J.F.Bertonha: US Hegemony Waning in South America?

16:54 16.05.2012 • Andrey Davydenko , International Affairs

Negocios Estrangeiros is a journal of the Diplomatic Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Portugal with a reputation for geopolitics analysis and insights into Portuguese foreign policy, external economic relations, and cultural activities worldwide. Two issues of Negocios Estrangeiros are released annually and offer opinion pieces in Portuguese or, occasionally, in English. The 18th issue which saw the light of day recently features a collection of essays with themes ranging from current analysis pertinent to the realm of international politics to extremely thought-provoking basic studies.

It was a delight to see a Russian contributor – journalist and historian Svetlana Balashova, whose record includes illuminating studies of Russian poet A. Pushkin's legacy – among the authors of the issue of Negocios Estrangeiros. This time, her enticing paper is dedicated to Portuguese Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the St. Petersburg court Rafael da Cruz Guerreiro, whose personal circumstances, as it transpires, were affected by the drama which culminated in the death of A. Pushkin in a duel.

To ward off suspicions of being partial to a Russian author, I will not dwell on the above paper and turn to an equally captivating piece – the bold forecast “End of US Hegemony in South America? Russia, China, and the EU as New Regional Players” by Brazilian historian and Maringá University professor Joao Fabio Bertonha.


Surveying the history of the US dominance in South America, Bertonha divides the period into five consecutive phases: the “pre-hegemony” (before 1989); the 1898-1945 epoch in which the US prevented the German intervention into South America, outran Great Britain in the race for influence over the continent, and successfully used the economic, military, and cultural leverage to gain serious political positions across it; the 1945-1969 interregnum marked with uncontested US dominance; the 1969-1990 phase when the US grip on South America was put to a series of tests; the relative recovery of  control over South America by Washington in 1990-2000, and the current phase during which the US influence in South America appears to be slowly melting. Bertonha marshals an impressive array of data to reinforce the latter view. The US political and economic positions in a significant portion of the South American space are being visibly eroded, a group of Latin American countries are run by populist regimes with openly anti-American foreign-policy creeds, Brazil is evolving into an assertive global heavyweight, and, finally, Russia, China, and the EU are increasingly active in the game being played out these days in the region. In this connection, Bertonha attempts to assess the objectives of the overseas players in South America, their chances of tilting the continent's agenda in their favor, the prospects for Brazil with its regional stature and already extensive autonomy in international politics, and the likelihood that the US would ultimately lose South America.

Russia's Symbolic Presence

The comeback staged by the recovering Russia across Latin America and Moscow's plans to get entrenched in the region are permanently grabbing the media headlines. The visits frequently paid to South America by key Russian officials are not the only indications of how high the region ranks on the Russian agenda - Bertonha also cites the maneuvers exercised by the Russian Navy in the Caribbean and the engagement Moscow obviously seeks with Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, and especially Venezuela. Still, Bertonha's verdict is that at the moment the influence Russia enjoys in South America is overstated. That may change in a more distant future, but, if we can trust Bertonha's analysis, so far the Russian presence in South America has been more symbolic than real and promises no shifts in the continent's internal strategic disposition. The Russian arms supplies may give Venezuela a shade of confidence vis-a-vis the US, but it is clear that Caracas will never use weaponry against its continental neighbors, plus the Venezuelan oil export to the US continues regardless of Chavez's bombastic anti-Americanism. Bertonha discounts the Russian Navy's flag-waving in the Caribbean, stressing that intervening will be off the table for Moscow if an armed conflict erupts in the region. The US faced a similar dilemma as it maintained a limited military presence in Georgia when the country clashed with Russia: under this type of circumstances, global geopolitical risks easily outweigh regional-scale sympathies. Moreover, Bertonha doubts Russia's ability to project its considerable military might onto parts of the world as remote as South America.

Bertonha stresses that, while the Russian market certainly attracts Latin American exporters, mainly as a niche for agricultural products, the vulnerability of the Russian economy due to hyper-reliance on oil export factors into the situation. Russia's cultural appeal for South America, in his view, does not extend beyond the popularity of the calls churned out by Moscow to put an end to the US hegemony. Those draw a positive emotional response on the continent, but building some sort of a pro-Russian alliance would take more solid foundations.

China: Surging Trade and Proliferating Political Alliances

Bertonha credits China, as a steadily growing economy and a country constantly expanding its diplomatic and military clout, with the ability to emerge in the coming several years as a significant power in the South American geopolitical space. The figures reflecting the surge in China's trade with the countries of the region – a reality one would not have imagined a short time ago, according to Bertonha – provide a strong backing for the hypothesis.

Indeed, at the moment China is Latin America's number one trade partner. Several groups of the countries of the continent seem to pursue their specific interests in the business, while Beijing skilfully combines commerce and the traditional rhetoric focused on the boycott of Taiwan with an array of political, diplomatic, and cultural initiatives. Bertonha, by the way, interprets it as evidence of the rising prestige of the Chinese culture in Latin America that the first Confucius Institute on the continent opened in Mexico in 2006.

China does have to solve a number of problems to establish itself as a key power in South America. Arms supply contracts between Beijing and its Latin American partners mushroom, but the resulting sales volumes are stuck at a token level. In contrast to Washington, Beijing has no sway over the continent militarily. China's cultural advent to South America similarly stalls. Judging by the geographic distribution of the Confucius Institutes across the world, Beijing does not count Latin America among its key target audiences.

Speaking of the economic transactions between China and South America, the former, being a global factory, appears to treat the latter mainly as a commodity supplier. Bertonha holds that the narrow approach dims the benefits of the cooperation with China for more industrialized South American countries.

Paradoxically, as Bertonha sees it, the main roadblock on China's way to the status of a top league player in South America is the lack of will on behalf of Beijing to achieve the goal. No doubt, economic ties with the region mean a lot to China, but much higher lines on its foreign trade agenda are occupied by the US, Europe, and Asia. A side effect of the arrangement is that Beijing would rather tone down its economic onslaught in South America than trigger discord with the US by making Washington feel that its interests in the region are being put in jeopardy by the Chinese economic expansion.

Europe: Soft Power and Its Limitations

In contrast to China or the post-Soviet Russia, Europe is not a novice for South America: the European presence on the continent is a  tradition and no breaks from it have ever taken place. The EU, in another contrast to China and Russia, does not speak to South America in one voice, with Brussels as well as Berlin, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, etc. occasionally playing asynchronous games, but, at least from Bertonha's perspective, the bilateral relations between every one of the above and South America – as well as between Europe as a whole and the continent - tend to be those of harmony. Moreover, the existence of tightly integrated structures - Mercosur, the South American common market, and the EU – opens some hitherto untapped opportunities to boost trade. 

Europe's extraordinary cultural potential, which takes the form of  soft power in modern politics, in many aspects places it ahead of all rivals in South America, says Bertonha. His point is that having absorbed around 30 million Italians, 15 million Germans, 50 million Portuguese, 25 million Spaniards, plus immigrants from Poland, Scandinavia, Russia, etc., the continent must be a receptive environment for European cultural influences. Soft power, however, requires investments which, Bertonha holds, Europe dishes out in surprisingly modest quantities. Bertonha's analysis of the geographic incidence of European cultural foundations such as the Cervantes Institute, the Goethe Institute, or the Dante Alighieri Institute revealed a pattern obviously giving Latin America a background role. For example, 36 of the 73 Cervantes Institutes are sited in Europe, 15 – in Muslim countries, and only 9 – in Latin America (all of them  - in Brazil). Similarly, Portugal's Camoes Institute runs a network of 18 cultural centers, one of them – in Brazil, 5 – in Asia, 10 – in Africa, and 2 – in Europe; Italian and German cultural institutions are found mostly outside of South America. In other words, the European cultural agendas do accommodate Latin America but have a clear tendency to push it down the list. Another observation shared by Bertonha is that the European countries' cultural networks have a propensity for competing instead of advancing a common European cause, and the absence of concert in the cultural sphere which mirrors the political trends within the EU bears a strong negative impact on all of the European cultural initiatives.

Bertonha, it must be noted, believes that in the majority of cases nations resort to soft power to compensate for the lack of political and military muscle. Even coupled to economic activity, soft power will not tear South America, especially Mexico and the central part of the continent, out of the US orbit or lead them to switch to the EU. Should that be the goal, reaching it would call for military-strategic efforts which, as Bertonha suspects, Europe neither deems timely nor can afford.

The US: Dominance No Longer Guaranteed

The US dominance in Latin America was hardly ever called into question throughout the XX century. In fact, the situation largely remains the same at present, adds Bertonha.

The Central American and Caribbean economies are integrated with the US economy to the point of being inseparable from it. The US has unrestricted access to the natural resources on which the countries of South America sit, and in 2007 the volume of the continent's trade with the US exceeded the transactions between the region and China roughly by a factor of five. Moreover, it is fair to say that China and the US are not on the same plane in terms of the investments in South America.

The US faces virtually no rivalry from other external influencers in South America, where the lion's share of the decision-making is known to require stamps of approval from the US Department of State. In the military-strategic aspect, the US as the country maintaining military presence in a number of Central American countries also meets with no competition. Columbia hosts several US military bases and serves as a de facto US foothold on the continent, while the US Fourth Navy treats the adjacent marine expanses as the US backyard. Even though the Latin American countries comprising the populist camp have the task of parring the US military threat written into their military doctrines, they obviously pose no challenge to their perceived adversary. Given the above, US defense studies mention South America almost exclusively in the context of fighting drug trafficking and illegal migration.  

Bertonha nevertheless assumes that the ambitions of other players in South America echo with certain concerns in Washington. The worries are in essence linked to hypothetic future developments, but alarmist debates on regaining control over South America do recur in the US from time to time.

Bertonha opines that China presents the US with the biggest problems in South America. Russia's bids in the military sphere may fleetingly cause allergies in Washington but never become critical. Washington easily tolerates the European attempts to cast mostly cultural influences, especially since the US and the EU are strategic allies. In contrast, China with its swelling foreign trade has the ability to present the US with serious competition in the future. There is a firm belief in a part of the US establishment and among a faction of the US commentators that for Beijing the widening economic interactions with Latin America are a part of a much more far-reaching plan.

Regardless of the occasionally confrontational overtones, the US assessments do not translate into any form of practical response. Washington has to stay preoccupied with its own economic downturn and to worry about more pressing challenges arising in the Middle East. Currently, the US is too strong in South America to append to its list of concerns the feeble threats posed by Russia, China, and the EU to Washington's sway over the continent.

Bertonha argues that the country which does have an appreciable potential to subject the South American geopolitics to deep editing is Brazil, and focuses on the theme in a section of his forecast.

Brazil: the Key Country

Brazil, with its booming economy which is about to propel it to the cohort of the world leaders, is opening a new era in its history, says Bertonha. The country can be realistically expected to grow into a major military power, the adoption of the 2008 National Strategic Defense Plan and the signing of the 2009 strategic partnership deal with France being convincing steps in this direction. Brazil's international rating has climbed over the past years, and its status of the Latin American political and economic leader is uniformly recognized across the continent. Part of the projection suggested by Bertonha is that Brazil will, along with other achievements, earn a role of a global inlet to Latin America if the trends continue into the future.

The four countries wrestling over influence in South America are keenly aware of the above and act accordingly. Brazil, in the meantime, exercises maximal caution to avoid becoming excessively dependent on a particular partner and keeps the doors open for all candidates. In his paper, Bertonha presents a detailed analysis of the relations between Brazil and every of the four countries involved.

The relations between Brazil and Russia – in diplomacy, trade, scientific research, etc. - have widened considerably over the recent years. Importantly, Brazil and Russia are allies as members of the BRICs community. The two countries share aversion to the unipolar world, but neither Russia's flirt with the populist camp nor the corresponding anti-American agenda fits with the Brazilian political vision. Rather, Brazil often finds itself forced to tame H. Chavez in order to keep its own relations with the US unharmed. The overall conclusion drawn by Bertonha is that the rapprochement between Russia and Brazil automatically stalls at the point where confrontation with the US starts to loom on the horizon.

The opposition to unipolarity also underpins the partnership between Brazil and China. The two countries, as a result, act in concert at most of international forums, but, again, a Brazil-China duo openly unfriendly to the US is an unlikely outcome as neither would benefit from it. Bertonha lists various examples of Brazilian-Chinese cooperation stretching all the way up to space exploration, with the greatest achievements concentrated in bilateral commerce. Last year China finally jumped to the top position in the list of Brazil's trade partners, though, as Bertonha remarks, the Chinese eagerness to flood Latin American markets with cheap products and near-total lack of readiness to invest routinely expose Beijing to criticisms in the region.

Europe and Brazil penned a partnership treaty in Lisbon in 2007 to expand the scope of their interactions. Tensions between them over trade issues do surface from time to time, while the cooperation in cultural affairs proceeds smoothly and the future in the area looks bright. Military-strategic cooperation is another sphere where Brazil and the EU jointly score major accomplishments. Bertonha writes that the EU became the country's privileged partner due to the signing of the friendship agreement with France and mass sales of French armaments to Brazil which ensued. His impression is that  France's activity prompted a kind of jealousy among many of its EU peers who are now trying to catch up with Paris in the engagement with Brazil. For the latter, the race is a definitely positive phenomenon, though it is clear that no EU country would ever take steps in Latin America  that Washington would frown upon.

Brazil's foreign-policy agenda remains centered around maintaining the political, economic, and cultural partnership with the US whose primacy in South America continues to go unchallenged, states Bertonha. Sticking to the priority, Brazil does attempt to secure a measure of autonomy in its international conduct and to secure a zone of exclusive influence of its own. Possibly, the dualism implies the coming formation of a US-Brazil axis running and stabilizing the continent.


The advent of new players to South America could have a polarizing impact on the continent. Under the hypothetic scenario, most of its countries, depending on their respective foreign-policy orientations, could land in one of several camps, e.g. a pro-Russian one for populists, a pro-US one – for Central America and Mexico, with Columbia and, maybe, Peru as remote footholds, a pro-EU one – based on Brazil. The arrangement leaves China with no clearcut role, but that, in fact, might help Beijing play an intricate geopolitical game and, possibly, to reach out to Caracas and Bogota. Upon scrutiny, Bertonha concludes that nothing of the above will materialize as no serious polarizing factors or conditions for alliances with adversarial stances to pop up exist in today's Latin America.

According to Bertonha, the rise of Brazil with its quest for regional leadership and dozed autonomy in foreign policy is central to the anticipated geopolitical dynamics in South America. It appears to be a reasonable guess that Russia, China, and the EU would have to implement their geopolitical designs in the region in the general framework of Brazil's continental project. Against the background, the US will remain the dominant power in Latin America, though Washington's primacy no longer goes uncontested. The above disposition will hold on the continent in the foreseeable future, affecting the bulk of the regional processes, writes Bertonha in conclusion. [1]


The study by the Brazilian analyst who, as he admits, relied on open sources such as mass media, research papers, and the web offers a profound and comprehensive picture of the processes unfolding in and around Latin America. In my view, Bertonha provides in the paper a credible description of the balance of forces within the region and of the external influences in part driving the developments in it. He accentuates the importance of Brazil to South America, risking to sound as a lobbyist for his home country, but that does not automatically render his approach illegitimate.

Being familiar with the realities of Brazil and having watched the evolution of this part of the world for quite some time, I find the hypothesis about the coming Brazilian leadership in the region and beyond fairly realistic, but cannot subscribe to the view that the country would some day emerge as a universal inlet to the continent with a monopoly enabling it to filter candidates for admission. Rather, I believe that the future of the cooperation between South America and the rest of the world belongs to bilateral diplomacy.

Moreover, I would not a priori reject the scenarios for South America involving China, the EU, and the US which do not agree with Bertonha's vision. The world is rapidly drifting towards multipolarity, and the future likely holds promise for various unanticipated geopolitical combinations. From my perspective – and considering the growing weight of Beijing's economic lobby – the Washington-Brasilia axis in South America has roughly the same chances to come into being as the US-China one.

The US dominance in South America need not be thought of as a foregone conclusion, but, in fact, Bertonha limits the scope of this part of his forecast to the foreseeable future. Placed in such a context, the forecast looks accurate, but one has to take into account the extreme fluidity of geopolitical configurations in today's world and, accordingly, the obvious truth that the temporal framework of the foreseeable future in the settings is unclear. As for Bertonha's assessment of the role to be taken by Russia, it certainly is not the case that Moscow has no ambitions in South America beyond maintaining a more symbolic than real presence in the region.

Overall, the paper by Bertonha, to the author's credit, can be a starting point for a serious professional debate. The forecast certainly merits the attention of scholars studying Latin America as well as of decision-makers across the world whose agencies – economically or politically -  are involved with South America.


Hegemony, South America, the US, Brazil, China, the EU, Russia


[1]  Joao Fabio Bertonha, Doutor em Historia pela Unicamp, Professor do Departamento de Historia da Universidade Estadual de Maringa e Pesquisador bolsista do CNPq, todos no Brasil. Atualmente (2010) faz estagio de pos-doutorado na Universita di Roma (La Sapienza).


Negocios Estrangeiros”, Publicacao semestral do Instituto Diplomatico do Ministerio dos Negocios Estrangeiros,  Dezembro 2010, Numero 18, pp. 121-14


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