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

August 18, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Tags: CubaUnited StatesLatin America

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.

The change in doctrine and the accompanying surge in interventions raised concerns throughout Latin America. Many diplomats and jurists in Argentina, then one of the world’s wealthiest countries and a seemingly ascendant power, saw their country as a counterweight to U.S. dominance. Though far from the line of fire, interventionism indirectly threatened Argentine interests and established unwelcome precedents for a nation with foreign debts. Over the next several decades, Argentina advanced international legal principles and norms through bilateral and multinational diplomacy with the intention of de-legitimizing interventions. With his own country suffering U.S. occupation, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío wrote, “On the balance scales of the American continent, it is the Argentine Republic that gives us the counterweight to Yankee power.” In the 1920s, Argentina gained the backing of postrevolutionary Mexico. At a series of Pan-American conferences, an increasingly large and coherent Latin American coalition demanded that the United States forswear its self-proclaimed right to intervene. In dramatic fashion, Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy accepted this Latin American priority, even barring U.S. ambassadors from meddling in domestic affairs. Yielding to the demands of Latin American soft balancers helped produce a secure hemisphere mostly aligned with the Allies in World War II. U.S. power and influence in the Americas continued to grow in the postwar era. Sporadic unilateral interventions, as in the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, produced region-wide outrage, followed by U.S. fence-mending efforts such as the Alliance for Progress aid program. Heeding multilateral calls for restraint generally brought the United States benefits that contrasted with the reputational costs and increased destabilization that followed unilateral interventions.

Unilateralism and extraterritoriality were the features of the Cuban embargo that most irked Latin American states. Multilateral sanctions against Cuba, imposed by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1964, broke down a decade later. The United States used the power of its financial system and currency to punish other nations engaged in transactions with Cuba. It banned vessels that had recently visited the island from entering U.S. ports. And it prohibited the sale of goods that included U.S. content. These factors limited the ability of Latin American companies to do business on the island.

Latin Americans (and others) bristled at the perceived U.S. overreach. After the Cold War ended, efforts emerged to subtly undermine the U.S. position. Starting with the Iberoamerican summits, Cuba was invited to regional gatherings just as the George H.W. Bush administration doubled down on a policy of isolating Cuba. The rise of a new Latin American left at the turn of the century sharpened opposition to U.S. policy. Rhetoric was matched with actions. Brazil made major investments in Cuba, notably at the port of Mariel. A number of scholars have indicated the exclusion of the unipole from multilateral arrangements as a soft balancing strategy. South American states led the creation of political and economic institutions that limited Washington’s reach. Cuba was given pride of place in many of these, like the Economic Community of Latin America and the Caribbean, which includes all American states except for the United States and Canada.

While some pressure came via private diplomacy, inter-American institutions were also crucial. Latin American summits and organizations pointedly invited Cuba, even as it was excluded from those involving the United States. Latin Americans outvoted the United States to end the complete suspension of Cuba from the OAS (though Cuba insists it does not intend to participate). The threat of a Latin American boycott of the 2015 Summit of the Americas, a recurring meeting of heads of state first that was proposed by the Clinton administration, gave the issue urgency. After President Obama got an earful of complaints at the Cartagena summit in 2012, he faced the prospect of addressing empty chairs in Panama if his administration did not agree to Cuban participation. U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba had resulted, ironically, in the diplomatic isolation of the United States—further highlighted by the lopsided annual votes in the United Nations General Assembly to lift the embargo (last year 188-2, with only the United States and Israel opposed). Latin American diplomatic opposition provided a way out of the corner into which Washington had painted itself.

Opposition to U.S. policies went beyond the embargo. As Pape noted, the “signaling of resolve to participate in a balancing coalition” is a way for secondary states to give the predominant power pause. Latin American coordination, led by Brazil, along with U.S. missteps, sank the U.S.-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas in 2005. Likewise, Brazil has emerged as a leading critic of U.S. electronic espionage efforts. Though still nascent, questioning of U.S. drug policies has increased even among close allies like Colombia. Multilateral institutions have facilitated diplomatic coordination among states undertaking soft balancing efforts. These institutions also serve as forums to generate publicity and call the superpower to account. Through them, and through a growing refusal to cooperate with U.S. policy, Latin American states increased the costs of the United States’ status quo policies.