Tuesday, 2 March 2021

South America: Strategic drivers and Britain’s interests

Despite dominating the 1980s – due to Argentina’s unprovoked invasion of the Falkland Islands – South America has been practically invisible to British strategists and policymakers over the past twenty years. Almost every other region – Europe, the Middle East, even the Indo-Pacific zone – has attracted greater British attention, not least because of the Islamist terror attacks on the United States (US) in 2001 and the resultant War on Terror. Insofar as the United Kingdom (UK) has been aware of South America, its interest was driven primarily by the drug trade in countries along the continent’s northern shore, which threatens its overseas territories in the Carribean, as well as the home islands across the North Atlantic.

To some extent, Britain’s lack of interest in South America was a consequence of the fact that the geopolitical situation on the continent was improving. During the 1980s and 1990s, democratisation swept over the continent, to the extent that there were no authoritarian regimes left by 2000. Despite a deep economic depression in Argentina at the turn of the century, economic growth was fuelling the rise of a new middle class of consumers in many South American countries. And while significant areas of chaos remained – approximately 40% of Colombia was under the control of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) revolutionaries at one point – the broader trajectory looked positive.

Capitalising on these gains, the coalition government which came to power in 2010 tried to refocus Britain’s attention on South America with the so-called ‘Canning Agenda’ – named after Canning House, a London-based institute whose aim has long been the enhancement of UK ties with South America. Speaking at Canning House, Lord Hague, the then Foreign Secretary, outlined the thrust of the new approach:

We will halt the decline in Britain’s diplomatic presence in Latin America. And I say to you very clearly as Foreign Secretary, Britain’s retreat from the region is over, and it is now time for an advance to begin.

The Canning Agenda’s focus was on boosting the economic linkages between the UK and South America – a focus that is only likely to grow in importance, irrespective of Britain’s possible withdrawal from the European Union (EU). However, back in 2010, the re-emergence of geopolitics in South America was largely unforeseen – indeed, Lord Hague even discounted it.

Strategic trends in South America

Over recent months, the violent protests in Chile have captured international attention, not least because the country was considered to be one of the most successful and best-governed in South America: since 1990, national income has risen by 524% and liberal democracy has consolidated nationally as the murky regime of Augusto Pinochet faded into history. Even in terms of inequality, Chile has made significant progress since 1990 and performs well in relation to most of its regional peers. The global media was also interested in Chile because it was due to host the Annual Summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Santiago in November 2019.

Yet, despite the global media’s attention on Chile, an array of broader, more pervasive, and more important strategic forces are starting to reshape the politics and economics of South America. These include:  

  1. State failure, particularly in Venezuela under the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro;
  2. The resurgence of authoritarian strongmen, including, to different degrees, Andrés Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil;
  3. The onset of – in the words of the 2018 National Security Capability Review – ‘wider state competition’, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia challenge the established rules-based international system; and,
  4. Deforestation and desertification, especially in the context of the Amazon rainforest, which is likely to contribute to climate change, both regionally and globally.

If these strategic drivers grow in strength, what might South America look like by 2030? Based on contemporary trends, three futures look possible:

  • Zones of chaos: The majority of countries in South America continue to deteriorate, environmentally, politically and economically. The vestiges of liberal democracy slide as authoritarian regimes take hold – perhaps even with a couple of 1970s-style military coups – while the outright collapse of a country (such as Venezuela) takes up regional bandwidth. Devoid of effective governance and regional cooperation, environmental degradation in the form of the accelerated clearance of the Amazon rainforest and resulting desertification intensifies, contributing to climate change globally and regionally, forcing further migration flows northwards as hundreds of thousands – even millions – of desperate people flee towards the Carribean and North America, in search of a better life.
  • A predator’s paradise: South America not only becomes a zone of chaos, but a geopolitical playground – even a battleground – for the major powers to compete against one another. Indeed, the domestic chaos may create vacuums to suck such powers in, creating a vicious circle of destruction, not unlike in the past when Germany and the Soviet Union tried to pin the US down in its own hemisphere. In this future, as wider state competition intensifies, revisionist powers such as the PRC and Russia would seek to expand their influence. Similarly to its approach in Ukraine and Syria, Russia might try to deliberately destabilise South American countries to fan the fallout northwards towards the US (to generate domestic political discord and isolationist sentiment). Meanwhile, through economic incentives, the PRC seeks to ‘capture’ South American elites, in the hope that they might might realign their nations ideologically against democracy and geopolitically against the US, as well as European countries like the UK and France.
  • Islands of stability: Although zones of chaos continue to exist, a handful of countries remain sufficiently cohesive to act as ‘ordering sentinels’ across the continent. These countries constrain the chaos within their neighbours and keep malicious foreign actors out, with the anticipation of creating zones of prosperity surrounding their own national homelands. These sentinels might include Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil – those countries with the greatest resources and government capacity to play a meaningful regional role in South America.

But, even if the existing strategic forces are known, it is unclear the extent to which they will come together in South America to generate any of the three futures – zones of chaos, intensified geopolitics, and/or islands of order. They may also interact with one another in unpredictable ways. For example, while the zones of chaos in Colombia has been closed down in recent years with the dismantling of the FARC, another has opened up in Venezuela.

Implications for the UK

Although the Atlantic Ocean will insulate the UK from the worst excesses of future chaos and disorder on the continent, this does not mean that British strategists and policymakers should continue to overlook South America in the way that they have in recent years – the Canning Agenda notwithstanding. For starters, South America is adjacent to an array of Britain’s overseas territories, both to the north in the Caribbean and to the east, stretching from Ascension Island to British Antarctic Territory. Ascension Island is home to a British air station, which acts as an entry point to the South Atlantic and Africa; Saint Helena is the location of a new international airport; Tristan de Cuhna is broadly equidistant between Africa and South America; and the Falkland Islands – home to the largest military base in the Southern Hemisphere, looming over the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn – alongside South Georgia and the South Sandwich archipelago, are the ‘strategic gateway’ to the Antarctic.

In this context, South America’s importance may increase as Africa rises over the next few decades, not least because the majority of Africa’s  population growth is projected to occur in countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea – particularly in Nigeria. According to the United Nations Population Division, the population of West Africa is projected to increase by 103% over the next three decades – from 391.4 million today to 796.5 million in 2050, an increase comparable to the current population of the EU (minus the UK). Driven by rapid urbanisation in countries surrounding the Gulf of Guinea and the extension of economic connections across the South Atlantic, the two sides of the South Atlantic – South America and Africa – are likely to be joined together like never before, with the UK central to both.

Equally, South America is of vital geostrategic significance to Britain’s closest and most powerful ally – the US – with whom it shares similar interests. Ever since President James Monroe signalled in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere would be closed off to European meddling, it was the UK that used its naval dominance to enforce the so-called ‘Monroe Doctrine’. In the twenty-first century, reducing the impact of hostile and malicious external forces in South America will grow  in importance. Here, it is likely that Russia and the PRC will attempt to draw the US away from their own neighbourhoods – namely Eastern Europe and East Asia, respectively – by pinning it down in its own hemisphere. Likewise, they may try to weaken UK military activity in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and East of Suez by exploiting anti-British sentiment in South American countries like Argentina, forcing London to redirect military assets towards the South Atlantic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the growth of authoritarian politics in South America may make it harder to protect and promote the liberal values and democratic principles that the UK holds dear. As countries fall under the control of strongmen, they are less likely to support the rules-based international system, particularly in relation to initiatives designed to mitigate against the acceleration of climate change. This problem is amplified given that South America is home to the Amazon rainforest, which pulls a significant amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, cooling the planet like a giant air conditioner. If deforestation and desertification are not brought under control in Brazil, Peru and Colombia, it will speed-up the pace at which the world hurtles towards the so-called ‘point of no return’ when catastrophic climate change cannot be averted.

How should Britain respond?

South America faces many problems, which are likely to grow in the coming years as wider state competition and climate change take their toll. But the continent is not without its successes. As a global power with interests in the South Atlantic and Carribean, Britain is well positioned to play a part in helping to ensure that South America neither descends further into chaos nor disintegrates under geopolitical intrigue. In an ideal world, as the UK seeks to build on the Canning Agenda and expand its global presence – commonly described as ‘Global Britain’ – it would extend its hand to all South American nations that seek to foster a more liberal, democratic and orderly continent. By working with such countries, the UK could help them – even in the event of significant opposition – to craft surrounding islands of stability.

Map 1: Towards a new British geostrategic focus in South America

However, due to the strategic forces reshaping South America, such countries are likely to become increasingly scarce. As Map 1 shows, UK would therefore do well to target its efforts geographically, by enhancing relations with those countries that stretch down the spine of the continent: Mexico in the north, anchored to the US; followed by Colombia and Brazil in the middle, with their large populations and resources; followed by well-governed and prosperous – but relatively small (in terms of population) – Chile to the south. With a bespoke package for each, emphasising the importance of liberal democracy and environmental protection, Britain could try to assist each partner to foster a surrounding neighbourhood of prosperity, to the extent that the four neighbourhoods begin to overlap. This geographically targeted approach makes sense also in terms of the – more limited – resources the UK is likely to want to invest in South America. By focusing its attention in this way, Britain could help reduce the effect of negative forces, thereby becoming one of the most trusted external stakeholders in South America.

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