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date: 19 September 2017

Latin American Thinking in International Relations: Concepts Apart from Theory

Summary and Keywords

In Latin America international affairs are currently being considered from a perspective that doesn’t use theoretical instruments from other academic fields, whether from American, English, French, or other schools. Our aim is to emphasize recent contributions to the discipline, specifically Latin American ones. The spirit behind this line of analysis is to approach the study of international relations from the perspective of the region itself, because the goals and interests of its countries within the framework of world politics are not a struggle for power. This effort doesn’t seek to disrespect or ignore the importance of American theorizing. This compilation contains an elaboration of concepts that do not have any theoretical pretension of universality. Its only goal is to help understand how Latin American countries react to the contemporary dynamics of international affairs.

Keywords: Latin American thought, concepts, analytical categories, power structures, forms of diplomacy, globalization, empirical international relations theory

Introduction: The Current Debate on International Relations Theory in Latin America

In recent international studies in Latin America, the search for a conceptual tool that helps to understand reality from the perspective of developing countries without a great capacity for power has become relevant. Concepts are being used for this purpose that enable generalization from national cases, fulfilling analytical and explanatory functions without aspiring to globality.

The concepts developed refer to the search for autonomy, the interpretation of global power structures, an understanding of an equitable way of exercising multilateralism, an interpretation of a diplomacy that derives from the praxis of brand new state constructions, an approach to international and regional power disposition, and an understanding of the world reality in the phase of globalization.

The study of international relations in Latin America, as it happens in other academic communities, is carried out using instruments of theories, methodologies, concepts, and analytical categories. Traditionally, these originated in schools and thought traditions from outside the region, mainly from the so-called “American school,” which has become predominant (Tickner, Cepeda, & Bernal, 2012). Nevertheless, an important trend of Brazilian, Argentine, and Chilean academicians has for several decades questioned this predominant position, pointing out the negative effect that the use of theories from outside the region have on the interpretation of international political processes. These scholars, including Juan Carlos Puig, Amado Cervo, Aldo Ferrer, Marcelo Gullo, Raúl Bernal-Meza, and others, claim that analyzing the social world from the perspective of the region itself is necessary and obligatory for the production of Latin American thought, arguing that these are as valid as any other, since in international relations the debate has never been closed (Smouts, 1998, p. 15, author’s translation).

Put simply, each line of thought claims for itself the intellectual authority to operate with its own theoretical-methodological or analytical instruments, and this turns out to be a fundamental issue, since foreign policy—the tool with which states interact with its peers, the international system, and the various actors in it—is nourished by values, historical factors, interests, and images that reflect the ideas, visions of the world, and conceptions that its formulators and decision-makers have about the world and themselves. They express what these elites and power groups acting on behalf of the state aspire to do in the international system, and by extension in all international affairs, and how they perceive themselves in this context. They also allow us to understand why countries do what they do in foreign policy, in projects of governance, integration, and regionalism, and in international negotiations.

In Latin America, the reflection, analysis, and formulation of a regional line of thought on international affairs, understood as the effort to have an originally regional interpretation, has faced the powerful influence of foreign theoretical and methodological ideas, mainly Anglo-Saxon and particularly of the so-called “American school.” As Tickner has pointed out, the way in which world politics is understood has revolved around a number of analytical frameworks, concepts, and categories developed mainly in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Great Britain (Tickner et al., 2012, p. 6). Waltz’s assertion that “a general theory of international politics must necessarily be based on the great powers” (2012, p. 72) manifests the hegemonic vision of international affairs focused on the interest of the great powers. Authors from the region and elsewhere point out that the use of a theoretical instrument produced in other latitudes with very different national-state realities is a matter of concern for policymakers who aspire to a more autonomous international integration (see, e.g., Bergsten, 1973, pp. 138–199).

Getting rid of the tutelage of international power underpins the need to see the world “from our own perspective.” To build an abstract, eidetic, theoretical, methodological, or conceptual framework to support foreign policies, the goal of which is not the struggle for world power but to overcome underdevelopment and dependence and meet the challenges that global power imposes on independent policies of international insertion, is not an without merit. This view has been the foundation of an important part of recent Latin American thinking on international affairs, based on the thinking of Prebisch and other structuralists.1

There is a debate in the Latin American academy about whether having a regional approach to interpreting reality and the characteristics of international insertion from our own perspectives makes any sense, or whether it is convenient to use theories produced by “northern” epistemic thinking in order to interpret the international system and analyze foreign policy, given its higher level of sophistication.

The authors who have taken sides in the search for regional thinking, following the tradition of Latin American structuralism (Prebisch, Furtado, Pinto, Ferrer, Dos Santos, Sunkel, Tomassini, etc.) from a political economy of international relations perspective (for an analysis of the main Latin American trends and authors, see Bernal-Meza, 2005), have argued that theories produced in other intellectual scenarios outside the region, when incorporated into the interpretation of Latin American international relations, reproduce the dominant ideology of the producing sources, and therefore, international integration and foreign policy should be analyzed using a regional interpretation. This position coincides with that indicated by the Canadian theoretician Robert Cox (1981, 2014), in the sense that theory is always meant for someone and for some purpose, that all theories have their own perspective, and that they derive from a certain position in time and space (specifically a political and social time and space), because the world is seen from a definable point of view in terms of nation or social class, of domination or subordination, of rising or declining power.

As noted by several authors (Bandeira, 1995; Bernal-Meza, 2005; Ferrer, 1994, 2005; Fonseca, 1998; Guimarães, 2005; Gullo, 2008; Heredia, 2008; Pinheiro & Milani, 2012; Rapoport, 2011, 2014; Rapoport & Madrid, 2011; Simonoff, 2012; Saraiva, 2015, 2010, 2013), efforts to observe the world from our own perspectives meet explanatory, interpretive, and evaluative demands. They have no aspiration to globality, because their objective is to explain and interpret reality from a national or regional perspective. Thus they question the “universalist” nature of theories produced by American intelligence, which favor the perspective of hegemony.

Amado Luiz Cervo2 has a critical argument about the validity of foreign theories on international affairs to interpret reality in our region and favors the elaboration and re-elaboration of Latin American concepts (2008a, p. 5). His interpretation suggests that theories generate distrust because their roots are related to specific interests of particular societies (Cervo, 2008a, p. 10). Consequently, he calls for swapping foreign theories for regional concepts. He addresses both through the hypothesis that concepts and theories have different roles in the field of international relations studies, stating that the universal explanatory scope of theories is forged contrary to the concepts. The latter set out the domestic or regional roots on which they are based and refuse to be invested with any global explanatory scope. Cervo suggests reducing the role of theories and increasing the role of concepts. In his opinion, concepts would be much more explanatory and interpretive of national, regional, and international reality because they express the diversity of interests, values, strategies of action, and objectives that the various societies transmit when they are projected internationally through foreign policy, diplomatic behavior, and the movement of non-governmental actors in pursuit of economic development and social welfare of their citizens, whereas theories transmit the interests, values, and strategies of foreign action of the societies where they are elaborated.

Cervo theorized about concepts from Brazilian experience: concepts are taken from historical knowledge. A set of concepts, intertwined with the role of understanding a particular object of study in the area of the human sciences, leads to theory; that is, it produces. Applying this reasoning to international affairs, the argument holds that concepts would better explain the nature of foreign relations (Cervo, 2008a, p. 1). It is based on the conviction that the application of theories of international relations produced in core countries must be replaced by concepts, informed by Latin American epistemology. Theories with systemic epistemological pretension falsify reality, insofar as they outline as universal certain interests and values that only correspond to those societies from which they come (Amado Luiz Cervo, conversation with author, December 15, 2016).

The formulation of concepts has shown a potential to generalize from domestic cases where they have been applied to explain or interpret their respective international praxis. They have three roles: they act as new analytical categories of international reality, insofar as they focus on limited objects; when applied to restricted objects they confer new systemic intelligibility to the essence of international relations; and they involve explanatory power that does not exist in previous systemic theories (Amado Luiz Cervo, conversation with author, December 15, 2016). In short, concepts represent progress in the search for greater analytical and interpretative capacities of international reality.

Concepts of International Affairs Developed in Latin America

The main concepts expressing the diversity of interests and values, strategies, and analytical interpretations of international reality seen from a Latin American perspective can be drawn from contemporary literature in international relations. They are applied in international studies in analysis of the international system and foreign policy in different countries, mainly in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia.

The Concept of Autonomy

The concept of autonomy was developed by Juan Carlos Puig (Puig, 1980, 1984), later giving rise to a doctrine with two objectives: to provide a realistic reading of the power structure of the international system and to formulate a theoretical “roadmap” for elites and rulers who aspired to promote a process of autonomy from dependence imposed by the hegemonic power and meet the challenge to overcome it. In this process, Latin American integration was conceived as a fundamental and strategic tool (Bernal-Meza, 2013).

According to Vigevani and Ramanzini (2015), the concept of autonomy involves a greater scope for state action or options, taking into account the perception of the conditions of the domestic and international system in a given period, a definition supported by Puig (1980, 1984). It is a relative notion, which depends on both the domestic and external contexts in which foreign policy is being executed: “Moreover, autonomy is, by definition, always a matter of degree. This aspect is particularly important in discussions on regional integration which, by definition, will involve some degree of relativisation of autonomy” (Vigevani & Ramanzini, 2015, p. 193).

Over the decades, the concept has had different versions: nationalist first, liberal in the 1990s, and returning to its original version with center-left governments and in the discourse of certain Latin American populist governments since the crisis of the 2000s.

The Founding Insubordination

The founding insubordination is an explanatory concept of the behavior exercised by a state when its governments and leaders decide to advance along the path of development and accumulation of power. According to its formulator, Marcelo Gullo,3 the international system basically consists of hegemonic power structures that encompass subordinating and subordinated states. When the latter reach the threshold of power, they can become subordinating states as long as their industrial development and the creation of elites and political cadres is accompanied by a serious reflection about the ideological subordination derived from the hegemonic power structures. This becomes the “founding insubordination,” i.e., an emancipatory attitude toward mainstream thinking. Only if this happens will the country in question no longer be peripheral (Gullo, 2008, pp. 13–14). The “threshold of power” is a stage of development that allows a state to overcome its peripheral and therefore subordinated condition. Gullo’s argument is based on the hypothesis that all successful development processes in history have been the result of this behavior (Gullo, 2012).

Founding insubordination has two theoretical bases: Latin American structuralist thinking—because its argumentation refers to this conceptual epistemology—and realist thinking—because of its subscription to the need for the accumulation of power and because in its eidetic construction there is a Hobbesian vision of the world, expressed in the conflict between “subordinating states” and “subordinated states.” Used in the fundamentals of Venezuela’s foreign policy (having been “discovered” by Chavez), Maduro incorporated it into its foreign policy (Bernal-Meza, 2016a).

Hegemonic Power Structures

The concept of hegemonic power structures was developed by Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães (Guimarães, 2005) to describe the scenario and the international dynamics in which “great peripheral states”—such as China, India, and Brazil—operate and are located in relevant positions within the framework of hegemonic structures of political and economic power—the outcome of a historical process. These hegemonic structures favor those countries that integrate them, and their main purpose is their own perpetuation. A realist concept, related to that of “great peripheral states”—formulated by the same author (Guimarães, 1998)—complements the previous one: the first being applied to “great world powers,” while the second refers to great powers of the periphery that are not part of the circle of developed great powers.

Hegemonic power structures is a concept preferable to that of “hegemonic state” because it avoids discussing the existence or not, in the post–Cold War world, of a hegemonic power—the United States—and avoids asserting whether the world is unipolar or multipolar and whether there is a partnership between powers or not. “The concept of hegemonic structures is more flexible and includes links of interest and law, international organizations, multiple public and private players, the possibility of new participants and the permanent development of standards of conduct, but at the core of those structures there is always national States” (Guimarães, 2005, pp. 28–29).

The application of the concept to Brazilian foreign policy during the years of Lula da Silva facilitated the development of an international strategy for a policy aimed at building international alliances between “similar powers” in terms of resources and capabilities (of territory, demography, intermediate industrial development, extensive domestic markets, etc.). Thus, Brazil promoted the creation of the alliances IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa) and later BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

Multilateralism of Reciprocity

The concept of “multilateralism of reciprocity” emerged as a praxis of foreign policy under the government of President Lula da Silva. Cervo (2008a) theorized about the concept, noting that it was extrapolated from trade and security and applied to all domains of international relations. According to the author’s interpretation (Cervo, 2015b, p. 497), it is a concept employed in Brazilian diplomacy that involves two assumptions: the existence of rules to establish the international order—without which the disparity of power would prevail to the benefit of the great powers—and the joint development of those rules in order to ensure reciprocity of effects, so that the interests of some are not carried out at the expense of others. The concept expresses that Brazil acts in multilateral forums with a spirit of reciprocity, meaning that it is not a Brazilian unilateral action but rather that concessions granted by the country must be reciprocal. The concept consists of seeking genuine interdependence in international economic relations, increasing the share of foreign trade in GDP, playing a significant role in international security, establishing reciprocal effects of environmental policies, and achieving a system with reciprocity on health and human rights.

During the years 2003–2010, multilateralism of reciprocity was associated with “autonomy through diversification” to emphasize South–South cooperation (Vigevani & Cepaluni, 2007). Thus, the concept was used to support the praxis in Brazilian international relations, emphasizing that its foreign policy applies a tactic of linkage between different international agendas.

Regional Power

According to its formulator, María Regina Soares de Lima,4 the concept of regional power is applied to states, such as Brazil, with regional power capabilities and international projection (Lima, 2005). Four elements are required to be a “regional power”: physical capacity (being in a global ranking), recognition by neighbors, willingness to take on a regional role, and leadership (cooperative).

Countries with these characteristics support their profile on the basis of two different international identities. The first refers to the world of politics and can be called asystem-affecting state, according to the definition of Keohane (1969). This category includes those countries that, having relatively limited resources and capacities (compared to the big powers) but having a determining international profile, value multilateral arenas and collective action among similar countries in order to exercise some degree of meta-power and influence international outcomes. The second identity, referred to as the global economy, is the “major emerging market.” This category was coined by the Office of the United States Trade Representative and refers to the large periphery countries (India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico) that implemented the economic reforms from the Washington Consensus: privatization, trade liberalization, deregulation of the economy, and state reform.

In Brazilian foreign policy, the country’s international projection as a regional power resulted in the participation of groups such as IBAS and BRICS.

Secondary Regional Powers

It was Daniel Flemes who, starting in 2008, began to use and apply the term secondary regional power, developing it as a concept and applying it to the case of Colombia (Flemes & Wojczewski, 2010, 2011). According to Flemes, the merit of conceptual innovation is from Huntington (Daniel Flemes, personal communication with author),who used it to describe secondary powers regarding the superpower (United States) (Huntington, 1999a, 1999b), and Flemes applied it to the description of South American secondary powers in relation to Brazil, the regional power. These are realist categories that refer to a hierarchy of power, which Martha Ardila has been applying to the study of the Latin American scenario (Ardila, 2012, 2014).

Ardila starts from a wide approach to “regional powers,” for which, in addition to quantitative variables such as population, natural resources, foreign policy, and military spending, among others, she analyzes qualitative variables such as legitimacy and leadership. In order to do this, she examines the variations of power that have taken place in the international system and in Latin America, seeking to point out differences and similarities, as well as changes and continuities of these countries, in the respective hierarchy of power during the previous ten years. (Ardila, 2014, p. 88). Ardila, based on Nolte (2006), states that “the concept of power is a geopolitical referent that includes military, political and economic aspects, which refers to a set of countries and to their hierarchy in the international system. Their differentiation lies in the ability to project their military power in different regions of the world and in the possibility of exercising political influence globally” (Ardila, 2014, p. 89).

Based on Flemes and Wehner’s analyses (2011), Ardila pinpointed Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia as secondary regional powers that used soft power and public diplomacy to improve their image, exercise leadership, build new alliances, and look for a new regional balance of power (Ardila, 2014, p. 90). According to his interpretation, regional powers “are of different ranks, so there may be differences among them: emerging secondary regional powers,” such as Colombia; “rising secondary regional powers” such as Venezuela, and “mature secondary regional powers,” such as Chile (Ardila, 2014). Their differentiation is based on continuity and consolidation of a national project, according to its national interest, as well as on its international activity, capabilities (military spending, natural resources), and international image linked to the perception of other factors, such as institutional resources, legitimacy, leadership, and speech. In addition, “it is assumed that both regional powers—Brazil and Mexico—and regional secondary powers sometimes counterbalance the United States and aim to a leadership in the region, which results not only in the creation of new bilateral alliances but also in the promotion of coordination and cooperation groups such as Unasur, the Pacific Alliance and the Mesoamerica Project” (Ardila, 2014, p. 91; 2012, pp. 298–299).

Logistical State

Logistical state is an ideal concept of state5 developed and used as an analytical category in international studies, developed by Amado Cervo in order to interpret the international relations of Brazil. It may also be applied to other experiences, such as Chile (see Bernal-Meza, 2015), a country in which the basic characteristics of the model have appeared.6

Following the “developmentalist” and “neoliberal” historical paradigms, according to Cervo, a new paradigm for the post-neoliberal era was created in Brazil—the logistical state, which involves thinking, national purpose, a regional interpretation of interests, and its own line of force for external action (2015, p. 164)—that is, a set of key ideas and objectives it defends internationally. It involves, in particular, an evaluation of results.

Cervo uses the empirical basis of Brazilian experience to theorize about the experience. The system of ideas represented by the logistical paradigm provides strategic guidance for the dynamics of Brazil in international arenas and posits its expansion in terms of influence.

In essence, the logistical paradigm supports or justifies a new role of the state, unlike all previous ones (e.g., developmental state, neoliberal state). It involves a set of ideas shared by the leading sectors about the roles of the state structure. In this regard, the state “plays the role of support and legitimacy of the initiatives of other economic and social actors” (Cervo, 2008a, 2008b) and involves a number of tasks that enables it to become a (mainly economic, but also political) launch pad for public and private actors in the country. It is about conceiving another role for the state. However, the relationship between the state and society can be either positive or negative. It is positive when in society there are examples of trust in the state, but there may be cases where there is no trust, which reduces the positive results of operation of the paradigm.

The logistical paradigm has been deeply influenced by the two preceding paradigms: developmentalist and neoliberal. From the former, it keeps the industrial vocation; from the latter, a cooperation between state and society, with a dialogue that allows a redistribution of power and responsibilities between both actors and an articulation of domestic and external levels by means of the decisional autonomy of the state, which is responsible for harmonizing the interests of the dynamic sectors of society in the national interest. It aims to overcome asymmetries between nations by raising regional national conditions to the level of advanced countries, transferring to societies the responsibilities of the previous “entrepreneurial state,” and addressing the task of backing society in the fulfillment of its interests. Its component of foreign policy, in the field of international economic relations, aims at reducing technological and financial dependence, promoting productive innovation, and other initiatives to reduce external vulnerability. Domestically, it seeks to strengthen the national structural economic core in order to boost its internationalization (Cervo, 2008a).

Logistical state sees the international system as a power game, a struggle among the most powerful players in the system. It prioritizes South–South alliances and signs trade agreements based on mutually beneficial reciprocal relations, under the condition of symmetrical interdependence.

Two dimensions of this approach can be identified: (1) a series of perceptions about recent transformations in the international system and the role of Brazil on the world stage and (2) a group of policies that guide the strategy of domestic development and international relations. As a whole, the paradigm allows one to interpret the transition process to the 21st century, which in Brazil occurred under the governments of Lula da Silva, moving from regional integration to globality.

The logistic model was implemented in Brazil (during the period 2003–2013; see Cervo & Bueno, 2015) and in Chile (see Bernal-Meza, 2015). In Brazil, dialogue and trust between the forces of society and the state under Lula’s government worked well, but under Dilma Rousseff’s government in Chile that trust was lost.

Diplomacy of the Peoples

Diplomacy of the peoples is a new form of diplomacy, defined and proposed by Evo Morales at the Hemispheric Summit of Mar del Plata, Argentina,7 in November 2005. This concept describes a new practice of international political relations, which adds to the classic Westphalian and the recent “paradiplomacy.” It would be an expression of the new ideal state model: the plurinational state. This new modality of linkage between different national actors in the interstate sphere of the Latin American scenario proposes the coexistence with previous expressions of diplomacy, resulting in the coexistence of three forms of relationship between states within the same interstate system.

The difference in this type of diplomacy, compared to the traditional, lies in the fact that diplomacy of the peoples is driven from governmental authority—so the government and the plurinational state would be tied, in the international field, through (Westphalian) diplomacy and diplomacy of the peoples, while autonomies exercising rights over territories and resources would do it via “paradiplomacy.”8 From the point of view of traditional Westphalian diplomacy, based on the principles of non-intervention and non-interference, instituted as the only instrument recognized by states for their relationship, diplomacy of the peoples has a clear interventionist component since any state can interfere in the affairs of another state through links of people to people, of social and political actors to their peers, etc.

Evo Morales9 affirmed that this type of diplomacy was “rather public, but diplomacy of the people, not a State to State diplomacy” and that it would now influence state-to-state, nation-to-nation diplomacy. Diplomacy of the peoples is the rapprochement of indigenous peoples to indigenous peoples, from businessman to businessman, from armed forces to armed forces, from politicians to politicians (Cabrera, 2006). Later the concept would be used by the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Affairs, 2007). This situation marks the beginning of the international proliferation of the concept.

This interpretation of diplomacy was embodied in the foundations of the foreign policy of the plurinational state of Bolivia.10 It is based on five pillars:

  1. 1. Diplomacy of peoples, who seek to listen, dialogue, and work for all, put the interests of the nation before those of a sector, and put the principles of life before the logic of the market.

  2. 2. Effective exercise of sovereignty, which builds and develops the coordinating ability of the state and contributes to plan new models of change for an international harmonious coexistence.

  3. 3. Cultural diversity, including peaceful coexistence, respect between peoples and practice of cultural diversity of different identities, multiple codes, beliefs, expressions, and values of those who inhabit the planet Earth, which is the core of the culture of life that native peoples and indigenous people of Bolivia promote.

  4. 4. Harmony with nature, which seeks to give rise to a comprehensive, diverse, and inclusive development in harmony, as the only alternative of life on planet Earth.

  5. 5. Reduction and overcoming of asymmetries, seeking complementarity and solidarity rather than a competitiveness and reciprocity that assume the misconception that all nations and regions are equal.

As Vargas states:

like other proposals of leftist governments in Latin America, such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, the idea was framed in the need to manage a democratic revolution which would try to change the state and society in every area where there was a clash between the interests of the majority and the interests of the elites, historically in power. Thus academic and political debates about new concepts emerged, such as “living well” or “good life,”11 the logic of the Treaty of Commerce of the Peoples12 or “diplomacy of the peoples” which were part of the new parameters of the new public administration, radically different from the logic that preceded the abovementioned governments.

(2013, p. 1)


The globalización/mundialización (globalization) concept was originated by Raúl Bernal-Meza13 to identify, from the semi-periphery and periphery of the world system, the process of evolution of global capitalism in the contemporary phase after the transnationalization of the period 1945–1970. It is a historical-structural interpretation of the contemporary transformation of the world system. It allows us to understand the dynamics of international policies generated in the core countries (according to the paradigm of Prebisch) to promote a favorable environment for capital and a political-economic ideology in non-industrialized countries, where culture plays an essential role (Bernal-Meza, 2000).

According to Bernal-Meza, what we identify today as “globalization” is a part of the historical process initiated in the early 16th century, when the first world economic order set about integrating the economic regions of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, currently coinciding with the phase of globalization of capital. Today, globalization involves a system of ideas that did not exist in earlier stages of historical capitalism and was made possible by the development of information systems, telecommunications, and information technology generated by the technological revolution following the crisis of capitalism of the 1970s.

Bernal-Meza uses a historical-structural interpretation of the world to posit that globalization is the most recent and current stage of the evolution of historical capitalism. This is characterized by the predominance of financial capital over industrial capital, cartelization, and monopoly concentration, which are the elements of the globalization of capital, supported by a system of ideas and a worldview that would actually transform globalization into an ideological construct (Bernal-Meza, 1996, 1997, 2000). This interpretation is synthesized in the formula:


in which Process corresponds to the current phase of “globalization” of capitalism and Ideology corresponds to the system of ideas that supports that phase. Globalization represents the synthesis of the conjunction of the preceding factors.


The elaboration of concepts starts with a discussion of the use of a theoretical instrument for the study and interpretation of international relations and foreign policy, a process of questioning that has been present in the discussion of Latin American international studies for some decades. Concepts explicate how international affairs are currently being conceived. They express the abstract, analytical vision and/or praxis of foreign policy produced by epistemic communities’ thinking and the action of elites or power groups in different countries. The description of a concept derives from its empirical application, from which a generalization process has been carried out.

Concepts are useful for explaining specific national realities and can be used to understand other nation’s issues beyond the examples that inspired them. They illuminate the evolution of political thinking and allow policymakers to decide how to act in international affairs. Hence they can be seen as contributions that can replace theories and be useful to understand and explain situations beyond regional interests.

The contributions referred to here have conceptual, epistemological, and descriptive aspects that are elaborate and abstract and display a significant degree of generalization. Some of them refer to a global system (i.e., globalization); others describe levels of configuration or systemic-structural settings, such as “hegemonic power structures,” “regional power,” and “secondary regional powers”; other concepts are shapers or supporters of international or foreign policies, such as “autonomy,” “founding insubordination,” and “multilateralism of reciprocity”; while still others, such as “logistical state” and “diplomacy of peoples,” provide the basis for political and diplomatic action and behavior.

In short, the reaction to the influence of theoretical constructions of international relations from outside Latin America, particularly from the so-called “American school,” has resulted in the construction of concepts whose use and dynamics of eidetic expansion grows significantly. Today they are part of the analytical and practical evolution of international relations and represent the vision of the world system in the region.


Research was carried out in the framework of Project 1130380 of Fondecyt (Chile) and INTE (Universidad Arturo Prat). The author is grateful to Ms. Denise Castello for the translation of the text from Spanish into English.


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(1.) Prebisch questioned the universal pretension of the then predominant neoclassical economic thinking, which postulated the benefits of specialization of labor in the international economic integration and gave rise to a line of approach to international affairs based on political economy.

(2.) Brazilian scholar; historian of international relations; professor at the University of Brasilia and the Diplomatic Institute Rio Branco, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federative Republic of Brazil.

(3.) Argentinean scholar; Professor of International Relations at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús, Argentine.

(4.) Brazilian scholar; professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

(5.) From a Weberian perspective on ideal models.

(6.) These include the role of the private sector in the dynamics of economic growth and wealth generation, the internationalization of the economy, the internationalization of big domestic private companies, the role of foreign policy and diplomacy in building a favorable international environment for national economic operators by way of international negotiations that, in the Chilean case, have taken place through the negotiation of numerous free trade agreements, etc.

(7.) This was the summit that definitively rejected the North American project of hemispheric integration, FTAA.

(8.) The constitution recognizes four types of autonomies: departmental, regional, municipal, and rural-native-indigenous. These autonomies are opposed: on the one hand, there is the departmental, referring to political and geographical divisions; on the other hand, there is the indigenous, which refers to ethnic, cultural, and historical aspects (see also Bernal-Meza, 2016a).

(9.) Evo Morales interviewed by Fernando Cabrera at Radio Nederland, December 2006. Available at

(10.) Formulated in the National Plan for Development Decent, Sovereign, Productive and Democratic Bolivia for Living Well: Strategic Guidelines, 2006–2011 (2007, p. 174), approved by Supreme Decree No. 29272, September 12, 2007.

(11.) The idea of “living well” is taken from the preamble of the Political Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and is also found in several of its articles. The idea of “living well” is established in the Constitution of Ecuador.

(12.) The Treaty of Commerce of the Peoples is an instrument inserted within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA-TCP).

(13.) Argentinean scholar, of Chilean origin; professor of the Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (Argentina), Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires and Arturo Prat (Chile).