Why U.S. Leaders Don't Need to Fear Latin American 'Soft Balancers'

"U.S. interests can benefit, paradoxically, from successful opposition by foreign countries pursuing the 'soft balancing' of U.S. power."

Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 14 visit to Cuba has provoked a storm of comment, criticism and speculation. Senator Marco Rubio and other detractors have decried the restoration of diplomatic relations as appeasing aging dictators. Some commentators have asked whether the United States will reassert its leadership of the hemisphere now that it has finally ended the most visible remaining vestige of Cold War policy in Latin America. Critics and supporters alike fret over the implications for democracy and development on the island.

Whether one sees the new policy as diplomatic triumph or disaster, the focus has been on the next chapter of the rancorous bilateral relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Commentators have largely overlooked the important role Latin American diplomacy played in pushing Washington to change its fifty-six-year-old policy. This is a mistake, because Latin America’s role in influencing U.S.-Cuban relations holds larger implications for how the United States views diplomatic opposition from Latin America and elsewhere. During the last two decades, Latin American states undermined the legitimacy of Washington’s policies, raised their costs and pressured for a new approach. As Kerry noted more diplomatically in his press conference with his Cuban peer, “I thank our friends from around the hemisphere who have urged us—in some cases, for decades—to restore our diplomatic ties and who have warmly welcomed our decision to do so.” Cuba was more than a symbolic issue. The embargo’s unilateralism, and the extraterritoriality with which it was often implemented, damaged Latin Americans’ interests and offended their commitment to the principle of national sovereignty. For the United States, the opening to Cuba improves the U.S. position vis-à-vis rising Chinese influence by creating new investment opportunities and enhancing U.S. prestige. The dramatic policy change, made under Latin American pressure, is the most recent example of how U.S. interests can benefit, paradoxically, from successful opposition by foreign countries pursuing the “soft balancing” of U.S. power.

The term soft balancing was coined by IR scholar Robert Pape to describe opposition to the Bush doctrine and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when France, Germany and Russia joined at the United Nations to try to thwart Washington’s plans. More generally, soft balancing is a strategy adopted in opposition to a unipolar power whose actions are perceived as increasingly threatening. In traditional balance of power theory, states seek to check the preponderant state either through enhancing their own power or by forming alliances. In a unipolar system, the leading state’s power is unrivaled, so secondary states turn to soft balancing through diplomacy, international institutions and law, delegitimization and other tactics. These coordinated actions raise the costs and lower the benefits of the unilateral exercise of military force. In a recent article in International Security, we extend Pape’s insight from the unipolar world to unipolar regional systems, in particular the Western Hemisphere since the late nineteenth century. In the face of a proclaimed U.S. right to intervene and numerous prolonged occupations, Argentina, Mexico and other states used international law, inter-American institutions and diplomatic coordination to attempt to constrain U.S. unilateralism.

Though U.S. policy makers often bristle at international opposition, we find that soft balancing has benefited (or would have benefited) the United States in the long term. Taking multilateral opposition into account can steer the United States away from costly unilateral interventionist policies. Despite the worries of many scholars writing in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, soft balancing need not lead to hard balancing. Because balancers respond to perceptions of increased threats to their interests from the leading state, the United States can take steps to diminish those fears. Therefore, soft balancing need not lead to lesser U.S. influence.

Soft balancing in the Americas

After the American Civil War, the United States’ material power grew rapidly. Its industrializing economy quickly eclipsed the economies of its neighbors. It possessed the hemisphere’s only large blue-water navy. The United States’ victory over Spain in 1898 was soon followed by Theodore Roosevelt’s doctrine, which declared, “Chronic wrongdoing...may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.” The United States often used military force to oblige the governments of the circum-Caribbean to pay U.S. and European creditors. Increasingly, these interventions led to prolonged occupations. The United States took over customs houses and national finances, ruling by proxy or by decree in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and elsewhere.