The Clash of Civilizations and Latin America: Twenty Years Later
W. Alejandro Sanchez
April 29, 2013
Originally published: http://yalejournal.org/2013/04/29/the-clash-of-civilizations-and-latin-america-twenty-years-later/
In 1993, political scientist Samuel Huntington published a provocative article entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs.[i] Written shortly after the end of the Cold War, Huntington speculated on the future of global conflict. Huntington argued that, in the future, nations across the world would unite along rough cultural lines, and future conflicts would occur mainly between these unified “civilizations,” such as the Western world (i.e. the United States, Canada and Western Europe) and the Muslim world. Huntington argued that Latin America would unite, from Mexico (which he labeled a “torn country”) to Argentina, along with Cuba and the Dominican Republic.[ii] For Huntington, the unifying denominator among these states was their legacy of Spanish colonialism (along with Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, which he also placed in the group). Twenty years after Huntington put forward his famous theory, is Latin America any closer to being a “unified civilization” than it was in 1993?
Over the past two decades, new Latin American organizations have appeared with the goal of promoting regional integration. The Western Hemisphere now has an alphabet soup of such entities, with overlapping membership. This includes South American blocs such as the Common Market of the South, the Andean Community, and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Created in 2008, UNASUR stands as an interesting experiment of regional integration as its membership includes all twelve South American states, including Guyana and Suriname (which traditionally have aligned themselves with the Caribbean). There are other similar entities farther north, including the Central American Integration System, the Association of Caribbean States, and the Caribbean Community. These three entities also share overlapping membership and integration objectives.
But it was the appearance of heads of state in the past decade such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and the late President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela that raised the question about the ideological turn that the region was taking. These leaders constituted the most vociferous of a new wave of anti-Washington and ideologically left-leaning governments. Chávez and his allies even created their own organization, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a loose alliance whose ideological pillars primarily include distancing themselves from the United States’ historical influence over the Western Hemisphere and promoting regional integration. ALBA was founded in part as a response to the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas; however, this agency has had a mixed record of success. Its axis revolved around Venezuela’s petro-dollars, which Chávez utilized as a foreign policy weapon. With the Venezuelan leader’s passing, the fate of ALBA as a united alliance remains unclear.
The 2010 creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is the closest example of the Western Hemisphere’s attempt to unite as a single entity, following Huntington’s theory. It is noteworthy that CELAC is an ambitious organization in that it combines both Latin American and Caribbean members. For Huntington, the Anglophone Caribbean constitutes a different “civilization,” distinct from that of Latin America. Nevertheless, we are far from witnessing the appearance of a unified “civilization” in the region. Even CELAC’s future success as an integration mechanism is questionable given that Latin American governments are historically reluctant to give up their sovereignty to supranational entities.
Huntington theorized that the world’s “civilizations” will ultimately enter into conflict with each other. As previously mentioned, a critical determinant leading up to CELAC’s and ALBA’s creation was to distance its members from Washington’s historical influence over the inter-American system and to create alternatives to the Organization of American States. Neither the United States nor Canada were invited to join CELAC. However, in spite of inflammatory declarations by Chávez, Latin America and the Caribbean are hardly on a collision course with Washington or other global regions. The 2012 Arab World-South America summit in Peru and the 2013 CELAC-European Union summit in Chile exemplify Latin America’s general desire to improve commercial ties with other global regions. Latin American nations have also continued to promote close relations with the United States, as exemplified by the 2011 ratification of trade agreement between Washington with Panama and Colombia. Moreover, countries with Washington-friendly governments like Chile, Mexico and Peru are parts of the U.S.-inspired Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Additionally, President Barack Obama traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica in May 2013 where he attended a meeting of Central American heads of state (members of the Central American Integration System). During the summit, Central American leaders asked for greater U.S. involvement in the fight against drug trafficking in the region, while the Mexican leadership supported President Obama’s proposed changes to the U.S. immigration system that would allow undocumented citizens to legally stay in that country. While no high-profile agreements were made, such diplomatic trips additionally demonstrate how most Latin American governments want to expand ties with Washington, rather than seek confrontation, as Huntington theorized.
In his conclusions, Huntington acknowledged that “civilizations” will not “become a single coherent political entity” and that conflict between states of the same “civilization” could occur.[iii] Indeed, a simple desire to distance themselves from Washington is hardly enough to make over 30 countries in the Americas enter into an alliance that could unify the “civilization” while forgetting historical animosities. (Also, most Western Hemisphere governments do not have the same anti-Washington stance as say, Venezuela’s government under Chávez). Additionally, there remains a plethora of territorial disputes and occasional tensions among regional states (i.e. between Peru and Chile, Nicaragua and Costa Rica or Colombia and Venezuela).
Latin American and Caribbean nations are divided over how to shape their relations with Washington, as countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Colombia seek closer commercial and security ties, while the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador seek to further distance themselves from the United States’ influence. These different foreign policy objectives and national interests demonstrate that there are plenty of issues to be resolved before we might see Huntington’s vision of a “Latin American and Caribbean civilization” emerge.[iv]
*W. Alejandro Sánchez Nieto is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) where he focuses on geopolitics, military and cyber security issues, particularly regarding Latin America and the Caribbean. His commentaries on Latin American-related issues appear in VOXXI and he is a regular blogger for Blouin News. His analyses have been published in numerous refereed journals including Small Wars and Insurgencies, Defence Studies, the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, European Security, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and Globalizations.
[i] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72 (3), Summer 1993, 22-49. The article was then expanded into a book: Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[ii] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 42.
[iii] Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” 48.
[iv] W. Alejandro Sanchez, "Whatever happened to South America's splendid little wars?," Small Wars & Insurgencies 22 (2), 2011, 322–351.