Why Active Non-Alignment Should Be the Basis of Latin America’s Modern Foreign Policy

In the book, 'Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order' contributors say these countries should attempt to steer their foreign policies away from decisions and actions that are not determined by national interest.

Latin America, a region that has been on the margins of major geopolitical developments, occupies little space in Indian consciousness. Every now and then, however, it resurges to offer us important insights and ideas. In the book Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World OrderCarlos Fortin, Jorge Heine and Carlos Ominami have compiled learned contributions from eminent Latin American personalities to give us this well-researched, reviewed and redacted compendium on the central theme of active non-alignment (ANA).

The concept of non-alignment dates back to the 1950s but is nuanced in this compilation. As the editors (and contributors) explain, ANA implies but does not necessarily advocate, equidistance or neutrality from the major global powers, principally the US and China. It is an attempt at steering foreign policy away from decisions and actions that are not determined by the national interest of the nations which exercise it. The only Latin American country to participate in the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961 was Cuba. Today, 26 of the 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean are members. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have observer status. Several important global Latin American initiatives have coincided with those of the NAM, such as the New International Economic Order championed by Argentina’s Raul Prebisch, or echoed the Third Position of Argentina’s President Juan Domingo Peron “discarding capitalist and totalitarian extremes”. 

Latin American Foreign Policies in the New World Order
Edited by Carlos Fortin, Jorge Heine and Carlos Ominami
Anthem Press (February 2023)

The region has been under the shadow of the US and Europe, with exceptions in the recent past: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and others in shorter or longer phases of defiance, aided and abetted by the USSR and later Russia. The emergence of China as a global power, and its massive engagement with the region in the last 30 years has given momentum to opinions among Latin American diplomats, politicians and analysts that the interests of those nations – primarily economic, but also political – necessitate more caution, even self-interest in the assessment of their engagements with either side.

The “affirmation of Latin American identity…a community with a shared history, a mestizo past” is juxtaposed with its historic limitations: lack of regional cohesion; inability to sustain vibrant institutions; vulnerability to global crises (COVID-19 counted 30% of global deaths in a region with 8% of the global population); and limited international clout. These debilities may be responsible for “current acquiescence to the US and future subjugation to China” The contributors are incisive about the region’s stagnant share in world trade at 5%, and the predominance of primary product exports; and the low score of 4.3% for Brazil, Mexico and Argentina in the Materials Capability Index of hard power, while the US stands at 20, China at 18 and India at 5.7%.

Though the Monroe Doctrine – an arrogant declaration of US quasi-suzerainty over the region in 1823 – no longer holds, US influence is considerable. Here Tussie’s analysis is piercing. After World War II, the superpower created multilateral and regional organisations and alliances to enable it to dominate international relations. The end of the Cold War provided steroids to its ambitions. The rise of China and its growing influence has exposed several multilateral organisations to power politics even as Big Brother has ceded its primacy in terms of economic engagement with Latin America. In this post-hegemonic world Latin America seeks its rightful place. This is evident in its refusal to toe the NATO line on the war in Ukraine. Even countries not “aligned” with the Eurasian power (Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia) have refused to abide by sanctions against Russia, nor will they supply arms to Ukraine.

The “dispute for hegemony in the globalized world” between the US and China which Heine describes as “not between different systems but between two types of capitalism”, takes centre stage. The decline of the liberal international order coincides with the rise of China, indeed of all Asia. This calls, to some extent at least, for a more agnostic ideological stance in foreign policy. Unlike the US, China has no ostensible military presence in Latin America, though it has established strategic partnerships with several countries, especially Brazil and Argentina. 21 Latin American nations have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, which through extensive funding, project expertise and execution, enables them to assert a greater degree of economic autonomy.

Castaneda disaggregates the north (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean) from South America, the former more susceptible to US influence. Nevertheless, recent governments in the north have asserted themselves by terminating diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favour of China (Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Dominican Republic). South American governments withstood US pressure over a Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2005 but could not keep the momentum set by the UNASUR or most other regional organisations, weakening its international bargaining power. Rosales points out how vulnerable the region is to trade wars initiated by the Trump presidency against China. Amorim puts the challenge succinctly: “…how to manoeuvre…without taking sides and making strategic use of the best each superpower has to offer.”

The editors summarise the doctrine aptly in their closing chapter, describing ANA as a foreign policy doctrine that adapts Afro-Asian-Latin American solidarity “to the realities of …a century in which the old Third World has been replaced by a New South… An uncompromising commitment to the principle of non-alignment is decisive for this.” This is a seminal work which articulates the basis of much of the region’s modern foreign policy. It is as timely as it is relevant.

Deepak Bhojwani is a retired diplomat and former Consul General of India in Sao Paulo, Brazil.