BY JUAN GABRIEL TOKATLIAN | APRIL 28, 2022
Regional governments should take steps to ensure they are “not once again a battleground for larger powers,” an Argentine scholar writes
BUENOS AIRES — Numerous politicians and scholars in the United States seem obsessed by, and perhaps even joyful about, the possibility that the world is entering a new Cold War, this time between their country and China. Some of these voices may believe that such a conflict could pave the way for a fresh Pax Americana, a beneficent world order led once again from Washington. But from a Latin American viewpoint, such a new era of confrontation must be avoided—and our countries should not be mere passive observers at this critical moment in history.
First of all, there is no reason to treat a new Cold War as inevitable: The rivalry between Washington and Beijing is one that can still be moderated and handled. The intensity and scope of U.S.-Chinese trade, the lack of nuclear parity between the United States and China, the degree of cultural and educational linkages, the mutual need to manage a better world governance on key issues such as climate change, among other facts, are completely different from the conflict with Moscow from 1947 to 1991.
Yes, there is a growing and complex competition between the United States and China: a contest between a low-competitive, finance-dominated American capitalism and a highly competitive state-led Chinese capitalist system, between a declining hegemonic power and a non-hegemonic power, between a polarized and eroding democracy and an authoritarian regime that faces emerging and critical tests such as demographic challenges, environmental issues, slower growth, and political reforms. But these are hardly reasons enough to once again assume the world will be cleaved in two.
Yet despite these divergences, history may yet repeat itself in certain ways. As during the 20th century confrontation, the United States once again seems tempted to translate its growing internal and international difficulties to the periphery, imposing the costs and burdens of such a rivalry on other countries. As a result, in much of the world, including Latin America, the talk is increasingly not of Pax but trying to avoid a major Bellum.
Let us consider the implications of the original Cold War in Latin America. To be sure, many of our problems, mistakes, and frustrations during those decades were homemade in origin, rather than imposed from abroad. It’s also true that the United States was in a very robust position in the Americas during that period, certainly more so than today. Washington’s hegemony was strong and its material influence quite powerful while Moscow, especially after the Cuban missile crisis, offered more ideology than significant material resources. Latin America and the Caribbean have never posed a major security threat to the United States. It’s also true that, despite the Cold War, the region managed to move ahead in many ways on its own volition, as an area mostly free of conflict among nations—arguably the only such case in the global South.
All this notwithstanding, the Cold War exacerbated many negative trends in the region and created many new problems. First, it enforced limited sovereignty: Countries in the region, prior to and after the Cuban Revolution, could not autonomously conduct crucial dimensions of their own domestic and external policies if they somehow affected U.S. interests or if U.S. national security managers perceived these policies as possible opportunities for meddling by the Soviet Union.
Second, it involved the regime change card: if there was the possibility of electing or having a reformist, center-left, or progressive government, Washington often tried to undermine that possibility via a coercive policy of promoting or supporting military coups. Third, it deployed a disciplining diplomacy: sometimes the direct use of force was employed by the U.S., as in Cuba (1961), the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), combined with sanctions (e.g., the decades-old Cuban embargo), the launching of low-intensity warfare in Central America throughout the 80s, and the imposition of protracted and ultimately failed crusades like the “War on Drugs.”
In sum, the experience of Latin America and the Caribbean with the Cold War was disastrous: more authoritarianism, massive human rights violations, and eventually transitions to low-intensity democracies; lost opportunities in terms of welfare, development, and diversification; unbalanced civil-military relations; rising migration towards the North, among many other consequences.
Latin America today—severely affected by social instability, political polarization, economic deterioration, and diplomatic fragmentation—does not want to be a battleground for a new Cold War. It is evident throughout the region, for both governments and citizens, that Washington is once more acting according to its traditional manipulative fashion of “with us or against us,” “democracy or autocracy,” trying in various ways to induce countries throughout Latin America to “choose a side.”
Beijing poses a serious challenge to the United States precisely because its power projection in Latin America is with material means not political dogmas, while Washington seems to be reverting to attitudes, styles, and tactics of the past, by implementing sanctions, securitizing questions like migration, insisting on futile anti-narcotics aid, and controlling a multilateral finance organization by imposing a controversial American president at the Inter-American Development Bank. It is obvious that the United States cannot keep its hands tied. However, that doesn’t imply that the main and only alternative is to revive the Cold War in Latin America with a condescending moral attitude.
Amid this context, as the ninth Summit of the Americas approaches, government officials and U.S.-based experts on Latin America are earnestly talking about an enduring partnership with the region. Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not very novel. We Latin Americans know this paternalistic language all too well. Basically, it means, “You should adapt” and “We know what is best for you.” We detect no serious attempt to hear our ideas and proposals, nor to grasp the diversity, needs and ongoing transformations of the region. Unfortunately, Washington does not seem interested in a genuine dialogue about the realities of Latin America and the Caribbean, some of them similar to what is happening in the United States: democracy, human rights, climate change, inequality, innovation and technology, jobs, productive diversification. Perhaps sectors in U.S. civil society (academics, think-tankers, NGOs, workers, women and environmental movements, the media) may be more open to initiate a less prejudicial and more mature conversation, but that remains to be seen.
In this context, it is important to understand that Latin America cannot and should not be placed in the position of either aligning with Washington or facing the wrath of U.S. policymakers. This would be a recipe for more regional instability. Instead, seen through a more realistic lens, one can realize that the vast majority of Latin American countries are already searching for a more balanced foreign policy: a complex equilibrium in very difficult international circumstances. A diplomacy that seeks an equidistant position between Washington and Beijing is not an option; it is a necessity. We hope that many Americans will recognize that a new Cold War is damaging and counterproductive to U.S. national interests. In the meantime, we in Latin America can and should take steps to ensure we are not once again a battleground for larger powers.
Tokatlian is provost at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.