Its Own Clash: Latin America and Western Civilization

"The United States is from Mars and Europe is from Venus.

"The United States is from Mars and Europe is from Venus."[i] Robert Kagan's pithy observation about glaring differences between U.S. and European reactions to global events resonated in both Washington and European capitals. Yet, while Kagan correctly asserts the Atlantic Ocean has in some respects grown wider in recent years, there remains a general consensus that despite disputes over, for instance, the war on terrorism or genetically modified crops, both the United States and Western Europe remain firmly within the realm of Western Civilization.  But, if the United States is from Mars and Europe from Venus, where does that leave Latin America?   Can one state with confidence that Latin America, too, is a card-carrying member of The West?  And if so, does Latin America hail from Mars, Venus or a planet of its own?

While Samuel Huntington's controversial article, "The Hispanic Challenge,"[ii] points to differences between Latino and American culture and cites potential domestic repercussions of these differences, these separate questions arise about how Latin America, with its particular history and culture, will define its international identity.  If Kagan is correct that the transatlantic rift represents, not a recent problem caused by pugnacious national leaders, but rather, great differences in the distribution of military power and subsequent views about the efficacy of force as a means to international peace, how will Latin American cultural, historical and also military differences affect its stance in the international system? With whom - Mars, Venus, or neither - will Latin America align its international political, strategic identity and what will be its role?  Over the course of the next several years, it will be critical for Latin America to clearly define and develop its position against, not only its geographical Western neighbor, the United States, but also against the entire concept of a Western Civilization. 

Latin America's geographic location and historical heritage, as well as their general embrace of capitalism and Lockean political liberalism, all locate Latin America firmly within the realm of Western Civilization; however, its relationship to the differing orbits of Western nations remains less clear.  An answer may be found by inquiring how Latin America felt on September 11, 2001 and what, if anything, it feels is necessary to do in its aftermath.

For President Bush, one of the most disheartening sites after the events of September 11th was the apparent apathy and cynicism with which these attacks were met in Mexico City.  Bush considered himself the first true "NAFTA" president and his decision to make Mexico his first foreign visit was no mistake. In his much-hyped "amigo diplomacy" with Mexican president Vicente Fox, Bush might have been testing the extent to which Mexico was willing to cast aside its traditional suspicion of U.S. motives and ally its political and economic future with its northern neighbor. Yet, on September 12, 2001 the United States appeared to be galaxies away from Mexico, and this psychological distance has not closed in subsequent years.

Was Mexico's general indifference to the Islamic fundamentalist attack on U.S. soil an isolated response or was it representative of Latin America's reaction to the events?  Granted, Latin America is a large and disparate region whose elected leaders hold a full range of political ideologies. Hard-line Colombian president Alvaro Uribe will of course have a drastically different answer to this question than either Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez or Bolivian political activist Evo Morales.

Nonetheless, Latin America's position vis-à-vis the West is a question that needs to be addressed in this climate of heightened tensions and global terror.  In determining this position, Latin America faces bitterly competing forces.  Particularly, Latin America's often contentious and resentful relationship with the United States - the very linchpin of Western Civilization - presents tensions simultaneously pulling it towards Mars and pushing it towards Venus.  

With President Bush's declaration of states as "either with us or against us" in the war on terror, Washington, in essence, offered Latin America an opportunity (a "carrot" in diplomatic parlance) to demonstrate that it considered itself a part of Western civilization and was prepared to help stamp out threats to its existence.  Undoubtedly, submitting to the hegemony of its larger northern neighbor would bring Latin America great advantages, particularly in the form of profitable trade agreements, increased aid packages, a hemispheric military alliance and aid in strengthening some of its own fledging, illiberal democracies.  Moreover, after serving as the battle ground for proxy wars of the ideological struggles of the 20th century, Latin America understands all too well the role military power plays in the international system.  Although Latin Americans may desire European "soft" tactics as means for achieving a global perpetual peace, long experience may have taught them that noble, idealistic visions are both protected and conquered with "hard" power.  For example, president Uribe has recently gone to great lengths to demonstrate to his counterparts in Washington that Colombia's war against illegal armed groups is part of a broader struggle to bolster political liberalism in Colombia.