In seeking to build a "coalition of the willing" for the invasion of Iraq, Washington was disappointed by Latin America's cool response. Only El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Nicaragua — all in the Caribbean Basin orbit of the United States — joined in. (And Costa Rica last week asked to be excused.)
Some in Washington opined that Latin American nations were no longer important in world affairs and wrote them off. In fact, Latin America and Caribbean countries are increasingly important in world affairs but in new and different ways.
For much of the 20th century, most Latin American countries participated in international affairs primarily as supporters of the United States. That was so at the time of the League of Nations, during World War II and in the early years of the United Nations. In the middle of the century, for instance, Latin American nations made up one-third of the membership of the U.N. General Assembly and voted as a bloc in support of U.S. positions.
But from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, a number of Latin American countries ended automatic alignment with the United States. They rejected the concept and lingo of inter-American community, seeking solidarity instead with the developing nations of Asia and Africa, against the colossus of the North. Latin American countries played leading roles in the "Group of 77," a motley assortment of developing nations, as well as in the "nonaligned movement," claiming equidistance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Latin American Economic System was established to pursue regional economic goals, mostly in opposition to the United States and other industrial powers.
In the 1985 U.N. General Assembly, only one country in the region took the U.S. position on more than half the votes; that staunch ally was tiny Grenada, where the government had been installed in 1983 by Washington.
Although those days of knee-jerk opposition to the United States have long since faded, Latin America has not reverted to a passive international role. Many Latin American and Caribbean countries today are active in world affairs, advancing their own interests as they see them, not following a U.S. script. The most dramatic case in point is Brazil.
A country of continental proportions, with the sixth-largest population in the world, Brazil has in the last 15 years steadily expanded its international profile. It has played a regional leadership role on such tough issues as the political crises in Bolivia, Peru, Haiti and Venezuela, in each case taking a central role that in an earlier era might have been asserted by the United States.
But Brazil has also been active beyond the hemisphere, especially in cooperation with India, China and South Africa on issues of international political economy. Brazilian diplomats have played crucial roles in world trade negotiations and in U.N. missions, including the one in Iraq that took the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's representative.
But Latin America's world role is not limited to Brazil. Chile has provided troops for international peacekeeping in Bosnia, East Timor, Congo and Haiti, where 80 percent of the international force comes from Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Mexico, long wary of international involvements, has taken a high profile in the U.N. Security Council and has concluded a free-trade agreement with the European Community. Mexico, Chile and Peru are active in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation effort, and Chile will host the 2004 APEC summit. Venezuela pursues independent policies with regard to Cuba, the Caribbean and Africa.
Washington should not be confused: Latin American nations are potential partners in pursuit of genuinely shared international interests. They can't be taken for granted, but they can be significant allies in a world in which the United States needs more support.
Abraham F. Lowenthal, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, is president of the Pacific Council on International Policy.