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Reimagining Regional Governance in Latin America

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journal contribution
posted on 02.12.2021, 23:02 authored by Federico Merke, Oliver Stuenkel, Andreas FeldmannAndreas Feldmann
Latin America’s existing predicament stems from a complex set of interlinked social, economic, and political crises, which have been magnified by the advent of the coronavirus pandemic and a rising tide of isolationism and “antiglobalism.” These crises range from domestic polarization and economic travails, to ideological divergence, personal rivalries among the region’s leaders and U.S.-Chinese geopolitical competition, and all are hampering regional governance and negatively impacting the prospects of cooperation.

Latin American governments urgently need to work together to address the manifold challenges they face as events in recent decades have shown that unless better regional mechanisms can be found, domestic and transnational challenges—from organized crime and environmental degradation to migration and anemic economic growth—will become even more difficult to address, with potentially devastating long-term consequences. Yet, despite the high stakes, traditional regional governance mechanisms seem paralyzed, lacking even the capacity to discuss the current untenable situation, let alone address it. The conventional wisdom is that regional cooperation across Latin America is practically nonexistent because its heads of states have insurmountable ideological differences and because the region’s dominant diplomatic institutions have failed to fulfill their purpose.

All is not lost in the realm of regional governance, however. While cooperation is either dysfunctional or nonexistent in many dimensions, in others it persists with surprising resilience and vigor, although it is often overlooked or underappreciated. Existing cooperation is for the most part technical and based on the committed work by government officials who, even during the bleakest moments of the pandemic, have shown adherence to principled norms and driven by a refreshing degree of pragmatism.

Effective regional governance and cooperation in Latin America is necessary for a broader conversation on the region’s role in a rapidly changing global order, shaped by technological transformation and genuinely global problems such as climate change, migratory pressures, and increasing security threats. As great power competition continues to shape the global order, Latin America often is regarded as a peripheral player. Yet far from being somehow apart or exempt from today’s rising geopolitical currents, Latin America, for better or for worse, is very much affected by them. Regional governance is a fundamental instrument to help Latin America overcome its numerous daunting challenges. Even when ideological differences make cooperation difficult at the high politics level, it is crucial to find avenues of progress at other levels and in informal or less visible ways.

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