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date: 26 January 2021

Latin American Foreign Policyfree

  • Amy BelowAmy BelowSchool of Public Policy, Oregon State University


Latin American foreign policy has drawn the attention of scholars since the 1960s. Foreign policy–related literature began to surge in the 1980s and 1990s, with a focus on both economic and political development. As development in the region lagged behind that of its northern neighbors, Latin American had to rely on foreign aid, largely from the United States. In addition to foreign aid, two of the most prevalent topics discussed in the literature are trade/economic liberalization and regional economic integration (for example, Mercosur and NAFTA). During and after the Cold War, Latin America played a strategic foreign policy role as it became the object of a rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union hoping to expand their power and/or contain that of the other. This role was also explored in a considerably larger body of research, along with the decision of Latin American nations to diversify their foreign relations in the post–Cold War era. Furthermore, scholars have analyzed different regions/countries that have become new and/or expanded targets of Latin American foreign policy, including the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Despite the substantial amount of scholarship that has accumulated over the years, a unified theory of Latin American foreign policy remains elusive. Future research should therefore focus on the development of a theory that incorporates the multiple explanatory variables that influence foreign policy formulation and takes into account their relative importance and the effects on each other.


While theories designed to explain US and European foreign policy, for example, are plentiful and have been empirically tested time and again, the same cannot be said for Latin American foreign policy. While the surge in the study of Latin American foreign policy that began in the 1960s (Drekonja-Kornat 1986) and has continued ever since expanded the field and contributed to a greater understanding of foreign policy behavior in the region, a coherent mid-range theory of Latin American foreign policy has yet to mature. Many scholars agree that mechanistically applying existing US-oriented theories is inappropriate and would not help overcome the perceived shortfall. Nations in the region, and their respective decision makers, face a different set of existing conditions and have a unique set of policy concerns and priorities that do not fit well into these preexisting molds. However, while the development of a canon of literature specific to Latin American foreign policy lags behind that for other regions, there are a number of common explanatory threads woven throughout existing literature that shed light on the sources of Latin American foreign policy. Some of the most common include dependency theory and related economic concerns, structural realism, and presidential leadership.

This review essay will survey existing literature in the field, extracting and highlighting common themes and dialogues such as those listed above as they pertain to the goal of explaining and understanding Latin American foreign policy. The essay also includes, based on the ongoing dialogue in existing literature, a discussion of whether or not a theory of Latin American foreign policy exists. While extensive work has been conducted in public and private institutions and a plethora of articles have been written in popular magazines on Latin America in the international system, this review will focus on scholarly writings in academic books and journal articles. Also, although some Spanish language publications are included, this review will focus on literature published in English. Similarly, this essay does not profess to be an exhaustive review of pertinent literature on the topic, but an overview of some prominent and less prominent, yet representative works. The essay is similarly limited in that it will focus solely on the foreign policy of continental Latin American states. While a number of scholarly publications discuss and analyze Latin America and the Caribbean region as a whole, a separate review essay covers Caribbean foreign policy.

Historical Overview

Historically, the study of Latin America in the international system was a compilation of atheoretical histories and descriptions of state interactions. In a contemporary overview of such early works, Atkins (2001) provides a comprehensive overview of the general history of scholarly study on Latin America and international relations. As Atkins (1990) writes, in these early works there was little to no study of foreign policy formulation or the factors influencing foreign policy making. Theory generation was not a primary goal. In addition, research at the time focused on particular countries, namely the most “popular” and larger states. (Such unequal attention to particular states continues today, though there is more breadth in overall coverage than in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) One of the first attempts to specifically study foreign policy making was conducted by Davis and Wilson in 1975. Their work is a compilation of chapters written by political scientists, historians, and economists all focusing on factors within particular nations/regions, and not on US policies toward these countries, as was common in similar work at the time.

Another early work, by Davis et al. (1977), advertises itself as a book on the diplomatic history of Latin American foreign relations, highlighting the fact that it is one of the earlier works to adopt a Latin American perspective (both regionally and country-specific) rather than the common US-centric perspective. However, in the introductory chapter, Davis suggests that Latin American foreign policy in the 1970s was the result of “all the conflicts and rivalries of the European nations in their centuries-long fight with each other for the possession of America” (1977:2). In making such a statement, the remainder of the book, though historically oriented, serves as an early theorization of sources of Latin American foreign policy.

The 1980s saw the creation of new international studies centers with a focus on Latin American countries and their place in the international community. The growth in new cross-cultural projects, scholar exchanges, and the like coincided with the emergence of a “new” way to study Latin American international relations. Research in the 1980s expanded upon earlier works to include a number of edited volumes (Ferris and Lincoln 1981; Drekonja-Kornat and Tokatlián 1983; Lincoln and Ferris 1984; Muñoz and Tulchin 1984) that were less descriptive in nature and attempted to generate theories about Latin American foreign policy. Ferris and Lincoln’s (1981) book has been noted as one of the first to provide a comparative framework for the analysis of Latin American foreign policies in light of recognized regional patterns of behavior (Drekonja-Kornat 1986). The book considers global and regional foreign policies, recognizing that changes in both of these contexts account for the distinctiveness of each country’s foreign policies. In an attempt to gain recognition in the international system as independent countries, Latin American states had become increasingly more diversified in their dependencies and thus had created more distinctive foreign policies than in the past. This paved the way for edited volumes of in-depth, country-specific case studies.

Lincoln and Ferris’s follow-up book (Lincoln and Ferris 1984), similarly focused on efforts to develop theories of Latin American foreign policy, was composed of both thematically organized essays and case studies. Such a division of chapters was highly common in books on Latin American (and Caribbean) foreign policy then, as it remains today. The book elaborated on the 1981 volume and presented a theoretical outline for the study of Latin American foreign policy. While unquestionably more theoretical in nature than publications in the 1970s, the authors’ introductory chapter similarly emphasized the importance of the region’s historical experiences in explaining foreign policy. Other noteworthy edited volumes include Muñoz and Tulchin’s (1984 and 1996) books. Both volumes are similarly focused on theory development via a comparative study of Latin American countries. The 1984 volume highlights the role of both internal and external sources of foreign policy. Their 1996 volume noted the evolution of the study of Latin American foreign policy from an emphasis on international law and diplomatic history (a good example being Goebel 1982) to the inclusion of modern themes such as regional autonomy, economic development, and the influence of the US on Latin American international relations.

Other early works on Latin America and international relations include Bailey (1967), Parkinson (1974), and Treverton (1977). Lowenthal (1983) provides a thorough summary of early research (including key people and institutions conducting research on the topic) through the early 1980s. Dent (1990) also provides a thorough overview and bibliography of literature on Latin American comparative and international studies (including, in some cases, informative annotated bibliographies).

Foreign Policy–Related Topics

Other foreign policy–related literature to surge in the 1980s and 1990s focused on development, both economic and political. Although not related to foreign policy directly, it is worth mentioning the large literature on Latin American economic development and democratization written from a regional and/or comparative perspective. Examples include Kay’s (1989) Latin American Theories of Development and Underdevelopment, Wynia’s (1990) The Politics of Latin American Development, and Wiarda and Kline’s more recent (2000) book entitled Latin American Politics and Development. Cardoso and Faletto’s (1979) Dependency and Development in Latin America is very prominent in the literature and although it is not about foreign policy specifically, the fact that it highlights dependency theory suggests that international relations, specifically economic relations with other states, are important factors in regional and state-level development.

As development in Latin American lagged behind that of its northern neighbors, the region found itself in need of financial assistance. As a result, there is a long history of Latin American states receiving foreign aid, largely from the US. A majority of related literature presents the topic as a matter of US foreign policy – the US providing aid to Latin America. However, the same policies are Latin American foreign policies as well, policies to ask for or accept foreign aid. One of the most prominent inter-American policies was President Kennedy’s 1961 Alliance for Progress. While a majority of the literature about the program adopts a US perspective (i.e., Adams 2000; Taffet 2007), some pieces (articles, book chapters, etc.) are written by Latin American scholars. Scheman’s (1988) edited volume is a thorough overview of the program and the politics behind it and incorporates essays by US and Latino scholars.

Economic Foreign Policy and Regional Integration

Another body of literature that is closely related to the developmental difficulties in the region and one that has been greatly impacted by the debt crisis the region endured in the 1980s (known as the “lost decade” due to a lack of economic growth), is that of economic foreign policy. In addition to foreign aid, two of the most prevalent topics studied, though not unrelated to each other, are trade/economic liberalization and regional economic integration. Largely due to changing international contexts, Latin American countries have increasingly engaged in a process of economic liberalization and diversification, domestically, regionally, and internationally. As previously suggested, a majority of literature on Latin American foreign policy is not codified as such, rarely using the terminology “foreign policy.” The literature does not expressly contribute to generating theories of Latin American foreign policy (to be discussed in greater detail below), but the contents and conclusions therein help inform theory development. One such example is The Latin American Integration Process in 1988/1989/1990 (Institute for Latin American Integration 1992). The report specifically analyzes meetings of the Rio Group, the initial steps in the formation of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, but a review of the book can reveal information pertinent to Latin American foreign policy in the form of economic regional integration. Bradford’s edited volume (1992) similarly discusses economic integration efforts and provides an outlook for the future. A more contemporary book and one that is representative of more analytical approaches to the topic is Prevost and Campos’s (2002) Neoliberalism and Neopanamericanism: The View from Latin America. The edited volume covers economic/trade issues but also includes discussion of cultural, security, and environmental issues related to hemispheric and sub/regional integration.

One of the earlier works addressing regional economic integration and trade policies is Wionczek’s edited (1966) volume Latin American Economic Integration: Experiences and Prospects, which details the experience of the Latin America Free Trade Association (LAFTA) of 1960, including technical and theoretical critiques of the agreement. Although LAFTA (which became the Latin American Integration Association or ALADI in 1980) has its critics, it provided the foundation for the eventual creation and evolution of integrated common markets such as the Andean Pact, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty, the Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

As regards sources of foreign policy behavior in early regional economic integration and in specific regards to the Andean Pact (1968) and Amazon Treaty (1978), Ferris (1981) concludes that domestic-level factors are key. Ferris writes that “analysis of the national foreign policies of the member nations is the most profitable avenue for understanding Latin American regional cooperation (1981:170). For example, the increasing presence of reformist democratic principles in the region’s states and Brazil’s willingness to take a leadership role facilitated both subregional agreements. Other domestic-level factors highlighted are domestic political (regime) changes and changes in economic capabilities.

Scholars have made similar conclusions about the reasons behind sub/regional economic integration in the early 1990s, specifically explanations for the emergence of Mercosur and NAFTA. The two are the most often analyzed regional trade agreements and generally monopolize the literature. As regards the creation of Mercosur, Pereira (1999) writes that the economic crisis in the 1980s provided the impetus for integration. The crisis led to protectionism, which then paved the way for democratic transition and regional cooperation. Hirst (1999) gives similar credit for the institution’s persistence to the 1994 Mexican peso crisis. According to his theorization, the crisis gave the US pause to increase free trade in the region, thereby giving Argentina and Brazil (the two principal participants in Mercosur in addition to Paraguay and Uruguay) additional cause to work together in the face of external threats (no assistance from an economic giant).

Morris and Passe-Smith (2001) also give considerable credit to the 1994 Mexican peso crisis for the evolution of NAFTA into its current form and, contemporaneously, for altered US–Mexican relations. The crisis led to nationalist policies on the part of both parties and concessionary reactions to specific details of the agreement. Interestingly, the authors acknowledge the strong opposition of a notable portion of the Mexican electorate (feeling that they were “duped” by President Salinas [2001:143]), but note that President Zedillo continued to support the pact publicly (as did his US counterpart).

In addition to negative economic conditions, scholars have given explanatory weight to a number of other domestic factors including national interest, regime change, and political institutions. For instance, in his edited volume covering a number of regional integration efforts (including Mercosur, NAFTA, the Andean Pact, the Central American Common Market, and the Caribbean Community and Common Market), Bulmer-Thomas (2001) argues that although states were responding to international constraints and pressures, they were still able to exercise agential power. States made strategic, political decisions to cooperate regionally. Kalthenthaler and Mora (2002) similarly suggest that the policy elite’s decisions to create and join Mercosur were an expression of domestic political concerns. According to Mecham (2003:79), Mercosur “was a political project […] with strong economic objectives.” The countries were drawn together because of strong shared interests in economic development. Each country made the conscious decision to increase cooperation, especially economic cooperation, as it was in the national interest of each to do so. Mecham (2003) also acknowledges that leadership changes in both Argentina and Brazil, from military to democratically elected governments, helped stimulate the process of cooperation.

Many of the same ideas and discussions as those above are pertinent to the substantial literature on NAFTA. (A large portion of NAFTA related literature focuses on the expected and/or perceived impacts of the agreement on member states and is thus not included in this essay.) For example, Cameron and Tomlin (2000) and Poitras (2002) both argue that the creation of NAFTA was state led. As Cameron and Tomlin suggest, Mexico’s decision to join was not a response to structural economic forces, but was an active policy choice. In fact, it was a policy decision that stood in opposition to a number of domestic constituencies; a decision was made not to heed that opposition. Just as a number of scholars opine that the creation of Mercosur was the result of state led political strategizing (see above), some in the field suggest the same for the creation of NAFTA. For example, Poitras and Robinson (1994) adopt Cold War Soviet terminology to paint a portrait of Mexico’s President Salinas’s strategic foreign policy making. The authors call NAFTA Salinas’s “Perestroika without glasnost,” essentially his economic restructuring without openness and transparency (1994:29).

Other scholars are of the opinion that such decisions to increase trade with neighboring states, be they in Latin America or North America, were “part and parcel of the region’s economic opening” (Wise 2003:18). According to Wise (1998:25), NAFTA was an “intervening variable” in “the broader context of Mexico’s long-term economic reform process and the growing array of regional trade agreements” (see also Fox 2004:256).

Literature on Latin American politics pays considerable attention to the role of presidents (presidentialism or presidencialismo) (for example Mainwaring 1990; Mainwaring and Shugart 1997; Von Mettenheim 1997). The same extends to the study of economic regional integration in Latin America. Some scholars believe that presidents played a crucial role in the creation of Mercosur (i.e., Nuñez 2001). Malamud (2005) does not deny the importance of presidents in the formation of Mercosur, but posits that political institutions are in fact more fundamental in affecting the decision to cooperate subregionally. Particular institutions and governmental structures (i.e., number, type, and control of branches of government, constitutions, etc.) in each country made it possible for each president to play the said key roles. Due to the composition of institutions in their countries, presidents were awarded the authority and capacity to, in effect, take control of the decision making process and facilitate regional cooperation in their vision. According to Malamud, “the tasks [the presidents] performed were not merely based on charismatic leadership but also on institutional capabilities” (2005:159). Parish (2006) similarly highlights the importance of domestic politics and takes an institutional approach to explaining cooperation between Argentina and Chile. Parish recognizes the reality of two-level games, acknowledging the effect both international and domestic forces have, but states that institutions are “important intervening variables” (2006:145).

Mecham (2003), however, also makes note of forces external to states as having influenced regional integration. One such influence was that of globalization. Many Latin American countries saw opportunity in the “new” world; they saw liberalizing of their markets and economic cooperation as a way to “come in from the periphery” (2003:369). Thus, regional integration was a way to reduce dependency and increase global economic status.

Though not focusing on the countries’ initial decisions to create Mercosur, Mera (2005) provides a summary of explanations for the trade bloc’s survival despite periods of distress. Her summary nicely encapsulates some of the aforementioned determinants of economic foreign policy in subregions of the Americas. First, Argentina and Brazil had the same strategic interests in that the two nations “shared a sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the external environment” that promoted cooperation (2005:109). Second, cooperation was sustained as executive officials had been socialized by regional institutions (thus reiterating the importance of institutions). Mera adds a third factor and at least partially attributes Mercosur’s survival to the prominent role of Brazil (similar to Ferris’s [1981] argument). As it was the strongest state in the region, it had self-interest in sustaining the trade agreement.

Interjecting an ideological explanation for NAFTA’s emergence, Golob (2003) argues that the combination of “an exogenous shock and an internal legitimacy crisis” created the “critical juncture” necessary to force such an abrupt change in foreign policy, from a position of nationalism and protectionism to one supportive of bilateral trade (2003:394, 369). The external shock was the economic crisis of the early 1980s and the legitimacy crisis was the subsequent inability of the governing elites to protect their countries from the crisis. In concert, the two circumstances cultivated the ideological shift that, in turn, facilitated the policy shift.

A majority of the foreign policies targeted at regional economic integration (i.e., Mercosur and NAFTA) began in the 1980s and 1990s. Margheritis’s edited volume Latin American Democracies in the New Global Economy (2003) focuses on economic foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In her introductory chapter, Margheritis writes that the modern strain of regional cooperation differs markedly from early efforts. With more ambitious policy goals, they are “primarily outward-oriented; that is, [they are] based on an open borders policy and export-oriented insertion in international markets that is in opposition to the inward-oriented integration schemes pursued within the import-substitution strategy” (2003:9). In other words, foreign policy goals, and thus the policies themselves, have evolved and become more cosmopolitan as Latin American states strive to become more competitive in the international system. However, these outward-oriented development policies retain inward-looking perspectives as the states are also concerned with democratization and other political and social issues (in addition to purely economic ones). In this way, Margheritis notes that economic foreign policy is not just a two-level game but a multiple-level game. Subsequently, its study “must pay due attention to both domestic and international variables” (2003:2). Levels of regional economic integration and capital flows are important; so too are levels of democratization and decentralization within states.

Russell and Tokatlian (2003) make a related distinction between early integration efforts and their contemporaries. Whereas “classic” integration focused on import substitution and protectionism, later experiments actually work toward intraregional interdependence (2003:18). Instead of using policies of integration to fortify autonomy, they are used to protect common goods. (The authors specify the protection of human rights and environment, democracy, and security as examples of common goods.) As such, regional economic policies are not set to protect “antagonistic autonomy” but “relational autonomy” (2003:1). States can retain their autonomy and free will and work collaboratively to do so. Again, the economic foreign policy goals have become broader in scope and more diverse in form. The changes that Margheritis (2003) and Russell and Tokatlian (2003) write about can likely be attributed to the significant changes in the international system that resulted at the end of the Cold War.

Foreign Policy and the Cold War: During and After

Although not as high profile as Asia (particularly North Korea and Vietnam), Latin America played a strategic foreign policy role during the Cold War. With both the US and Soviets hoping to expand their power and/or contain that of the other, Latin America found itself caught in the middle of a superpower rivalry. States in the region found themselves in a convenient predicament as both the US and the Soviets vied for their allegiance. However, once the Cold War ended, Latin America found itself in a “new world.” No longer subject to such strong oversight by US and Soviet leaders, states began to expand their foreign relations beyond regional neighbors and the rival superpowers. The literature on Latin American foreign policy reflects these transformational changes and incorporates them into theory development.

While both superpowers had an interest in maintaining positive relations with Latin America, largely, though not exclusively, due to geographic location, the region fell under the power of the US. A number of states maintained, if not periodic, expanding relations with Moscow. A number of the books and articles that cover diplomatic and political relations between Latin America and Russia/the Soviet Union focus on the Soviet perspective (Jackson 1969; Oswald and Strover 1970; Blasier 1987; Miller 1989). Nevertheless, these works do provide insight into Latin America’s foreign policy calculations. (A vast majority of research logically emphasizes the importance of Cuba in the relationship. More on this topic can be found in the essay titled “Caribbean Foreign Policy” in the Compendium series.) Notable exceptions are works by Augusto Varas (1987; 1996) that consider Soviet–Latin American relations in terms of Latin American foreign policy.

Historically speaking, in the interwar years, only Mexico and Uruguay had state-to-state relations with Moscow. During World War II and due to prompting by the US, there was an increase in foreign relations when Russia joined the Allied cause. However, when the war concluded almost all Latin American–Soviet ties were severed, with the exception of Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina (Miller 1989). Thus, as a whole, Latin America refused diplomatic relations with the Soviets and instead implemented pro-Washington foreign policies.

However, relations began to improve between Latin American states and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and especially with the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The Soviets embraced active efforts to improve diplomatic (cultural, political, and economic) relations with Latin America, a trend that extended into the 1970s and 1980s (Miller 1989). The Soviets also began to infiltrate the region on an ideological level as was evidenced by various revolutions and socialist and guerrilla movements throughout the region. Mikoyan (1994) emphasizes the pervasiveness of the close ties between Latin American states and the Soviet Union, writing that “there was not a single area in the Americas where Washington felt free of the threat of troublesome developments somehow linked to Moscow” (1994:107). Nevertheless, Mikoyan also notes that Moscow did not pay real, significant attention to Latin America until 1991.

The emphasis on research from a Soviet perspective and the focus on changes in Soviet foreign policy toward Latin America suggest that the foreign policy of Latin American states toward the Soviets was a reaction to Soviet policy, reactive not proactive. In contrast, Varas (1996) writes that, beginning in the 1960s, Latin America began to establish, and in some cases reestablish, relations with the USSR – placing agency within Latin America. These states began loosening themselves from the grip of the US and became more independent in world politics. However, Varas also emphasizes systemic factors manifest in the triangle of relations between the US, the Soviet Union, and Latin America, writing that “Soviet–Latin American linkages remained conditioned by U.S.–Soviet relations” (1996:238). Although Latin American foreign policy slowly became more independent of US dominance, Latin American states remained cautious that their foreign policies never exceeded the limits of US tolerance.

In an addition to more traditional research on Latin American international relations during the Cold War, Joseph and Spencer (2008) contribute a reinterpretation of Cold War histories that focuses on the social, political, and cultural aspects of the Cold War in the South. The edited volume includes a group of essays that discuss Latin America’s position between the two superpowers (as well as essays focusing on more domestic-oriented facets of the Cold War in the region).

In addition to studies of Latin American foreign relations during the Cold War, a considerably larger body of literature has emerged devoted to Latin America in a post–Cold War world. Such scholarship considers Latin America’s position in the “new world” – a world wherein international relations would be reconfigured and wherein Latin America had the opportunity to carve out its own foreign policy without the same oppressive oversight of the “warring” superpowers. Within the dynamics of the new international order, Latin American states began broadening their foreign policy targets to the East, West, and South. This expansion is largely due to the desire to diversify relations and reduce dependence on the US (Jarrin 1991).

As the beginning of the end of the Cold War came into sight, Latin America saw itself losing its strategic value in the eyes of the two superpowers. According to Jarrin (1991), the policy of détente was largely responsible; its position of importance diminished, Latin America needed to find a new place for itself in the international system. In the first half of the 1990s, a number of authors wrote prophetic pieces about where they saw the future of Latin American foreign relations heading (i.e., Weeks 1991; Bradford 1992; Lowenthal and Treverton 1994; Domínguez 2000; Tulchin and Espach 2001). Others wrote with the benefit of additional hindsight. They were able to take a look back at the impact the changing international system had on Latin American foreign policy.

For example, Domínguez’s (2008) edited volume considers the impacts the end of the Cold War has had on both security and democracy, taken together, in the region. While Domínguez, in his introductory chapter, posits the end of the Cold War has had critical influence on security issues in Central America (and the Caribbean, but not in South America), the chapter by Mares and Bernstein (2008) concludes that the same event had no effect on militarized security interest in the region as a whole. Nonetheless, the book takes a detailed look at how the “new” international system affected (and will likely affect) security policy in the region. Domínguez highlights how, instead of relying on a balance of power in the Southern Cone, states have engaged in cooperative strategies to create and/or maintain peace and security. He provides various examples of policies in and between Chile, Brazil, and Argentina as well as Central American (and Caribbean) states.

The area of foreign policy that was arguably most affected by the end of the Cold War was US–Latin American relations. As Atkins (2004) writes and other scholarship supports, the “end of the Cold War fundamentally changed inter-American relations” (2004:209). Atkins reviews seven different books on the topic, all covering Cold War and/or post–Cold War relations between the US and its Latin American neighbors. Each, though to varying degrees, considers the Latin American perspective on foreign relations. For example, Coerver and Hall (1999) and Smith (2000) employ historical approaches to studying the relationship and, as do all authors in the review, describe the relationship as one of asymmetrical power. Coerver and Hall discuss how Latin America’s perception of the Monroe Doctrine evolved over the years, moving from embracing the idea to resenting the document and resulting policies of interference in Latin American affairs. Yet Coerver and Hall do highlight the fact that, overall, the relationship has evolved from one of dominance to one of cooperation.

Although he does not explicitly state he is adopting the theoretical position, Smith (2000) takes a structural realist approach to studying the inter-American relationship. While also acknowledging the role of individuals and subjective perception of context, Smith argues that interstate structural variables determined the nature and scope of the relationship both during and after the Cold War (as well as throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

Covering the relationship up to the end of the Cold War, Gilderhus (2000) argues that Latin American foreign policy toward the US was not necessarily passive. The region pursued policies in line with its own aims and preferences. Additionally, Latin America defiantly resisted (often nationalistically) the imposition of US-centric democratic and capitalistic policies, a violation of state sovereignty.

Roett and Paz’s (2003) edited volume Latin America in a Changing Global Environment includes analysis of post–Cold War inter-American relations (including Canada) and expands the analysis to include the more recent effects of globalization and the September 11 terrorist attacks on Latin America’s international relations. Shifter’s (2003) introductory chapter begins by noting the sense of optimism in the 1990s for “continued progress toward more democratic politics, market economics and freer trade” but “such hopes have gradually dissipated […] in the face of disappointing policy outcomes in a wide array of areas” (2003:1). The remainder of the chapters focus on the challenges and opportunities that faced and face Latin America’s role in the “new” international system, including two individual chapters on “two pivotal states” Brazil and Mexico, keeping in mind external, systemic factors.

Diversifying Foreign Policy

In the post–Cold War world, Latin American states (particularly those in South America and Mexico) made the decision to diversify their foreign relations. What follows is a brief overview of some of the literature on different regions/countries that have become new and/or expanded targets of Latin American foreign policy. While specific examples of country-to-country foreign policies (i.e., Peru’s foreign policies toward Japan) can be found in works particular to each Latin American state (i.e., Lincoln’s [1984] “Peruvian Foreign Policy since the Return to Democratic Rule”), the following represent works that focus on Latin American foreign policy toward a specific region.

The United States

No review of scholarship on Latin American foreign policy would be complete without inclusion of US–Latin American relations. A number of books and articles have already been referenced above in various contexts. However, mention is also worthy of other research that has not fit neatly into any of the above topics. As previously mentioned, a majority, though not all, literature published in the US is written from a US-centric perspective and thus focuses on US foreign policy toward Latin America. Nonetheless, at least quick mention is warranted. Some additional examples include Lowenthal (1987), Martz (1995), Pike (1995), Bulmer-Thomas and Dunkerley (1999), Fishlow and Jones (1999), Pastor (2001), Prevost and Campos (2007), and Kryzanek (2008).


A logical relationship to develop and expand upon was that with the other North American neighbor, Canada. While there was generally no animosity between Latin America and Canada in the past, the two did not take particular notice of each other until the 1990s and the end of the Cold War (Doran 2003). A noteworthy exception, however, was Mexico’s notice of the 1987 Canada–US free trade agreement. Mexico interpreted it “as a threat to the country’s economic survival” and thus in 1991 suggested the inclusion of itself into a more inclusive free trade agreement (Daudelin and Dosman 1995:36). The creation and implementation of NAFTA in 1991 (and Canada’s joining the Organization of American States in 1990) solidified the two countries’ (and Canada and Latin America at large’s) new-found strategic interest in one another. Relations between Canada and Latin America have blossomed since and have grown to include cooperation as regards market liberalization and trade, security (Klepak 1995), and common problematic issues such as the drug trade and immigration. Lemco (1991) focuses specific attention on Canada’s involvement in peacekeeping in Central America. Stevenson (2000) uses the case study of Latin America to illustrate Canada’s role in the “new” international system.


Another major object of Latin American foreign policy is Europe. While relations between Argentina and Britain were more than tense during the Falklands/Malvinas Crisis (Goebel 1982; Deas 1989), generally speaking Latin American–European relations have been positive. In 1989, Bulmer-Thomas compiled a number of essays on British–Latin American relations highlighting cultural, political, and economic relations as well as sources of friction (including the Falklands/Malvinas crisis, territorial disagreements in Antarctica, and the illicit drug trade). In the preface, Bulmer-Thomas notes that “British relations with Latin America have fallen badly into disrepair” and later provided various illustrative examples (1989:ix). However, Bulmer-Thomas argues that this was not the result of conscious decisions on either side but the result of a number of policy disagreements including the three mentioned above as well as environmental issues (specifically the destruction of the tropical rainforests). A recent publication about the close relations between Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Chile’s Pinochet (when Pinochet was detained for 16 months in Britain after being charged with war crimes by a Spanish court) by Beckett (2002) sheds light on the important role of individuals in British–Latin American foreign policy. By and large, literature on British–Latin American foreign policy centers on the Falklands/Malvinas War or is set within a larger European context.

Aside from policies directed toward Great Britain, Latin American foreign policy has also included foreign relations with the European Union and individual Western European countries. According to Van Klaveren (1994:94), Western Europe has been important to Latin America “as a trade partner, as a source for foreign investments, as a financial counterpart, and as a provider of development cooperation” as well as a source of support for domestic democratization efforts. See Youngs (2002) for a more recent discussion of the European Union’s cooperative efforts to promote democracy in Latin America. Brazil, Chile, and especially Argentina have pursued active foreign policies with European states, largely for trade and economic purposes. Argentina, with a traditionally European orientation and identity, has been more active in Europe than other Latin American states.

Mexico historically fell behind the Southern Cone states as regards foreign policy in Europe but began expanding relations in the latter half of the twentieth century largely “as a partial economic and political counterweight to the United States” (Van Klaveren 1994:96). Sanahuja (2000) argues that a combination of global, regional, national, and subnational changes in the 1990s led to significant alterations in the positions of both Mexico and the European Union in the global economy. These alterations removed structural barriers and facilitated the eventual creation of the 1997 Global Agreement between the two international actors. The agreement was an “explicit commitment to democracy and reciprocal trade liberalization” (Sanahuja 2000:35) and was the precursor for the 2000 Mexico–EU Free Trade Agreement.

Other notable works include Whitehead’s (1999) chapter on the European Union and Latin American relations and Schoonover’s books on German (1998) and French (2000) involvement in Central America.


Less research has been conducted on Latin American foreign policies toward Asia, largely because there has historically been less high-profile cooperation between the two regions, though this is changing. Especially since the end of the Cold War and due to the internationalization of markets, Latin American states have begun to turn to their neighbors in the East as a form of foreign policy and economic diversification. Writing in the mid-1990s, Stallings and Horisaka (1994) noted that Japan had become increasingly important in Latin American foreign policy. For example, numerous Latin American presidents made highly publicized visits to Japan hoping to promote investment in their states and in hopes of opening the Japanese markets to Latin American goods. In spite of these efforts, Japan has remained hesitant to fully engage with Latin America. Thus, scholarship on Latin American foreign policy in Japan has been growing slowly.

In 2001, Berríos reviewed six recent examples of the yet small literature on Japanese–Latin American relations. Berríos argues that Japan’s economic presence in the region has been growing since the 1960s and 1970s, largely due to its increased global economic status and excellent automotive and electronics technology, but that some roadblocks remain. Both trade and foreign aid remain at modest levels due to “insufficient knowledge of each other’s markets” and the fact that aid still “comes in the form of loans that must be repaid” (2001:160).

Mora (1999) makes similar observations about increased yet modest foreign relations with China. While cooperation has increased in recent decades, largely due to the end of the Cold War and because both are hoping to diversify relations and dependencies, a number of obstacles have kept interactions to reserved levels. Such obstacles include geographic distance and transportation costs, China’s trade deficit with Latin America, and the influx of Chinese immigrants that make their way to the US via Mexico and Central America. (There have been reported instances of Mexican officials beating Chinese immigrants.)

In contrast, writing almost a decade later, Arnson et al. (2008) acknowledge the “vast expansion in trade and political relations between China and Latin America since the beginning of the new millennium” (2008:1). China’s economy has grown considerably and has evolved into one of the largest in the world. For this reason, to Latin America, economic relations (namely trade) with China have their pros and cons. Tying into such a large market and further removing itself from dependency on the US is beneficial, but China is also an economic competitor, especially with Mexico.

Latin American countries have also begun to increase ties with East Asia. Comparatively, this literature is the smallest and least developed. Faust (2004), however, has studied the topic and found that, similar to relations with Japan and China, foreign relations have increased but remain modest. Faust attributes this to domestic conflicts about the future of political and economic development in Latin America. Chile is a notable exception, as its political elites were more unified in their conception of, and approaches to, development.

The Middle East

Latin American foreign policy in the Middle East has been minimal and thus research on the region has been sparse. A few notable exceptions include Saddy’s (1983) book on Arab–Latin American relations that focuses on policy coordination on energy and oil, and Fernández’s (1990) edited volume on Middle East and Central American foreign policy. Kaufman et al. (1979) also contribute a book on the history of Israel–Latin American relations from the creation of the state of Israel to the October War in 1973.

A Theory of Latin American Foreign Policy?

Considering the growing literature on Latin America in the international system and the numerous sources that help explain Latin American international behavior mentioned above, it is a logical endeavor to attempt to amass the ideas into a comprehensive theory of Latin American foreign policy. Many theories have been said to explain the behavior of Latin American states in the international arena both past and present. Some of the most common theories are dependency theory, structuralist theory, and realist theory (Hey 1997; Mora 2003; Roberts and Thanos 2003). These theories rely on the assumption that Latin American states are set in such a predicament that their foreign policies must react to the desires and behavior of more powerful developed nations, specifically the regional hegemon (the US). In fact, Drekonja-Kornat (1986:239) writes that most Latin American states’ foreign policy “constituted a mimetic reflex of the behavior of the classical great powers rather than an alternative foreign policy.” For early works applying dependency theory, see Cardoso and Faletto (1969), Bodenheimer (1971), and Prebisch (1981). (Cardoso provides insight as a former president of Brazil.) As opposed to a general discussion of dependency, Bodenheimer’s work focuses specifically on the relationship between dependency and foreign policy making. Prebisch is the Argentine economist credited with originating the structural dependency school of thought. See Atkins (2001) for descriptions of the many competing paradigms in international relations, including those mentioned here.

Other authors contributing to the dependency literature have chosen to explain the world in their own words. For example, Bailey’s (1967) work employs a systemic/realist perspective as he sees the international system as consisting of “paramount,” “client,” and “floating” powers. Paramount states are in sovereign control of their foreign policy, client states generally fall in line with paramount powers, and floating states are not a part of any hierarchical system but float between paramount powers (yet each paramount power claims floating powers as their own). In an updated interpretation, Tulchin and Espach (2001) find that with the exception of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, Latin American states are third and fourth tier players and, thus, continue to be “ruletakers” and not “rulemakers.” As a whole, Latin American states “have shown little confidence or innovation in exploring options for enhanced roles in world affairs” (2001:3). Thus, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina have the most active foreign policies in the region.

Hey (1997) similarly agrees that dependence is the essence of Latin American foreign policy as states are reliant in many ways (largely economically and developmentally) on larger, more powerful states. At the same time, Hey (1993) criticizes the use of a generalized theory of dependence to explain foreign policy behavior for all of Latin America. In reality, she posits that dependency can manifest itself differently in each state, thereby dictating a variety of foreign policy responses. Expressing her disdain for such a presumption, Hey (1993) writes that it is “shortsighted and somewhat condescending to presume that all Latin American states’ foreign policy behavior must be interpreted within their relationship with the USA” (1993:551). As an alternative, she argues that foreign policies react to domestic determinants as well as to the hegemonic US. Such variables include interest group pressure, leadership style, regional relations with other dependent states, and a state’s historical record of foreign policy.

Although dependency theory remains prominent in the literature and although he recognizes that Latin America is still plagued by the persistent and fundamental problems of poverty and inequality reflected in dependency theory, Muñoz (1996) believes that theoretical approaches have changed over time – from dependency theory to neorealism or bureaucratic politics. He also suggests a shift in the focus of Latin American foreign policy as there has been a turn from national autonomy to regional autonomy, prompted by the increased internationalization of economic affairs (actualized by such entities as Mercosur and NAFTA). Nations have come to the realization that forgoing an amount of national sovereignty and cooperating regionally may help them better attain goals of economic development.

Comparative Themes

Aside from the prominence of dependency theory, in terms of other commonalities reflected throughout the literature, Muñoz (1996) has recognized three general themes that inform Latin American foreign policy: the desire to maximize national and regional autonomy, the desire to develop, and cognizance of the position of the US. In her analysis of the literature, Hey (1997) adds to this list of most cited influential variables poor economic resources, regime ideology (combined with leader ideology), and the global distribution of power and wealth (inclusive of traditional realist/systemic concerns).

In particular reference to the prominent works of Muñoz and Tulchin (1996) and Mace and Thérien (1996), Hey (1998) extracts additional foreign policy themes. One external consideration that weighs heavily on foreign policy decision making common to both works is that of economic liberalization. (Hey points out, however, that within the neoliberal agenda the distinction between domestic and international economics is often blurred.) Issues of democratization and leadership are also prevalent themes – the move toward democratization in the region and the effect of individual leaders (personalism) on policy behavior. A final commonality is that of culture, particularly cultural shifts that have profound impacts on the direction of a country’s foreign policy. For example, Ebel et al. (1991) write about the effects cultural style have on international politics in the region.

The Missing Link

The preceding paragraphs exemplify an apparent weakness in the literature – that it lacks a unified theory of Latin American foreign policy and, thus, any organized claims about causal relationships (Hey 1997; 1998; Mora 2003). Scholars have proposed a number of plausible and valuable explanations for foreign policy behavior, but the diverse collection of theories has not coalesced into a discernible mid-range theory for the region. As Mora (2003:2) writes, “few have incorporated empirical findings and theoretical reflections into a whole.” Denying such criticisms, some argue that regional theory may not even be possible as the states, including Central American Caribbean states, South American Andean states, and North American Mexico, are so significantly diverse that it is difficult to generalize an explanation of their behavior.

A contingent of scholars argues the contrary. They believe that a theory of Latin American foreign policy is possible (i.e., Ferris and Lincoln 1981) or, at least, that common observations can be made (Atkins 1977; see also later editions published in 1989 and 1995). Hey (1997) argues that Latin American countries share multiple characteristics, such as a history of colonialism and export-dependent economies, that provide theoretical grounds for mid-range theory. Drekonja-Kornat (1986) similarly points out that an overarching theory already exists as states in the region exhibit a general pattern of behaviors. Although states occasionally deviate from the norm, a common thread connects all their foreign policy behavior.

In an attempt to correct for said observed weaknesses, Hey (1997) presents three theoretical building blocks that can lead to a theory of Latin American foreign policy. The three dimensions upon which foreign policy differentiate are: (1) pro-core vs. anti-core, (2) autonomous vs. dependent, and (3) economic vs. political-diplomatic. The first two categorizations focus on a nation’s relation to the core, in other words to the US. The third centers on the economic and other dependencies on the core and the resulting latitude a nation has with its own foreign policy. (A nation’s latitude in formulating foreign policy decreases as its economic vulnerability to the core increases.) In an attempt to generalize Latin American foreign policy into two realms, Hey concludes that “in general, political policy is subject to a myriad of explanations whereas economic policy is explained by the differential in relative economic power capabilities between core and peripheral actors within the hemisphere” (1997:650). In other words, politically oriented foreign policy is the result of a variety of factors, notwithstanding core–periphery relationships, but economic foreign policy is specifically the result of such relationships. Economic policy is less sensitive to various independent variables and is more sensitive to geopolitical concerns. For example, political policy is affected by regime type, leadership, and domestic political context, to name just a few factors, whereas economic policy is dependent solely on the regional distribution of power.

Appropriate Levels of Analysis

Apart from generalized theories to explain Latin American foreign policy, scholars have also investigated the most important variables affecting the formulation of foreign policy. Although different scholars advocate a variety of variables spanning the levels of analysis spectrum (individual, state, international, global) in order to explain the behavior of Latin American states, there is a general consensus on the primacy of international factors (i.e., dependency theory). However, the influence of individual leaders and domestic conditions are not discounted entirely.

For example, although the primacy of presidential influence has been challenged in political science literature, Hey (1993) argues that in most of Latin America the president maintains control of foreign policy decisions. Moreover, as compared to the other branches of government (legislative and judicial), the executive has strong hold on policy formulation (Atkins 1977). A number of dominant and charismatic state leaders (Castro of Cuba, Chávez of Venezuela, Fujimori of Peru, Pinochet of Chile, etc.) have made their mark on both domestic and foreign policy. It is arguable that had they not been the presiding decision maker, their nations’ policies would have been markedly different.

Hugo Chávez is perhaps the best (and most often mentioned) example of the personalization of foreign policy. Not only has Chávez taken a bold and vocal position in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, thereby affecting economic and resource policy worldwide, but he has also made great efforts to advance his Bolivarian Revolution, named after his political idol Simón Bolívar. Bolívar strove to unify Latin America and release it from the grasp of the Spanish, and Chávez’s movements can be seen as a move to do the same against the domineering power of the United States and neoliberalism. For example, Chávez has worked to tighten relations between his Latin American neighbors (with the greatest response from other leftist presidents including those in Central America) and has cultivated visible friendships with Presidents Putin of Russia and Castro of Cuba as well as leaders of both Iran and Iraq, all known to have less than positive relations with the United States (Sylvia and Danopoulos 2003).

Without completely discounting the role of leadership, there is some concurrence that an individual’s influence is tempered by domestic and international factors, international/hemispheric being the stronger of the two (Hey 1997; Mora 2003). In terms of domestic variables, Mora writes that these are more variable, and suggests that the state of the domestic economy is a critical element. In fact, in Latin America the importance of political factors has now been replaced by the primacy of economic ones. Atkins (1977) also writes of the importance of domestic factors, including interest groups (social elites, peasants (campesinos), and specific commercial sectors, for example), public opinion, and the church.

Although not unanimous, there is some consensus in the literature as to the two most important factors affecting Latin American foreign policy: political leadership and US hegemony (Hey 1998). Such agreement lends support to James Rosenau’s (1966) argument that idiosyncratic and systemic variables are the strongest determinants of the foreign policy of small, developing states. However, Hey (2003) suggests that, based on empirical research, the order of importance should be reversed, placing greater weight on systemic variables. Leaders play an important role in foreign policy making but they make their decisions within an international context and must behave according to contextual forces.

Other scholars warn against narrowing the list of all probable factors to one or two key determinants. Instead, they advocate the “kitchen sink” approach (Hey 1997; Van Klaveren 1996) under the assumption that all levels of analysis affect foreign policy choices. In a similar vein, Mora (2003) concludes from the accumulation of chapters in his edited volume that the best explanation for Latin American foreign policy is “at the nexus of all levels” (2003:6). However, he also concludes that systemic influences, in particular those emanating from the US, cannot be discounted, thereby acknowledging the prominence of international factors. It is virtually certain that Latin American states give at least some consideration to the US’s position when formulating their own foreign policy.

Suggestions for future research in the field include focusing on the intersection between individual and systemic variables (Mora 2003) and the development of integrated theory that incorporates the multiple explanatory variables that influence foreign policy formulation and considers their relative importance and the effects on each other (Hey 1997).


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Links to Digital Materials

Handbook on Latin American Studies. At http:/, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Library of Congress HLAS Online. Annual bibliographic reference created by scholars, beginning in 1936, to provide guidance for those studying Latin America. Not specific to Latin American foreign policy – multidisciplinary emphasis.

Inter-American Dialogue. At, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Nonprofit US policy center focusing on policy analysis, exchange, and communication on issue in the Western Hemisphere. The Dialogue publishes reports, op-ed pieces and newsletters written by US and Latin American scholars and practitioners.

Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC). At http:/, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Provided by the University of Texas at Austin. Most comprehensive site for Latin American economy, government, humanities, etc. information. Can search by subject or country. The site contains a list of digital initiatives and projects that the organization has undertaken since 1992.

Latin American Studies Association (LASA). At http:/, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. International professional association for individuals and institutions studying diverse aspects of Latin America. Access to Association updates and events. LASA publishes the Latin American Research Review.

Political Database of the Americas. At http:/, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Provided by Georgetown University, the database contains information on an array of political variables/institutions including the branches of government, political parties, electoral systems, and democracy and citizen security. Also provides numerous links to other sources including academic programs, national libraries, and other research resources.

Sources and General Resources on Latin America. At, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Site provided by Steven S. Volk, Professor of History at Oberlin College. Storehouse of wide array of weblinks including links to databases and indices, bibliographies, archives and libraries, historical sites, primary source materials, and academic journals.

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Latin American Program. At, accessed Apr. 28, 2009. Housed in Washington, DC, and with institutes in Mexico and Brazil, the Program sponsors research, conferences, and publications aimed at deepening the understanding of Latin American and Caribbean politics, history, economics, culture, and US–Latin American relations.