means that an important perspective on the challenges facing the liberal international order is being missed.

Dr Long’s paper is published this month in International Affairs, a leading journal of International Relations published by and edited at Chatham House.

According to Dr Long, a better understanding of the relationship between Latin American states and the US-dominated international order also offers important insights into current political pressures, including:-

  • The rise of illiberalism: the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has drawn attention to illiberalism in Latin America. When international connections to Bolsonaro's rise have been discussed, they normally focus on a "wave" of the populist right, including Trump, Duterte and Orban, driven by the collapse of support for the liberal international order in its North Atlantic core. A historical perspective on Latin America's international engagement reveals a much more ambiguous connection between international order and liberalism inside Latin America, where liberal internationalism often co-existed with - and at times abetted - national illiberalism.
  • Vulnerability to corruption: From Brazil, to Peru to Guatemala, massive corruption scandals have embroiled presidents and shaped elections. The explosion of global connections for Latin American countries facilitates transnational corruption and illicit trade alongside legal exchanges, while weak legal frameworks enable non-state actors to benefit.
  • Vulnerability to instability: Violence and economic instability in Central America, both linked to the international context, has helped drive greater emigration, including the ‘caravan’ which featured so heavily in pre-election campaigning the US mid-terms. In sovereign but relatively weak states, connections with the global economy can exacerbate existing inequality, while the implementation of neoliberal policies reduced the ability of states to mitigate the impact of global fluctuations on their citizens.
  • Defensive response to criticism: Under threat from an interventionist USA, many Latin American states developed defensive approaches to sovereignty, illustrated over the last decade in the defence an increasingly illiberal Venezuelan government. Liberal rhetoric resonates in Latin America, but aspects of this order are sometimes used defensively to shield governing elites' illiberal practices.
  • Relations with China: Latin America's burgeoning connections to China have drawn the concern--and criticism--of the Trump administration. A Chinese vision of international order that emphasizes non-intervention and respect for sovereignty resonates in Latin America, and has long precedents there. But two centuries of liberalism, evolving and always incomplete, create high barriers to a full embrace of Chinese international leadership.

Dr Long said: “Despite the contribution by Latin American statesmen and diplomats to the development of global, multilateral institutions like the League of Nations, the United Nations, and to the thinking which underpinned the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the region has too often been relegated to a secondary status by US and European powers, and in studies of international order.

“The liberal international order has shaped Latin America, and Latin America has shaped the LIO – but the benefits for the region have often been uneven and narrowly shared.

“A reassessment of the role of Latin America in the evolution and continuation of the liberal international order is long overdue.”

26 November 2018







Sheila Kiggins

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Read the full paper here.