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Great Power Politics At Play in Latin America?

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By: Cameron McKibben, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

On February 3, testimony was presented to the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, regarding U.S. strategic interests in the region.[i] The testimony appears to align with the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS), released February 6, regarding U.S. global strategic positioning. While drug violence, corruption, and economics were discussed as major issues for the region, the concerns of geo-strategic competition and great power politics have subtly begun to dominate the U.S. security strategy discourse. Latin America will become a battleground for influence in the great power game, but Latin American countries are becoming more committed to liberating themselves from dependence on great powers.

The first sentence in the 2015 NSS in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is mentioned characterizes current Sino-U.S. relations. “The scope of our cooperation with China is unprecedented, even as we remain alert to China’s military modernization and reject any role for intimidation in resolving territorial disputes.”[ii] Both Beijing and Washington would be remiss to endanger bilateral economic relations, since the U.S. is China’s largest trading partner and the PRC is the second largest trading partner of the United States. Zhong Shan, vice minister of commerce of the PRC, describes U.S.-China trade as a “win-win.”[iii] However, the latter portion of the previously mentioned sentence indicates that tensions remain in Sino-U.S. relations, and there is obvious skepticism emanating from Washington, and Beijing for that matter, on the other’s intentions.

Washington has adopted an offensive realist view of the changing dynamics in the international system. Following the end of the Cold War, the United States reigned as the global hegemon. Despite facing economic competition from the European Union, and recently China, the strength of the U.S. military is unrivaled. Many argue that the world is not unipolar, rather it is led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or “Western” coalition, but Washington has largely unilaterally molded the international economic system promoting free markets in which capital accumulation and wealth are key. Even though Beijing may currently be integrating into the U.S.-led global economic system to promote its own development, upon obtaining the necessary relative power, its revisionist intentions will surface.[iv] Aspects of that international system, which the U.S. has created, may be threatened in the near future and Washington will react to protect the system in which it and its allies have prospered.

Offensive Realism in Great Power Rivalry

As the leading proponent of offensive realism, John Mearsheimer argues that due to physical constraints, hegemony is only achievable within a state’s own region, but acquiring regional hegemony is the only way in which a state can ensure its security.[v] Despite only being able to achieve regional hegemony, an offensive realist state will attempt to undermine the efforts of other states to become the hegemon of their respective regions. They accomplish this by using allied regional powers to contain the rising revisionist power, acting as an offshore balancer.[vi] While this is merely a basic explanation of offensive realism, it can be accurately applied to the emerging U.S.-China rivalry.

Within the National Security Strategy, the limitations of Washington’s ability to project its power around the globe are recognized:

“On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite.”[vii]

Still, the U.S. should be expected to continue to act as an offshore balancer. While not able to achieve hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, the U.S. has continued to strength its regional relations, particularly with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Washington has also encouraged the strengthening of relations between its allies and partners there, like the Australia-Japan free trade agreement and the strengthening of their defense cooperation in 2014. As the most economically dynamic region in the world today, the United States hopes to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific and to continue to benefit from its close relations there.

Despite the limitations of U.S. power, Washington, subscribing to offensive realism, will perceive China’s increased engagement with Latin America as a potential threat to the homeland and counteract these actions with maneuvers of its own. With the rise of China, a Cold War-like environment is arguably emerging. Washington and Beijing are seeking to build their respective blocs through building economic partnerships dependent on them and utilizing “soft power” tactics, the attraction of partners through exploiting shared cultural ties, values, and institutions in order to achieve a favorable result.[viii] Due to its proximity to the United States, Latin America will become critical in the Sino-U.S. rivalry.

Image by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, 1ERA REUNIÓN MINISTERIAL FORO CELAC CHINA, BEIJING, VISITA OFICIAL CHINA, 08 ENERO 2014," Flickr Creative Commons
Image by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador, “1ERA REUNIÓN MINISTERIAL FORO CELAC CHINA, BEIJING, VISITA OFICIAL CHINA, 08 ENERO 2014,” Flickr Creative Commons

A Struggle for Influence

Given the recent success of the first-ever China-CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) forum this January, an encroachment into its “neighborhood” may be perceived as a threat to national security by the United States. The warming of relations between Beijing and Latin American countries has increased Chinese presence in the region. In Washington’s view, this means closer proximity and increased capabilities to conduct reconnaissance on the homeland.

However, these actions by the PRC should be expected. The U.S. “pivot” towards Asia in recent years has been interpreted by the PRC as a containment policy to control its rise to hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, Beijing is reacting to counter the threat that the United States imposes in the Asia-Pacific through increased engagement in Latin America and attempting to subtly attract traditional U.S. partners into the Chinese orbit of influence. Increased economic exchanges and soft power to increase its regional influence is the preferred tactic for either power because neither currently wants to destabilize the economic system. Direct conflict between China and the United States would be detrimental worldwide.

The blame falls on the United States for the void that Beijing has stepped in to fill in Latin America. As a dynamic and leading world economy with a state accepting of all political systems and similar colonial history as Latin America, although maybe not a natural partner, China’s engagement in the region is appropriate. It is necessary to examine the forces motivating Latin American countries to choose to align closer with Beijing.

The benefit of proximity is where the similarities between the United States and many countries in Latin America, namely the ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) members end. On the other hand, the PRC provides Latin American countries with an economic partner on par with the United States, without the additional weight of potential U.S. interference in their domestic affairs. Whereas Washington’s regional policy can often be seen as pursuant to maintaining its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, China concerns itself with diversifying its economic partners and satisfying its energy and food security needs, with the added bonus of building strategically beneficial relationships in proximity to the United States.

In addition to regularly clashing with ALBA countries, Washington has recently been rebuked by other Latin American governments for its interventionist actions. United States presidential candidate and Florida Senator Marco Rubio encouraged Secretary of State John Kerry to create an “independent, internationally assisted investigation” of the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman. Senator Rubio went on to question the ability of the Argentine government “to conduct a fair and impartial investigation.”[ix] Argentina responded to these statements during a press conference by Chief of Cabinet Jorge Capitanich in which he accused Rubio of having “imperialist vision.”[x] Rubio’s comments have been widely criticized as interfering into the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.

In 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff condemned the United States after discovering that Washington had been conducting electronic surveillance on Brazil. Connected to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the revelation confirmed that the United States had been spying on Brazil while also seeking closer relations and a strategic partnership with the country. Rousseff described Washington’s actions as “a breach of international law and an affront” to Brazil’s sovereignty.[xi]

Washington’s southern neighbors have gained confidence in their rights as states and are working to develop an identity independent of the United States. CELAC, founded in 2011 as an alternative to the U.S.-led Organization of American States (OAS), is considered a regional action to reduce Washington’s regional influence. Latin American countries are increasingly less likely to tolerate U.S. interference in their domestic affairs. During a meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, UNASUR Secretary General and former Colombian President Ernesto Samper stated that “any intention produced to destabilize a democracy or intention to destabilize a government should count [on] unanimous rejection from all of the UNASUR nations.”[xii]

Latin America is in a stage of decolonization. Now a regional movement, Latin American countries are banding together to ward off foreign intervention and are expecting the respect of their sovereignty. Since the region was colonized by the Europeans in the late 15th Century, Latin Americans have found themselves dominated by great powers. Championed by the Bolivarian movement, many Latin American countries now attempt to resist U.S. hegemony aimed at continued domination of the region. Latin America is now increasingly integrating through regional multilateral organizations aimed at creating Patria Grande (“Great Nation”), which exclude states such as the United States that have historically executed interventionist policies there. Through this, the region seeks to establish a zone of peace within a multi-polar system.

It is not to say that these states are opposed to having good relations with great powers, especially Washington, as there are significant economic benefits that flow from relations with the United States. However, the people and the states of Latin America place a premium on dignity and liberating themselves from the oppression that they experienced after their colonization and have perceived since then under the domination of hegemonic powers. Enrique Dussel, a founder of the Philosophy of Liberation, argues that states like the U.S. and powerful European countries do not understand the problems faced by post-colonial states.[xiii] Thus, China, as an understanding, formerly exploited country, allows Latin America to avoid becoming economically dependent on the United States.


During the testimony Dr. R. Evan Ellis declared that “Latin America and the Caribbean deserve [U.S.] attention; its security and prosperity are in our common interest.”[xiv] The region provides a significant opportunity for China to achieve a strategic advantage over the United States.

China, as the major rival of the United States, is an economic competitor, but remains decades behind in terms of traditional military strength. As Stephen Walt argues, “a powerful China will not want the United States to have close alliances and a large military presence near its borders, and it will undoubtedly try to push U.S. forces out of the Asia-Pacific region.”[xv] The United States should be expected to act similarly in its region. Still, while coercive power may be pragmatic under certain circumstances, the two powers clearly want to avoid direct military conflict and the United States must avoid these strategies in its relations with Latin America. Instead, pushing their respective influences out of their own regions must occur through increased economic exchange and soft power tactics.

For this reason, a refocus to the Western Hemisphere is necessary, but must promote cooperative engagement and relationship building among states with which the United States has historically had unstable relations. The mistrust of the U.S. and unstable relations have been a result of U.S.-backed wars against popular movements in the 1980s and more recently alleged U.S. support for coups against Latin American leaders. For example, Washington has allegedly supported coups in Venezuela targeting Hugo Chávez in 2002, the 2009 Honduras coup overthrowing Manuel Zelaya, the 2010 uprising against Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and most recently against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.[xvi]

Mutual respect for state sovereignty and emphasizing fair relationships will be critical for the U.S. in advancing its political, economic, and security interests in the region. Despite continued mistrust of Washington, most Latin American countries remain keen to maintain cordial relations with the United States, given the potential economic benefits. United States policy initiatives have largely focused on domestic issues in Latin America, which have led Washington to earn an interventionist label in the region. U.S. policymakers must see the larger picture.

The U.S. has focused inordinately on the domestic affairs in states with little geo-strategic impact on Washington’s interest, raising these countries skepticism of U.S. intentions and increasing the potential for China or other rival powers to exert influence there. It would behoove U.S. policymakers to seek rapprochement, understanding that it will take time to mitigate the mistrust, with these countries and extend one-sided relationships that benefit the Latin American countries, much as it did with its “wheel-and-spokes” plan in Asia. Closer relations and establishing new partners in Latin America could serve to limit the influence that China can exercise within the region.
By: Cameron McKibben, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.

Featured Image is an Official White House photo by Pete Souza, Retrieved From Flickr Creative Commons,

[i] Testimony was presented by Dr. R. Evans Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College; Mr. Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society; Ms. Bonnie Glick, Senior Vice President of GlobalConnect Divison of the Meridian International Center; and Dr. Shannon K. O’Neil, Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. For complete witness statements and biographies see,

[ii] The President of the United States of America, National Security Strategy, February 2015.

[iii] Zhong Shan, “U.S.-China Trade is a Win-Win Game,” Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States, accessed February 9, 2015,

[iv] An in-depth analysis of China’s future intention are outside the scope of this examination, but for more information see, John Mearsheimer, “China’s Unpeaceful Rise,” Current History (April 2006): 160-162;

[v] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001), 35.

[vi] Ibid, 141.

[vii] National Security Strategy, President’s Remarks.

[viii] For more on “soft power” see, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy, No. 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171; Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Mean to Success in World Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004).

[ix] “Argentina Calls out US Republican Meddling in Nisman Case,” teleSUR, accessed February 5, 2015,

[x] “Capitanich to US Rubio: Argentina accepts no foreign intromission, imperialist visions,” Buenos Aires Herald, accessed February 9, 2015,

[xi] “Brazil’s president condemns NSA spying,” The Washington Post, accessed February 6, 2015,

[xii] Ernesto Samper, “Samper: Injerencia de EEUU en Venezuela cuenta con el rechazo de las naciones de la Unasur,” UNASUR, Caracas, Venezuela, February 4, 2015, unofficial translation by the author.

[xiii] Enrique Dussel, “The Philosophy of Liberation: An Interview with Enrique Dussel (Part I),” conducted by Mahvish Ahmad, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico, accessed February 11, 2015 from Naked Punch,

[xiv] R. Evan Ellis, “The Strategic Importance of the Western Hemisphere: Defining U.S. Interests in the Region,” Testimony to the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

[xv] Stephen M. Walt, “Dealing with a Chinese Monroe Doctrine,” The New York Times, accessed February 11, 2015, for-a-cold-war-with-china/dealing-with-a-chinese-monroe-doctrine.

[xvi] Anne Gearan, “Bolivian leader lectures Gates about US behavior,” Associated Press, accessed February 11, 2015,