Outside of Europe, Latin America is often considered the world region with the highest degree of ‘region-ness’, that is to say, an area where projects of regional integration are both far advanced and highly relevant in terms of economic, political, and international legal impact. Yet, if the multiple and often geographically and functionally competing regional organizations are examined in detail, it is easily demonstrated that none of them actually fulfil even the most basic criteria of ‘integration’ as commonly understood in neo-functionalist definitions of the term, which usually refer to the transfer of political authority to supranational bodies – typically in order to manage economic or other kinds of interdependence between countries. Despite many statements to the contrary, commercial interdependence within the region is low or even receding, and there has not yet been any meaningful establishment of supranational decision-making structures.
Many researchers therefore dismiss Latin American integration as lacking either in substance or in execution. Yet, the puzzle remains that in contrast to other, similarly subdued regionalist projects in the Global South, the different regionalisms in Latin America – of which we discuss Mercosur, the Pacific Alliance, ALBA, CELAC and UNASUR in more detail – enjoy a comparatively high political profile. They regularly attract significant media attention, are relevant in terms of public opinion and are the object of more academic studies than comparable endeavours in other world regions. More importantly, Latin American politicians sometimes spend considerable political capital in order to influence the declarations or the membership structure of regional organizations, but often appear indifferent to their policy outcomes. A recent prominent example for this is the excitement surrounding Venezuela’s exclusion from Mercosur, coupled with the fact that during ten years, the almost complete non-implementation of the organization’s common market protocols attracted no attention at all to the country.
There is thus a notable chasm between the efficacy of Latin American regionalist projects in terms established by theories of regional integration in the discipline of International Relations (IR) on one hand, and the significant attention and relevance that they enjoy in public discourse on the other. We therefore posit that instead of the Eurocentric understanding of regionalism dominant in IR, which is essentially based on the logic of the European Union, alternative conceptualizations might be more productive in elucidating the importance that Latin American regionalism apparently has for different reasons than the EU. We encounter a promising option to such effect in systems theoretical concepts of regions, which are in turn based on Niklas Luhmann’s works on functional differentiation and world society. This approach describes the contemporary world not as divided into countries and blocs of countries, as more traditional IR theories are wont to do, but rather as differentiated into globally operating systems of communication such as politics, the economy, science, religion, law, art, and others, each following their own, unique, operationally closed logic.
In this theoretical context, regions are not geographically delimited areas, but are rather operationally based on characteristic forms of couplings between those function systems. One might, for example, observe an extraordinary importance of religious sects for political identity in the Middle East, or a high degree of political intervention within the economies of the post-Soviet region. In general, the hegemonic expectation within world society is that the autonomy of different function systems will be respected, which expresses itself, for example, in semantics such as religious freedom, property rights, rule of law, and others. Regional integration measures such as the European Union may then be described as performing an important function in harmonizing the reactions of political and legal systems to the demands of other systems, chiefly the economy, thus serving as an enabler for functional differentiation on a global scale. In regions characterized as ‘southern’, however, such autonomy has typically been contested, incomplete, or at least unstable to a significant degree. The resulting phenomena are then, on a global scale, described and simultaneously delegitimized – for example through the semantics of corruption, clientelism, lack of judicial independence, and others.
In our view, the various integration projects are not so much attempts to perform functions according to a neo-functionalist logic, but are rather political semantics that react to, and negotiate, the delegitimization of such ‘imperfections’ in Latin American social structures. They also tend to privilege single function systems (e.g. politics in the case of Mercosur, the market in the case of the Pacific Alliance, or protest in the case of ALBA) as the ultimate arbiter of societal legitimacy, thereby suggesting certain strategies for coping with the evolutionary pressure of a functionally differentiated world society. In social constructivist IR theory, such an undertaking would be described as the generation of “ontological security”. Far from the criticisms of more conventional approaches, Latin American regionalism might therefore actually fulfil an important function – however, it is related much more to the generation of political legitimacy in the context of societal evolution, rather than to the political and legal management of interdependence. At the very least, such an assumption would fit rather well with the original diagnosis that Latin American regionalism might be close to irrelevant in terms of economic interdependence or legal supranationality, but still politicized to a great degree.
This is the discussion presented at the article Differentiation theory and the ontologies of regionalism in Latin America published at the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N. 1) of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional.
Read the article
Kleinschmidt, Jochen, & Gallego Pérez, Pablo. (2017). Differentiation theory and the ontologies of regionalism in Latin America. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e017. Epub October 23, 2017.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-73292017001018
About the authors
Jochen Kleinschmidt – Universidad del Rosario,Facultad de Ciencias Políticas, Bogota, Colombia (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Pablo Gallego Pérez – Universidad EAFIT, Departamento de Negocios Internacionales, Medellin, Colombia (email@example.com).