The international order features a growing rivalry between the interests and values of the liberal democratic world, and those of an emerging, autocratic world. The first is represented by powers like the United States of America, the European Union (led by France and Germany), Australia, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, South Africa and other, lesser powers.
The second bloc of emerging, autocratic if not dictatorial and revisionist powers, consists of states like China, with its starkly rising economic, military and technological power and Russia, with lesser economic capabilities but considerable military and technological reach.
This rivalry is perhaps more specifically evident in the relationship between the U.S. and China, after recent evolutions. Under U.S. leadership, the liberal-democratic world briefly enjoyed, starting in 1989 as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union began to collapse, a period of hegemony that has gradually waned as the U.S. entered into relative decline. It remains, nevertheless, the premier world power.
Meanwhile, China's dizzying rise to economic preeminence is paving the way for a bipolar rivalry brimming with conflict possibilities. Although for now, at least, it is not a "to the death" fight or a "zero sum game" like the Cold War. Today, the two sides will compete intensely over values and interests, and cooperate in global strategic issues of mutual interest.
As Latin America seeks to adapt to this alignment while preserving its autonomy, experts have proposed approaches variously termed "equidistant diplomacy," "selective collaboration," "strategic autonomy," "active neutrality" or "peripheral realism."
The basic idea to bear in mind, however, is that Latin America belongs to the liberal-democratic world by virtue of history, geography and political culture. That, then, makes it incumbent on certain regional heavyweights to end their "strategic flirting" or fake neutrality between two poles of unequal moral weight. There have been calls for these states to commit themselves, unequivocally, to a strategic alliance of liberal democracies headed by the U.S.
The two sides will compete intensely over values and interests.
Where is the problem in joining an alliance with the world's first power, as most democratic — and mostly the more prosperous — states are doing? The strategic-democratic alliance means a firm commitment to the defense and promotion of democratic values and practices, including an unflinching respect for the rule of law, human rights, freedom, human dignity and the like.
This global commitment begins with a strategic-democratic alliance in the hemisphere. Latin America is part of the inter-American system, which has enshrined its historical ideals and democratic values in legal instruments like the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio de Janeiro, 1947), the Organization of American States (Bogotá, 1948) and the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José, 1969). These constitute pillars of a regional system of cooperation on which to build an alliance with a role in the new world order.
At a market in La Paz, Bolivia — Photo: Martin Alipaz/EFE via ZUMA Press
This bloc, or even a lesser bloc within it like MERCOSUR, can act significantly to defend democracy against the authoritarian onslaught, either in the wider democratic world or as a hemispheric alliance. Its commitment must be clear in moral and political terms. There can be no neutrality or complaisance toward tyrannical regimes like those of Cuba, Nicaragua or Venezuela, which are not the moral equal of democracies.
The alliance could include a new trade integration initiative to reduce poverty in the hemisphere. Democracy must show it can solve problems and offer opportunities for progress and prosperity. There are significant precedents: the Alliance for Progress conceived by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and the U.S. in the 1960s, or the Free Trade Area of the Americas, an initiative of the elder President Bush, well received at the 1994 Summit of the Americas but dismissed in 2005 by the regional trio of anti-American leaders: Hugo Chávez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Néstor Kirchner.
The alliance would strengthen Latin America's ability to defend and project its values and interests, both in the hemisphere and the concert of nations. It would exert greater influence on decisions for transnational issues like the pandemic, climate change, organized crime and trafficking, corruption, money laundering or terrorism.
The commitment would not mean losing the freedom to actively trade with the rest of the world. The democratic world is perfectly compatible with economic and commercial openness, which is also the surest path to the prosperity of nations.
Mid-level powers like Germany, Canada, France, Great Britain and Australia have not hesitated to align themselves with the U.S to defend democracy and freedom. They are unconditional and trustworthy allies, though this has not prevented them from trading with China and Russia, in spite of ideological differences. Certain global challenges and economic and security concerns demand cooperation, but without abandoning basic, liberal and democratic values.
*Perina lectures on international relations and governance at Georgetown University and George Washington University in the United States.
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