Meaningless Multilateralism

In International Diplomacy, South America Chooses Quantity Over Quality

Flags fly over a summit for the regional organization CELAC in Havana, Cuba. Courtesy Reuters

Groucho Marx famously quipped that he would never want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. The governments of Latin America seem not to share his reluctance. Over the past decade, South American and Caribbean countries have displayed an unprecedented eagerness to create multilateral organizations. But in allowing these clubs to proliferate with little regard for membership standards, governments have sacrificed quality for quantity. Many of Latin America’s new regional groups claim to share lofty goals -- from resolving conflicts to coordinating political and economic policies. But there is little reason to believe that they are capable of achieving them.

Multilateral organizations are effective when they explicitly oblige member states to surrender some degree of national sovereignty for the sake of collective goals. But the new Latin American organizations don’t include any such barriers for entry. To the extent that they provide incentives for enforcing collective norms, it is on the basis of vague notions of regional solidarity. Far from promoting meaningful international cooperation, these new organizations do little more than collectively endorse their members’ claims to national sovereignty.


To a certain degree, the organizations are a product of the region’s newfound independence. Over the past decade, the United States’ influence in the region has declined -- a result of the Iraq war and its relative economic stagnation. At the same time, China and India have emerged as important markets for the region’s exports. (China has become Argentina and Brazil’s largest export market, and the second-largest market for Chile, Peru, and Venezuela.) There is also an ideological aspect to the region’s rebalancing. Washington’s free market economic model lost favor among South Americans after it was widely (though wrongly) blamed for stagnating economies and growing income disparity. Since then, many Latin Americans have wanted to create a new global economic and diplomatic order, one in which the United States does not play a dominant role.

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