Great Power Influence in Latin America: A Historical Comparison

A recent report from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) highlighted the rise of China’s “sharp” power in Latin America. Sharp power builds upon the classic work of Joseph Nye, who developed the concept of soft power, or efforts to exert influence through non-military means. Unlike soft power, which often seeks to win the support of other countries, sharp power focuses on distraction and manipulation. The Chinese government has effectively used soft and sharp power to pursue its interests abroad. Such activities have included cultivating an international identity as a developing country, utilizing foreign aid to influence other countries policies, and, as highlighted in the NED’s report, seeking to influence politicians and academics in various countries.

Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Corporation (c) 1947

While there is reason to be concerned about the rise of Chinese influence in the world, Chinese influence activities remain limited in scope and focus on inter-state relations, manipulation of the media, and “checkbook” diplomacy. China continues to rely on the use of economic incentives to pursue its national interests and lacks the cultural diplomatic tools of other great powers. To better understand the rise of soft power and influence, it is useful to compare China’s rise to that of the United States and the soft power tools the United States employed during its ascension to great power status and in maintaining its role in global politics.

In the early 1900s, as the United States became one of the world’s great powers, particularly within Latin America, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a new approach to U.S. foreign policy with the region: the Good Neighbor Policy. This approach shifted U.S.-Latin American relations away from the interventionism that had become the trademark of U.S. foreign policy. Much of the Good Neighbor Policy focused on improving inter-governmental relations between the United States and Latin American countries; however, the Roosevelt Administration also sought to win the hearts and minds of Latin Americans through the creation of a Pan-American identity.

To create this identity, the United States positioned itself as a fellow nation of immigrants that shared a common history of colonialism and struggle for independence. This move appears to closely mirror Chinese efforts to identify itself as a voice for developing nations; however, the United States had the advantage of being able to boost the narrative not only through official channels, but also by using cultural diplomacy to promote this image. In fact, the U.S. Government’s Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs asked Walt Disney to visit South America, generating a series of films that featured Donald Duck befriending the Brazilian Parrot José Carioca and others. Chinese soft power is unable to generate images that compare to these efforts, given the limited penetration of the Chinese entertainment industry relative to Hollywood.

During the Cold War, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy introduced numerous programs to combat Soviet influence in Latin America. Two of these programs closely parallel the current Chinese efforts to increase their soft power with the Americas; the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps. Much of the Alliance for Progress’s work consisted of providing aid funding to different Latin American nations, as well as creating the Inter-American Development Bank. These actions are similar to the efforts taken by China in providing foreign aid and establishing the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB). However, unlike China’s activities, much of the work done by the Alliance for Progress focuses on providing employment and economic benefit to locals in developing countries—components that are conspicuously absent in many Chinese aid programs. U.S. programs such as Peace Corps presented idealistic U.S. youth to the world as a form of cultural diplomacy and as free labor for U.S. funded programs. When comparing the U.S. and Chinese soft power efforts through financial tools, it is evident that Chinese policies do not provide the broad benefits to Latin American as similar U.S. strategies exhibited.

The increase of Chinese soft and sharp power in the Americas is a cause for concern, both for the United States as well as for advocates of democracy, human rights, and the liberal international order. In order for established democracies to combat the rise of Chinese sharp power, these nations must use the full array of soft power tools that are available to these countries, ranging from the traditional forms of foreign aid and inter-governmental support to cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

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