Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reordering Regional Security in Latin America

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reordering Regional Security in Latin America

Article excerpt

In the wake of the Cold War, regional democratization and economic liberalization were supposed to usher in an opportunity to build a common hemispheric security agenda, designed to unite the United States and Latin America in collaboration against the "new" security threats posed by organized crime and violent nonstate actors. Two decades later, the threats remain much the same, yet the hemispheric security agenda has fragmented, replaced in part by projects designed to build specifically South American regional institutions. As some scholars predicted, heterogeneous threat perceptions across the region, differences over democratization, and tensions over the effects of free trade and market liberalization have confounded the effort to build a hemispheric security agenda. Yet the efforts by former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to radically transform the regional security order by building a Bolivarian alliance of states as an explicit counterweight to U.S. power have also fallen short. Instead, Brazil's ascent as a global economic power and the growing prosperity of the region as a whole has created an opportunity for Brazil to organize new mid-range political institutions, embodied in the Union of South American States (UNASUR), that exclude the United States yet pursue a consensual security agenda. This emerging regional order is designed by Brazil to secure its leadership in South America and allow it to choose when and where to involve the United States in managing regional crises. Yet, Brazil is finding that the very obstacles that confounded hemispheric security collaboration after the Cold War still endure in South America, limiting the effectiveness of the emerging regional security order.


Contemporary accounts of insecurity in Latin America focus with good reason on the rising tide of violence and threats to public safety in cities such as Caracas, Ciudad Juarez, and Kingston; along borders--particularly the U.S.-Mexico and Mexico-Guatemala border; and along smuggling routes in Central America and the Caribbean. Organized crime, narcotics, smuggling, gangs, and other violent nonstate actors are the main threat to security, and in some cases, give rise to the talk about failed states in the Western Hemisphere. (1)

These threats are similar, although perhaps played out in different settings and with other actors, to those Latin America faced during the 1990s in the wake of the Cold War. At that time, the wave of democratization and liberalization that swept through Latin America gave rise to the hope that the region would move away from traditional geopolitical tensions and towards a cooperative regional security agenda that countered the new security threats posed by organized crime and supported the prevailing agenda for free elections and free trade. In turn, free trade would support deepening economic interdependence, a convergence of security interests between the United States and Latin America, and a regional democratic peace. So what went wrong?

In his seminal 1998 article, "Security in Latin America," Andrew Hurrell observed that the enduring heterogeneity of interests and threat perceptions between states in the Southern Cone of South America, the Andes, Central America, and the United States were obstacles to regional collaboration. He argued that democratization and regional integration were as likely to accentuate disagreements as to resolve them, and he predicted that variation in perceptions of threat among states would hinder cooperation against transnational crime. (2)

Today, Hurrell's warnings have by and large been borne out: threat perceptions remain heterogeneous across the region; disagreements over what is a democracy have produced new ideological tensions between states; integration projects have advanced modestly amidst great argument; and the perennial calls to regionalize responses to growing criminal violence have foundered on national interests. …

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