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After Decentering: The Politics of Agency and Hegemony in Hemispheric Relations

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 3, 2013
pp. 231-239 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0038

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Both the conduct and the study of inter-American relations have diversified and expanded over the two decades since the Cold War’s end. The third wave of democratic transitions and the rise of globalization and neoliberal economics altered policy agendas across the hemisphere, as did subsequent challenges to democratic consolidation and to neoliberal orthodoxy, along with the increasing salience of intermestic issues and nontraditional threats.1 Meanwhile, diverging academic trends, particularly along methodological lines, raised concerns about disciplinary fragmentation even as they allowed scholars to approach a given topic from new and competing perspectives. This proliferation of issues and methods stimulated scholars of inter-American relations to branch out from qualitative analyses and historical narratives of the interactions of national governments. In particular, researchers employed a variety of approaches to analyze the increasing role of nonstate actors and transnational forces in hemispheric affairs (while retaining a vigilant awareness of state power).2 Amid such diversity, a cluster of recent books on hemispheric affairs, including regional analyses and case studies of Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia, clearly demonstrates that traditional analyses of foreign policy and diplomatic history continue to thrive.

Traditional to a point, that is. Revisionist moves that once seemed radical, such as systematically critiquing the United States’ intentions and interventions in Latin America, or decentering the focus of study from Washington in order to account for Latin American agency in hemispheric affairs, are increasingly common, particularly for the Cold War period.3 All five of the volumes under review here are premised upon one or both of these shifts, which suggests an emerging consensus in the field. For instance, making a decentering argument in The Bolivian Revolution and the United States, 1952 to the Present, James Siekmeier asserts that Bolivian leaders frequently managed to influence the terms of US-Bolivian relations (1–5, 38–39, 90–91). Similarly, Britta H. Crandall argues in Hemispheric Giants: The Misunderstood History of U.S.-Brazilian Relations that the United States has never truly neglected Brazil and that the ebb and flow of US-Brazilian engagement since the establishment of the Old Republic has had as much to do with Brazilian preferences as with North American ones (2, 5, 52). Likewise, Tanya Harmer explains in Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War that Salvador Allende faced not only headwinds from Washington but also the intersecting storm fronts created by other regional players (particularly Cuba and Brazil), and global issues like détente and Third World development, but managed to chart his own policy course (2–3, 6, 221). At the regional level, David R. Mares claims that Latin American conflict decision making, much like that of other countries, is driven largely by national interests and institutions and domestic political incentives—in other words, not dictated or even much constrained by a regional hegemon or hemispheric norms and organizations (63–91). This creates a serious possibility of militarized conflict, as suggested by the title of Mares’s book, Latin America and the Illusion of Peace. And Brian Loveman’s sweeping narrative No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776 emphasizes policy continuity, arguing that “two centuries of disdain” by the United States toward Latin America, marked by malevolent interventions, were in many ways unexceptional (400). The United States acted like other great powers, US decision makers were heavily influenced by domestic political considerations, and the United States was unable to insulate itself from the consequences of intervention, since the increase in military activity abroad fed back into the institutions and values of the republic (Loveman, 2, 14–16, 26, 39, 187).

These shared premises are so strong that the books’ overarching, and broadly convincing, theses sometimes seem to lack opponents. For instance, Crandall’s subtitle is The Misunderstood History of U.S.-Brazilian Relations, but it is not entirely clear who misunderstands this relationship, since Crandall generally cites other scholars’ work approvingly and pins the “neglect assumption” (i.e., that the United States has long overlooked Brazil, a view that “pervades the literature”) on a few recent nonacademic works and a 1960 book by Walt Rostow (3, 88). As Crandall recognizes (192), the idea that shared priorities drive...

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