A long and creative history of alliance diplomacy.
The Americas boasts a long and creative history of multilateral diplomacy. The Western Hemisphere’s premier association, the Organization of American States (OAS), traces its origins to the Pan-American Union meeting in 1899 in Washington, DC. In 1959, the region added a powerful economic component to inter-American cooperation and security: the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Often the United States is credited with founding—and dominating—both inter-American institutions. Yet, the inspiration for the OAS can be traced to the legendary liberator, Simón Bolívar; his writings looked to the young United States as a shield against European recolonization of the Americas. Similarly, the origins of the IDB can be traced to the energetic Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek, and his pleas to the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations for a Marshall Plan for the Americas as a bulwark against leftist agitation.
To better balance or constrain US power, Latin Americans have created regional organizations that exclude the United States.
A third pillar of inter-American cooperation emerged in the 1990s during the post-Cold War convergence of values toward political democracy and economic openings. In convening the first historic Summit of the Americas in 1994, held in Miami, the United States was responding to pressure from Latin America to grow the “spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)” to extend the trade and investment preferences accorded to Mexico to the whole region.
At the same time, the United States has availed itself of plurilateral, issue-specific alliances when these three fully representative inter-American institutions have been unable or unwilling to advance US interests. Examples of plurilateralism include subregional free trade agreements, and at the 2022 Los Angeles Summit of the Americas, the US led in negotiating “coalitions of the willing” on immigration and on economic reforms.
Indisputably, US relations with Latin America and the Caribbean are troubled by massive asymmetries. US hegemonic power—economic, military, demographic, cultural—can generate fear and distrust in the region, especially palpable among certain right-wing nationalists and left-wing progressives. To better balance or constrain US power, Latin Americans have created regional organizations that exclude the United States. Examples include the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Pacific Alliance, and the Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAF).
Three Inter-American Multilateral Institutions
Adopted in 1948 in Bogota, Colombia, the OAS charter enshrines the juridical equality of states by allocating one vote per country. Typically, the OAS seeks consensus among its 34 member states, even though the charter contemplates decisions by vote. The OAS has struggled to reconcile two of its contradictory principles: support for representative democracy and non-intervention in members’ domestic affairs. The search for consensus has sometimes allowed governments that are patently in violation of the organization’s democratic principles to veto the will of the majority.
The 1959 founding of the Inter-American Development Bank, headquartered in Washington, DC, signaled a growing awareness that economic prosperity and poverty alleviation were critical underpinnings of inter-American security.
The OAS charter calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes but does not authorize the use of force save in the express exception of external aggression; moreover, its resolutions (for example, authorizing economic sanctions), are non-binding. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which calls for collective self-defense in the event of an attack by an extra-regional state, was invoked in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. OAS diplomats have helped resolve disputes among its members (the 1969 “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras, the 1995 border dispute between Peru and Ecuador). In sharp contrast to the violent strife afflicting other regions of the world, the Western Hemisphere remains a zone of relative peace among nations.
In the post-Cold War era, the OAS, generally in alliance with the United States and Canada, has aided democratic forces struggling against authoritarianism. The OAS acted to help stabilize democracies in Guatemala (1993, 2023/2024), Haiti (1994), Paraguay (1996), and Peru (2000), and more controversially in Honduras (2009) and Bolivia (2019). OAS electoral observation missions have become commonplace and a serious irregularity can impact the legitimacy of an election (Bolivia, 2019). Strongly worded resolutions condemning Nicaragua’s violations of democratic norms drove its strongman, Daniel Ortega, to withdraw from the OAS in 2023.
The 1959 founding of the Inter-American Development Bank, headquartered in Washington, DC, signaled a growing awareness that economic prosperity and poverty alleviation were critical underpinnings of inter-American security. Unlike the OAS with its one-country, one-vote egalitarianism, the IDB is governed by weighted voting corresponding to members’ financial contributions. As the largest shareholder, the United States controls 30 percent of voting shares, securing a veto over important policy decisions. If acting together, however, the Latin American and Caribbean members can muster a majority of votes, sufficient to pass on most matters including the approval of individual loans. Hence, the IDB is often labeled a “borrowers’ bank.” The IDB presidency, always a Latin American (with one brief interlude), is currently occupied by the Brazilian economist Ilan Goldfajn. These institutional norms have sometimes frustrated US interests in redirecting the Bank’s lending priorities.
When these fully representative inter-American institutions have frustrated US policymakers, the United States has availed itself of plurilateral, issue-specific alliances.
To a degree the IDB functions under the shadows of the much larger Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). The IDB cannot compete with their global scope and deep analytical expertise. Still, over the years, the IDB has added value in regional trade integration, poverty alleviation, gender equality, private-sector promotion, and, more recently, in addressing climate change. At the 2023 United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP28) in Dubai, the IDB trumpeted its plans to triple its climate financing to $150 billion over the next decade.
Bureaucratically, the OAS responds to foreign ministries, the IDB to ministries of finance and development; missing was an institutional process to harness the leadership of presidents and prime ministers. In Punta del Este, Uruguay in 1967, an inter-American summit of leaders stumbled over deep cleavages, including over the Vietnam War; summits were shelved until 1994 when President Bill Clinton convened the first post-Cold War Summit of the Americas.
The Miami Summit approved 23 consensus initiatives with 164 action items, including the negotiation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Over the intervening 30 years, nine summits have transpired—some more successful than others. The Quebec Summit (2001) laid the foundation for the historic Inter-American Democracy Charter, which codified several measures for the collective defense of democracy. At recent summits, the well-attended CEO Business Forum, sponsored by the IDB, provided a channel for corporate input into summit proceedings, parallel to a civil society forum. The highly divisive 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, scuttled the FTAA. In response to the region’s recurring political fragmentation at the ninth Summit in Los Angeles, California in 2022, the United States pivoted toward plurilateralism.
The United States Pivots to Plurilateralism
When these fully representative inter-American institutions have frustrated US policymakers, the United States has availed itself of plurilateral, issue-specific alliances. The vision of a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as outlined at the Miami 1994 summit, was blocked by protectionists in Brazil, Argentina, and in US industrial regions—so Washington responded to pleas from individual countries to negotiate free trade areas. The most prominent of these mini-accords signed in the 2000s was the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR).
For its part, the Trump administration updated NAFTA, relabeling it the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). While focusing on trade and investment flows, these trilateral accords laid the foundations for cooperation on a host of pressing security matters such as migration and law enforcement including counter-narcotics policies. More recently, at the ninth Summit of the Americas in 2022, the United States (together with 20 Latin American and Caribbean states) signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection. The accord outlined a shared approach to reduce and manage irregular migration in the Americas.
Not surprisingly, given the region’s vast asymmetries and multiple heterogeneities, the record of lasting accomplishments is mixed.
At the 2022 summit, the United States, together with 11 nations with whom the US already has free-trade arrangements, launched the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP). The APEP agenda focused on improving the business climate in the developing economies and broached “nearshoring” (the regional integration of US-based global supply chains). However, APEP’s amorphous agenda and slow pace of deliberations raised questions about the Biden administration’s commitment to this budding coalition among like-minded states.
To better balance US power, Latin America and the Caribbean created regional organizations that exclude the United States. Examples include MERCOSUR, UNASUR, CELAC, ALBA, and CARICOM. Some sub-regional efforts have added value to their members—but most have fallen short of declared aspirations due to their reluctance to pool sovereignty and resources, lack of institutionalization, recurring leadership squabbles (among Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina), vexing commercial disputes, divisive ideological cleavages, and contrasting geopolitical visions (including divergent views on relations with the powerful United States).
MERCOSUR, founded in 1991 by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, sought to overcome the long-standing rivalry between the two Southern Cone giants by spurring intra-regional trade and consolidating their nascent democracies. MERCOSUR saw early successes, including a tenfold increase in trade within the bloc in its first decade. Since then, however, MERCOSUR has floundered amidst renewed commercial and ideological tensions between Brazil and Argentina, disputes over enlargement (whether to include Venezuela and Bolivia), and the bloc’s inability to finalize trade agreements with major trading partners (the European Union, China). Similarly, Brazil’s on-and-off efforts to build an even wider Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) revealed the multiple fractures among nations that have long stymied regional integration efforts. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), sometimes proposed as an alternative to the OAS, has highlighted the geopolitical competition between Mexico and Brazil. CELAC has also failed to define a clear agenda or singular purpose, beyond its exclusion of the regional hegemon.
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance founded by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2004, drew strength from Chavez’s charismatic personality and his flood of petrodollars. But this statist, anti-imperialist alliance among left-leaning governments collapsed when Chavez died—and Venezuela’s oil-based economy imploded. Arguably, two other subregional integration schemes—CARICOM and the Pacific Alliance—have been somewhat more successful. Founded in 1973, the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM) discovered that small, thin economies are not apt for commercial integration. Moreover, as with other such regional integration schemes, CARICOM’s shortcomings can be attributed, as Norman Girvan has assessed, to “the absence of supranationality in the CARICOM governance arrangements, including the absence of binding Community law, the discretionary status of implementation of decisions by CARICOM organs, and the absence of sanctions for non-implementation.” CARICOM has had more success in coordinating foreign policies, with Cuba, and with powers including the European Union and the United States.
The Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile), formed in 2011, sought to integrate sectors of the four economies, with an eye toward attracting commerce with the then burgeoning Chinese economy. Despite efforts to avoid overly ambitious ideological aspirations, political rifts have slowed progress. This alliance continues to function in areas like academic scholarships, while the private sector pursues integration among financial and equity markets.
More successful has been the Development Bank of Latin America and the Caribbean (CAF). Since opening its operations in 1970, CAF has gradually, quietly, grown to rival the IDB in the size of its lending portfolio. CAF does not count the United States as a member, but it has not identified as anti-imperialist. The CAF depends on international capital markets and seeks to promote the private sector within borrowing member economies. The CAF’s priorities include promoting the green transition, regional integration, and poverty alleviation – not all that different from the goals of the IDB. It remains to be seen if CAF can also serve as an effective voice for the region in international forums.
The Western Hemisphere has a rich history of long-running multilateral institutions and alliances aimed at integrating and strengthening economies, promoting democracies, and coordinating foreign and security policies. Not surprisingly, given the region’s vast asymmetries and multiple heterogeneities, the record of lasting accomplishments is mixed. A successful outcome is more likely when nations are willing to devote significant financial and technical resources, build strong institutions with well-endowed secretariats, substitute excessively ambitious aspirations for pragmatic, realistic goals, and (to a degree), subordinate national sovereignty to collective decision-making.
The United States devotes attention and resources to forums where other members are willing to work constructively toward shared objectives. Inclusive multilateralism—the OAS, IDB, Summitry—may be a first-best solution, but where spoilers made these institutions ineffective, the US is likely to turn to smaller, plurilateral forums or mini-alliances. Such a flexible, opportunistic multi-layered multilateralism provides structures for a pragmatic, results-oriented foreign policy.
Richard E. Feinberg is Professor Emeritus at UC San Diego. His over four decades of engagement with US foreign policy and inter-American relations spans government service (in the White House, Department of State, and US Treasury), several Washington, DC-based public policy institutes, the Peace Corps (Chile), and in numerous corporate and nonprofit consultancies. Since 2005 he has been the book reviewer for the Western Hemisphere section of Foreign Affairs magazine. He serves on advisory boards of Global Americans, the Institute of the Americas, and the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. His most recent publications are Widening the Aperture: Nearshoring in the “Near Abroad” (Wilson Center, Smithsonian Institution, 2021) and Nicaraguan Tragedy: From Consensus to Coercion (Wilson Center, Smithsonian Institution, 2019).
Cover photo: US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, right, talks with Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro at the 52nd OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru, Thursday, October 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Guadalupe Pardo).