The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1998, Volume 44, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.-Latin American Relations. By Peter H. Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Bibliography. Notes. xii + 377 pages. $35.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Emily S. Rosenberg, DeWitt Wallace Professor of History, Macalester College, author of Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945 (1982) and Dollar Diplomacy: U.S. International Financial Advising and the Emergence of Global Financial Power, forthcoming.

Peter Smith’s interpretive history of two centuries of U.S.- Latin American relations sets forth broad features of what he sees as three distinct historical “systems.” Within each, he presents a framework for analyzing U.S. policies, Latin American responses, and the “rules of the game” that have governed hemispheric interactions. A central continuity through all three eras has been the asymmetry of power between the two regions.

During the first “system,” dating from the 1790s to the 1930s, the United States was working within the logic of a European balance-of-power contest for land, labor, and resources, aspiring to establish dominance in it own hemisphere. Americans saw their nation as a budding empire with a duty to spread the “gospel of democracy.” Accordingly, U.S. leaders devised policies to exclude European influence (Monroe Doctrine), expand territory (Mexican War), and secure commercial and cultural dominance (Pan Americanism, interventionism, and the Good Neighbor Policy). Inequality of power fostered within Latin America a deep “culture of resistance” that emphasized nationalism, Pan-Latin solidarity, and international law as possible counterweights to U.S. hegemony.

The second “system,” from the 1940s to the 1980s, was governed by geopolitical, cold-war rivalry and the U.S. policy of containment. The priority on anticommunism threw the United States into alliance with Latin American authoritarians eager to avoid social reform. The Alliance for Progress, while well- meaning, did little to arrest the long-term trend toward U.S.- supported, rightist dictatorships that persisted into the 1980s. Cold war priorities even led the U.S. back into an era of overt and covert interventions. Latin Americans, meanwhile, responded in ways that polarized their societies: nearly thirty separate guerrilla movements espoused some kind of Marxism, while “bureaucratic authoritarian” regimes consolidated power. Some Latin Americans also tried to chart a course toward independent economic development or political nonalignment, often working through various UN groups.

These first two sections generally rely on standard histories of U.S.-Latin American relations and cover familiar ground. They do, however, well fulfill the author’s purpose of providing a “conceptual framework” for analyzing “systems” of hemispheric interaction. The third section of the book, which examines the uncertain contemporary situation, is the most original and compelling.

With the end of the Cold War, cross-cutting currents have given hemispheric relationships an unsettled character. Latin America is of declining significance to U.S. trade and investment, but it is more important culturally due to the rapid growth of the U.S.- Latino population. Multipolarity has increased, as Europe and Asia play greater economic roles in Latin America, and non-state actors also increasingly shape international affairs. Democratization and liberalization are sweeping through the hemisphere, along with a lessening of anti- United States nationalism, but U.S. public opinion still gives low priority to Latin America, and the U.S. government struggles to chart a policy direction. All of these trends add up to a complex and volatile situation. The United States might abandon the region, might concentrate on building strong economic connections, or might simply reemphasize unilateral hegemonic power. Smith suggests that U.S. foreign policy in this era is dominated by economic and social concerns and often emerges haphazardly from the interplay of domestic interests. In Latin America, pro-socialist parties and revolutionary movements have waned, but there, too, responses are diverse: trends toward unilateral liberalization, as in Chile, or subregional integration (MERCOSUR), or new, hybrid models of economic development strategies. In short, no “system” with clear “rules of the game” has emerged.

As might be expected of Smith’s work, his explication of current complexities is particularly strong: he presents excellent analyses of the debt crisis of the 1980s and privatization; NAFTA in its economic and political dimensions; environmental protection (including the Rio summit and NAFTA side agreements); the international ramifications of drug trafficking (including the Panama incursion); and undocumented migration and refugee issues. He asks whether the very fact of accelerating economic integration might put the United States and Latin America “on a social and cultural collision course” (p. 336). This section brings many diverse strands into a thought-provoking synthesis of contemporary issues.

Smith’s systemic framework draws upon, but adapts, Stephen Krasner’s idea about “regimes” of regular and patterned behavior and Richard Rosecrance’s periodization of “international systems.” It will be useful to specialists in political science and history. But it is not a work that is primarily concerned with theoretical disquisition or new historical research. Its readability, its interdisciplinary perspective, and its attention both to United States and Latin American policies and cultural settings will prove especially valuable to policy-makers and to involved citizens. Smith’s conclusion that the current patterns of relationships have not yet hardened into any new “system” suggests frustrating challenges ahead but also implies room for hope and action.