South America: Can it Navigate the Changes Ahead?

By Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Latin america

Latin America / Google Images / Creative Commons

Venezuela is the latest example of how Latin America, especially South America, has missed an opportunity to demonstrate the sort of hemispheric leadership it has long striven for – and instead has ceded that role to the United States and even Russia and China.  Although the United States, and the rest of the hemisphere more generally, have been slow to realize it, economic drivers are making the world more multipolar.  In a recent article by two colleagues and myself, we analyze international financial statistics covering 180 countries from 1995 to 2013 that reveal the slow relative decline of the United States as the reigning financial hegemon.  U.S. influence, although still formidable by some margin, is eroding.

  • The Trump Administration’s activities in the larger world are also undermining Washington’s influence. Policies in the WTO and other trade actions writ large – such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and threatening and implementing trade sanctions with little apparent logic – have brushed even allies back. Positions on the Paris climate accord, at the United Nations, and in the President’s relations with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have left many around the world increasingly reluctant to follow the U.S. lead.

In this increasingly multipolar world, Latin America, especially South America, is going to find itself not so much freed of U.S. influence – as intellectuals in the region have often stated their wishes – as exposed to new pressures.  The change will be manifest mostly in the economic arena.  New research by McKinsey Global Institute suggests that global value chains are ever more concentrated within multinational corporation networks, which tie major markets (essentially the United States, Western Europe, China, and Japan) to geographically contiguous countries.  This is arguably good for closer neighbors, such as Central America and the Caribbean in our hemisphere, but potentially harmful to those left out – including Sub-Saharan Africa, possibly the Mideast, and South America.

South America has diversified its trade – generally a good thing – among the United States, EU, and East Asia, with the latter having become the major trading partner for a number of countries. Chile and others have been pushing hard to build the Pacific Alliance, as well as to institutionalize the alliance’s relationship with Mercosur. This strategy will be put to the test if, as early trends indicate, the world regionalizes and South America comes under great pressure to refocus on its relations with the United States. To protect and advance their interests in the future, South American countries probably will try to find the right balance between embracing and rejecting the declining yet still dominant hegemon to the north and, as in the case of Venezuela, developing their own strategic vision, forging unity among themselves, and putting some muscle behind an agenda that prepares them for the future.

March 18, 2019

* Leslie Elliott Armijo is an associate professor at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. She is the co-author, with Daniel C. Tirone (Louisiana State University) and Hyoung-kyu Chey (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo), of The Monetary and Financial Powers of States: Theory, Dataset, and Observations on the Trajectory of American Dominance.