The Latin American View on Global Governance


The underpinnings of global governance since the end of the Second World War have been imbued with the Western norms of order including representation criteria. These have always been contested but global power transitions have turned the structural dynamic more combative, particularly after the global financial crisis showed that liberal economic rules propagated disequilibria rather than order. Today the acceptability of those norms is encountering challenges that render elements of global governance dysfunctional, at times layering onto it, at other times encircling it, disputing it, complicating it, but not overthrowing it. Although the vision of an overarching common good has faded, opposition is selective rather than total. Nevertheless, as liberal optimism fades, contested conceptions may become a central feature of global governance opening a window for necessary changes.

This article probes the way in which there is a claim to a distinctly Latin American way of understanding global governance. In Latin American thinking the concept of autonomy - pragmatic and in permanent construction as it might be - is actually one of the deepest and most meaningful aspects of self-determination. Latin America was the only region where American primacy remained largely uncontested after the end of the Cold War (Castañeda 1993). Broadly speaking, dissatisfaction with the status quo ante was translated into a struggle for voice and autonomy, accommodation, or a search for opportunities to trim and reshape rules and reduce pressure for the policies governments wished to evade or delay rather than a big push to rewrite rules and establish altogether new foundations for global governance. Having a mostly irrelevant place in global governance, Latin America managed to develop different strategies to widen its autonomy which translated into region building, on the one hand, and attempts to gain voice and influence in the shaping of rules at the multilateral level, on the other hand.

The concept of autonomy, just like many other organizing concepts developed and used in the studies of global governance is characterized by a wide range of possible interpretations. To start upfront, Latin American international thought, could be better regarded as neither West nor non-West (Fawcett 2012). Settlers in Spanish America considered themselves part of a regional body since colonial times, sharing cultural and historical ties, but more profoundly, as the struggles for independence proceeded there was a joint belonging in a system of states, a pressing need to secure decolonisation, non-intervention, self-determination and a respect for international law (Fawcett 2005, Scarfi 2014). Colonialism and foreign intervention constituted the idea of Latin America between West and non-West. If we accept this birthmark, Latin America as an unsettled region, part of the American continent, concerned with the early territorial expansion of the US, it helps to understand how important the double movement was to sustain autonomy by taming the United States and by cultivating affinities with what would become the Third World in the 1970s.

In Latin America the concept of autonomy stands far apart from the traditional realist views wherein anarchy prevails. But it is Janus-faced. It refers both to voice and a subjective identity of belonging and community and, at the same time, to institutionalized regimes and repertoires that link the state to its people and legitimatize governance. Pioneering works of Latin American academics on autonomy were mainly based on nationalist, developmentalist and dependency analysis and US IR theories, as classical realism and interdependence, leading to a whole new body of literature between the late 1970- mid 1980s (Tickner 2008). The widely influential Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean (ECLAC) articulated theories on the centre-periphery political economy showing how this structural dynamic was, to a great extent, detrimental (Prebisch 1950). This was a pioneering vision proposed and projected by Latin America in the world, to the extent that it strongly influenced global policies such as special and differential treatment for developing countries in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the creation in the 1960s of the first regional development bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank (IADB) hand in hand with the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) and subsequently the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in 1964 (Margulis 2017). Prebisch, First Secretary General of UNCTAD, was instrumental in uniting the developing countries and forming the Group of 77 (G77). He understood the significance of increasing exports and of remedying the unbalanced and iniquitous trade structure.

In this way, Latin-American structuralism, even though initially intended to study Latin American economies, was eventually extended to deal with questions of insertion in the global economy. It is thus intimately related to the problematic of constrained autonomy. A major development concerning autonomy was made by the dependency school. In their book “Dependency and Development in Latin America”, Cardoso and Faletto (1979) concentrated on the manner of integration of national economies in global markets, concluding how dependency is not simply external exploitation and coaction, but relies on intimate associations between the dominant local and external groups - which they called elites. In this sense, these authors highlighted the interconnection between the internal and external factors of dependency (or lack of autonomy).

Latin American commitment to global governance has been characterized by a defensive legalist approach rather than a proactive political stance. For Latin American countries, global governance (and multilateralism) meant a strong involvement in international treaties and regimes, and their relevant contribution to international law (Sikkink 2014), specifically, the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention, outlined in the Pan-American conferences since the end of the XIX century and later endorsed by the UN Charter (Sanahuja, 2017). Latin America has had a silent but significant role in peace building, security and international cooperation at large (Russell and Tokatlian, 2009) enabled by a multiplicity of factors, such as geographic and strategic distance from major global conflicts, early niches of normative cooperation (such as migration, health, water sharing). A primary commitment to advancing international law and a concomitant tradition of multilateralism to sustain regional peace and security. Latin America’s active participation in international, regional and multilateral organizations since the Second World War, has demonstrated that even during the deeper isolationist moments of its history, governments recognized the importance of engaging in global issues and contributing to their resolution in order to neutralize external interference and to ensure policy space. They built on the precedent of international diplomacy rather than shows of physical strength.

Thus, there is nothing new about Latin America’s involvement in multilateralism. Most of the Latin American countries have been founding members of the League of Nations, the United Nations (UN) and even the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs (GATT). They also held an active role in UNCTAD, the G77 and the G20. In the last few decades, individual Latin American countries have been active members of the Groups and Summits, they have participated in and headed several calls for developing countries to be included in their agendas. Latin America is not alone in a significant sense of closeness and ownership towards the UN and regional organizations given its crucial role in supporting international law against colonialism. These countries have also viewed the UN as a guarantor of collective security and specifically of their nation-building and socio-economic development aspirations (Alden, Morphet and Vieira 2010). Certainly, the Global South has disputed Latin America’s representativeness, legitimacy, and ideological orientation (Tussie 2102). For instance, the foreign policy of emerging Brazil was delineated on the basis of a strategy of autonomy through integration which was translated to an active involvement in international institutions; the improvement of a positive agenda with the US (trade liberalization, privatization of several public companies, accession to Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty) while preserving autonomy, very vitally to claim the region as a political project of autonomy.