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Checkerboards and Shatterbelts

Checkerboards and Shatterbelts
The Geopolitics of South America

In this study, Philip Kelly maps the geopolitics of South America, a continent where relative isolation from the power centers in North America and Eurasia and often forbidding internal terrain have given rise to a fascinating and unique geopolitical structure.

June 1997
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252 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 maps, 8 tables |

Geography has always played a major role in world politics. In this study, Philip Kelly maps the geopolitics of South America, a continent where relative isolation from the power centers in North America and Eurasia and often forbidding internal terrain have given rise to a fascinating and unique geopolitical structure.

Kelly uses the geographical concepts of "checkerboards" and "shatterbelts" to characterize much of South America's geopolitics and to explain why the continent has never been unified nor dominated by a single nation. This approach accounts for both historical relationships among South American countries and for such current situations as Brazil's inability to extend its authority across the continent from Atlantic to Pacific, its traditional competition with Argentina, its territorial expansion toward the continental heartlands, its encirclement by neighbors fearful of such expansion, and its recent rapprochement with Argentina.

An important component of this book is the incorporation of the thinking and writing of South American geopolitical analysts, which leads to an interesting inventory of viewpoints on frontier conflicts, territorial expansion, industrial development, economic cooperation, and United States and European relations. Kelly's findings will be important reading for geographers, political scientists, and students and scholars of Latin American history.

  • Preface
  • 1. Geopolitical Definitions, Characteristics, and Theories
  • 2. The Geopolitics of South America
  • 3. An Inventory of Sixteen South American Writers
  • 4. The Regional Geopolitics of South America
  • 5. A Geopolitical Description of the Americas
  • 6. U.S.-South American Geopolitics
  • 7. A Summary and Forecast of South American Geopolitics
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Philip L. Kelly is Chair of the Division of Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas.


In this chapter, two introductory topics will be examined: geopolitical definitions and characteristics that are pertinent to the South American environment; and major concepts and theories that will assist the reader in understanding the geopolitical descriptions in subsequent chapters.

Defining Geopolitics

Geopolitics signifies the impact of certain geographic factors on a country's foreign policy. In this book we will concentrate on the position and location of the South American states; their access to resource wealth; and a country's space, size, terrain, climate, and demography as these influence national diplomacy and the continent's international affairs.

For visualizing this mix of geography and foreign affairs, the following offer good examples of recent South American geopolitics.

Checkerboards and the 1982 Malvinas/Falklands War

After the Argentine occupation of the British-held Malvinas/Falkland Islands, a diplomatic checkerboard pattern once again emerged in leapfrog fashion in South America as neighboring states became opponents, and neighbors of neighbors became confederates. Peru and Venezuela gave Argentina diplomatic support, Brazil equivocated, while Chile offered the English its communications facilities to use against the Argentines. Based on national position and international conflict, a checkerboard of allies and opponents was revealed once more in the continent's fragmented foreign relations.

Shatterbelts and the End of the Cold War

The collapse of the Soviet empire ended the Caribbean shatterbelt—that intermingling of rivalry between Russia and the United States and struggle among the Middle Americans—reduced the United States' strategic vulnerability in Latin America, and weakened South America's bargaining position with the Yankees in security and economic matters. Will this change in world politics hinder Latin America's quest for better access to the North American Free Trade area, or might a multipolar globe strengthen the southerners' hand?

Threat at Itaipú

The giant binational hydroelectric power complex at Itaipú on the frontier Paraná River is shared by Brazil and Paraguay and provides vital energy to industrial southern Brazil. Antonio Pecci (1990) alleges that Brazil would invade an unstable or rebellious Paraguay if electricity flow were disrupted. Recent history lends credence to this assertion, for Brazilian forces occupied a disputed area north of Itaipú in 1965 when the Paraguayans resisted their neighbor's demands for a greater share of this vital resource (Da Rosa 1983: 82). For some, Itaipú represents the strategic core of South America.

From Manifest Destiny to Rapprochement: Brazilian-Argentine Relations

Brazil's alleged desire to extend its boundaries to the Pacific coast has kept South American foreign relations stirred up since colonial times. For a variety of reasons, among these the opposition of Argentina, Brazil's quest has failed. The Brazilian-Argentine rivalry for regional leadership has solidified the continental checkerboard, made shatterbelts more likely, kept frontier tensions high, and prevented regional integration. Yet, of late, because of the potential for profit through South American economic integration and a diplomatic cooling between Brazil and the United States, conflict has changed to cooperation between the two states. This represents a monumental reversal of traditional geopolitics, and the two countries' foreign policies and resources now seem to be melding into an integrative structure of regional peace.

Narcotics Wars and Cooperation between Two South American Enemies

At the isolated "triple point" area at Güepi, where Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia touch, a Peruvian army patrol in 1993 suffered casualties after being ambushed by an armed force of cocaine producers. The Ecuadoran army provided medical assistance to the Peruvian wounded. This friendly gesture contrasted with the ongoing and long-running frontier conflict between the two nations for resources and access to the Amazon River.

Territorial Disputes throughout South America

From Caribbean islands to the Antarctic, from coastal fringes to the interior, most international conflict in South America has originated over disputed territory. Poorly drawn colonial boundaries, disputed lands taken as prizes of war, access to newly discovered natural wealth in border zones, and recent immigration to formerly vacant areas are the causes. Such geopolitical discord extends over maritime areas as well. Peace now seems in place throughout the continent.

Interior Transport Systems

Most South Americans live near ocean coasts. Interior road and canal facilities have begun to penetrate the almost empty hinterland. The recently completed Hidrovía river barge system now links "Mediterranean," or landlocked, Bolivia and Paraguay to the South Atlantic to a network via canals and the Paraguay, Paraná, and Plata Rivers. A series of trans-Amazon highways, including the controversial "export corridors" from southern Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay, link coastal Brazil to most of its Spanish neighbors. Such transport access may heighten tensions over resources, enliven checkerboard rivalries, increase trade and industrial development, and contribute to both continental conflict and cooperation.

Brazil's World Status and the Plata Basin Common Market

Worldwide, Brazil ranks fifth in size, seventh in population, eighth in national power, and ninth in gross national product (Kurian 1990), despite the "lost decade" of the 1980s. The nation's geopolitical writers boast of world prominence. Ironically, Brazil's rise in status has prompted Southern Cone free-market cooperation with Argentina, and momentum toward joint development and trade expansion in the Mercado Común del Sur (MERCOSUR, South American Common Market) integration plan seems quite promising.

The 1993 Massacre of Venezuelan Indians by Gold Miners

In 1993 gold prospectors seeking new claims decimated Yamomani villages on the southeastern Venezuelan frontier. The vast, vacant space, the resources and new highways, plus an already tense international frontier between Venezuela and Guyana make this an incident of geopolitical significance.

"Applied" Geopolitics in South American Foreign Policy

Often, leading South American geopolitical writers hold major governmental offices; hence, they appear positioned to influence developmental and foreign policy. For instance, Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile served his country as president, Gen. Edgardo Mercado Jarrin of Peru governed as prime minister and foreign minister, Gen. Golbery do Couto e Silva of Brazil functioned as chief advisor to three presidents, and Gen. Juan Enrique Guglialmelli of Argentina headed the National Development Agency.

Two Additional Definitions of Geopolitics

Definitions of geopolitics abound (see Atencio 1986; Guglialmelli 1986; and Briano 1977). But two examples beyond the one I have given might provide further background for examining the term and its application.

Jack Child and I originated this description of the concept (1988: 2-3):

Geopolitics is the impact on foreign security policies of certain geographic features, the more important being locations among countries, distances between areas, and terrain, climate, and resources within states. Geopolitics might also be described as the relationship between power politics and geography. The usefulness of geopolitical analysis derives in part from the formulation of broad linkages or theories among these geographic features and policies, linkages that bring insights to international relationships. Geopolitics, we believe, represents one method for studying foreign and strategic affairs, and it relates as much to planning for peace as it does to military involvement.

The foreign and security policy aspect, the geographic traits that influence policy (position, location, distance, terrain, climate, and resources), the connections between theory and policy, and the emphasis on peace and conflict all appear important to this portrait.

Jorge Atencio of Argentina, in his influential book ¿Qué es la geopolítica?, contributes this definition of geopolitics (1986: 41; all translations are mine unless otherwise noted):

Geopolitics is the science that studies the influence of geographic factors in the life and evolution of states, with an objective of extracting conclusions of a political character ... [Geopolitics] guides statesmen in the conduct of the state's domestic and foreign policy, and it orients the armed forces to prepare for national defense and in the conduct of strategy; it facilitates planning for future contingencies based on consideration of relatively permanent geographic features that permit calculations to be made between such physical realities and certain proposed national objectives, and consequently, the means for conducting suitable political or strategic responses.

Atencio's South American version contrasts in several areas with the Kelly-Child definition. In common with other South American renderings, but one that stimulates controversy in the United States because of its determinist implication, he depicts geopolitics as a "science." His reference to "the life and evolution of states" offers geopolitics an organic format in which states take on a human or living characteristic, a trait again not found in U.S. writings but inherent in South American descriptions. Finally, Atencio dynamically links both international and domestic policy considerations to geopolitics as a means of measuring and balancing national resources against foreign-policy objectives.

The German impact on South American geopolitics gives one explanation for variations between the two definitions. For example, the 1938 German text Einfuhrung in die Geopolitik, by Richard Hennig and Leo Körholz, later issued in Spanish as Introducción a la geopolítica (1977), closely reflects the work of Atencio and other South American geopolitical writers. It contains many references to geopolitics as, for example, "scientific," "organic," and "space conscious." The German text is widely approved in geopolitical circles throughout the Southern Hemisphere, and many military schools require it. Other reasons for the contrasting descriptions of geopolitics are discussed later in this chapter.

All three definitions contained in these introductory pages have merit.

Characteristics of South American Geopolitics

I shall broaden the geopolitical perspective by outlining certain characteristics of the term I have found to be inherent to South America.

The Uniqueness of South American Geopolitics

South American geopolitics seems particularly conditioned by disputed frontiers, checkerboards, shatterbelts, and regional cooperation. Boundary protection and expansion, a preoccupation of geopolitical writers, appear throughout the history of republican America; they are the heritage of erratic border demarcations, distant and isolated frontiers, and small coastal, concentrated population clusters that resisted the settlement of the hinterland. Countries fought major wars to annex or protect exposed and valuable territories.

Checkerboards have performed as the dominant balance-of-power structure among the leading countries of South America for the past two hundred years. Shatterbelts, as noted in the Preface, have helped block continental expansion, caused Yankee intrusions, isolated North and South America from each other, and prevented a unified South American voice in global diplomacy. Regional integration, only now emerging although a traditional goal, features lowered trade barriers and free-market cooperation, as well as multinational collaboration in resolving regional problems and encouraging wider development. These four factors—frontiers, checkerboards, shatterbelts, and regional cooperation—represent keys to interpreting the geopolitics of South America.

South America is more isolated from the major events of the northern hemispheres than are the states of the Caribbean and Central America. Not currently part of a sphere of influence or shatterbelt, South America exists largely beyond the command of the great European powers and the United States. Such autonomy has not always been the case. Spain and Portugal for centuries controlled the continent and created shatterbelt rivalries there, as did, later, Great Britain and the United States. But the present isolation enhances the unfolding of a distinctive genre of geopolitics, a traditional and indigenous, even classical, structure of buffer states, heartlands, and checkerboards, of frontier tensions, choke points, and illegal immigration, of competition and cooperation for access to resources, trade, and development.

Rugged terrain, harsh climates, and extensive unoccupied spaces, all geopolitical factors, likewise have affected South American events (map 1). For example, most major river systems penetrate areas without substantial potential for settlement, and rivers are ill-placed for linking South America's subregions, as happens in North America. The Andes restrict transcontinental communication; jungles and deserts impede transportation as well. Accordingly, the Portuguese and, later, the Brazilians never succeeded in extending their territories to the Pacific or the Caribbean. Nor did Chile or Argentina become bicoastal. Imagine the difference today in hemispheric diplomacy had a South American colony or republic been able to grow to continental proportions.

Hence, a continent of twelve sovereign nations has resulted, and no single country or area dominates the region's politics and economics, although Brazil clearly has emerged as the leader. South America has diverse geopolitical sections, each drawn differently according to the reporter's perspective. For example, Gen. Julio Londoño of Colombia saw four "confederations" and a Plata basin as distinct parts of South America (map 2). Brazilian general Golbery do Couto e Silva partitioned the continent differently, with larger Amazonian and Plata areas in addition to two Brazilian sectors and a "continental welding zone" (map 3). Spanish diplomat Carlos Badía Malagrida envisioned four distinct "countries" (map 4), and Bernardo Quagliotti de Bellis of Uruguay also found four parts (map 5). One visualizes sections as all having a dominant river or sea, a political and economic culture, and a historical heritage. Balances of power, distance, terrain, and a growing sense of nationhood have kept the four primary buffer states (Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay) independent, and these have added balance and perhaps stability to the traditional checkerboard structure that has inspired much of the continent's strife and diplomacy.

South America has less natural wealth than other continents, for instance, Australia, southern Africa, North America, and Eurasia. Resources are scattered throughout the region: oil in the northern Andes; iron in the Amazon, Orinoco, and Plata basins; tin and copper in Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. Fertile farmlands occur in the Southern Cone and in isolated valleys elsewhere. Yet, with the limited exception of the South Atlantic coast, the resources mix necessary for globally significant industry is not present in South America.

Most population since colonial times has clustered along ocean coasts; and the continental center is still sparsely inhabited. Difficult physical access and the lack of economic incentives hinder interior colonization and development. The vacant hinterland, nevertheless, is steadily disappearing, particularly of late, because of road and canal systems that penetrate previously impassable topography and in many cases damage the virgin landscape. Examples of this epic transformation of the interior abound: the Hidrovía system connecting the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers to Bolivia; the planned Bermejo barge canals of northern Argentina; the overland "corridor" highways linking coastal southern Brazil to Bolivia and Paraguay; the not-yet-completed "El Marginal" road through the jungle from Venezuela to Bolivia; the Brazilian superhighway network; even the outrageous "Amazon lake" proposal of the Hudson Institute, which would flood the continent's core and allegedly connect by lake transport the South American subregions.

These and other geographic features, when they affect foreign policy, describe the contribution of South American geopolitics. Several other geopolitical features, these dealing more with theory and application of the term, also need mention.

Development of the Study of South American Geopolitics

South American geopolitical scholars cover indigenous as well as international themes: the imperial nature of the Inca and Arucanian peoples; Columbus' discoveries and the early explorers, conquistadores, and slave masters (bandeirantes in Brazil); the struggle for independence and Simón Bolívar's dream of a united continent; wars, border conflicts, territorial cessions, and checkerboard patterns; Brazil's expansionism and the Bismarckian manipulations of the Baron Rio Branco; the potential for U.S. interference; and the recent issues of integration, development, smuggling, rebellion, immigration, and democracy.

Many South American writers have cited leading western philosophers—Aristotle, Bodin, Montesquieu, and Machiavelli, for instance—whose accounts contain occasional references to geopolitics. But South American geopolitics received its greatest theoretical inspiration from turn-of-the-century scholarship on European and U.S. political geography, where modern geopolitics first originated. Two principal ideas prevailed (Parker 1985: 10): that major political upheavals and transformations would occur during the twentieth century, and that "scientific" and "organic" theories would help explain such disorder and prescribe solutions. Inspired by Friedrich Ratzel and other mostly German writers, evolutionist writers took hold in South America and placed citizens, the state, and other pertinent features of the political landscape within a biologically conceived corporate structure of survival and determinism. In the international realm, the larger states, if they resembled healthy, dynamic organisms, would expand economically and territorially to absorb weaker, unprotected neighbors.

These ideas of lebensraum, or the natural urge and right of states for territorial growth, were broadened by U.S. geostrategist Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued in 1897 that world empire depended on sea power as a mechanism for spatial expansion. The French school of Vidal de la Blache, less expansionist and strategic in nature but as motivated as the Germans to locate organic laws that governed societies, also would influence South American geopolitics.

Of considerable influence on South American geopolitics as well was Halford Mackinder, an Englishman who originated the first worldwide geopolitical theory. He saw recurring competition for world domination between land powers and sea powers (1904; 1919). The "heartland," or center of the "world island," that great expanse of land and resources in Central Asia, invulnerable to sea attack and able to capitalize on internal unity and maneuverability, posed the key to global empire. Mackinder warned western leaders that the world's power equilibrium had shifted from the maritime democracies to the continental autocracies, primarily because new land transportation and communications technologies gave strategic advantage to the centrally located land powers. Once these possessors of the heartland, most likely Germany or Russia, could successfully develop the greater Eurasian land mass, annex the "inner crescents" of China, India, the Middle East, and western Europe, and achieve a sea power capacity to enhance their continental strength, "the empire of the world would be in sight" within the aegis of the continental bloc of states.

The Karl Haushofer–Munich group of theorists rose during the interwar period and combined Ratzel's expansionism ideas and the organic theses of the state with Mahan's and Mackinder's grand visions of world power emanating from land power and maritime power. This school advocated the correctness of "youthful" nations bent on lebensraum expanding into less-populated spaces and absorbing the territory of weaker countries. Haushofer and his colleagues strongly favored German alignment with Russia and Japan, and they were among the first to note the importance of the Pacific basin in world affairs (Ael 1988).

These general sources of geopolitics, particularly the German, came to South America during the early decades of the twentieth century in military missions sent to South America or as South American officers received military schooling in Europe and the United States. Officer intellectuals in the advanced military schools and civilian instructors associated with such academies introduced geopolitical concepts into local doctrines (Guglialmelli 1986; also Nunn 1992). Because of the military impact on most governments, these geopolitical doctrines readily contributed to state policy, and thus found a positive and legitimate reception.

Two disclaimers require comment. First, I do not claim that geopolitics figures as the best or sole describer of international relationships. Rather, the theory is just one among a variety that may assist in describing, explaining, and predicting foreign affairs. Geopolitics might be useful, for instance, in showing the effects of geographic position on states' international behavior, whereas the approach may not be at all appropriate in modeling patterns of decision making or trade regimes.

Second, a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the impact of geopolitics and actual day-to-day decision making cannot be precisely gauged; hence, no concrete proof of this relationship appears in this text. I contend, nonetheless, that such a connection indeed does exist. One could partly substantiate geopolitics' contribution to policy by noting these examples: (1) the general reputation of geopolitics in South America is quite positive; (2) geopolitics is taught in many public and private schools and in most South American military academies; (3) many of the outstanding South American geopolitical writers were or are influential in government; and (4) many facets of South American foreign policy, for example, checkerboard structure, boundary conflict, and access to natural resources, appear to correspond to the geopolitical format.

Variations between South American and U.S. Geopolitics

The geopolitics of North and South America differ widely in terms of respectability and content. In South America, the term finds a friendly reception among most policy groups, wherein influential elites explore pertinent geopolitical ideas and theories from a wide spectrum of viewpoints and international origins. Active geopolitical associations appear in most of the countries, and these sponsor research centers and publications that apply and advance the concept. For example, in 1986 and again in 1989–1990, I participated in the meetings and research projects of the Instituto Paraguayo de Estudios Geopoliticos e Internacionales (Paraguayan Institute of International Geopolitical Studies). This group of academic and government intellectuals, in part financially supported by German and U.S. sources, holds seminars on diplomacy and integration, publishes monographs on geopolitics and democratic elections, and administers a resource and research center in downtown Asunción.

Such acceptance of geopolitics simply is not encountered in the United States. In fact, geopolitics attracts steadfast opponents who attribute to it a Nazi taint and allege a Machiavellian realpolitik of greed, corruption, and power not suited to democratic values. One rarely hears geopolitics discussed in a positive sense in the North, even though geopolitics seems to underlie the prime strategic dimensions of U.S. foreign and security policy. When geopolitics appears free of pejorative bias, it normally receives a "great-power politics" label, which likewise distorts the more appropriate definitions. North American geopolitical journals do not exist, although articles and books with a geopolitical designation in the title or as a subject now appear in greater numbers and enjoy a more positive reputation (Hepple 1986).

The two continents' geopolitics contrast in content as well. South America's geopolitics shows primarily a regional and subregional emphasis—on frontier pressures, national development and access to resources, territorial expansion, and regional conflict and cooperation. In contrast, the U.S. vision continues to be strategic or intercontinental and maritime, focused on maintaining an equilibrium of power in Eurasia and on isolating Latin America from involvement in Asian and European alliances.

Several explanations may account for these differences in geopolitical evolution. Certainly, the English colonial heritage of North America instilled a world vision on later U.S. policymakers that focused on sea power and strategic balances in Europe. The Spanish and Portuguese international scripts likewise came originally wrapped in strategic and maritime themes. However, the European intellectual traditions of South Americans, and the prominence of German, French, and Italian military missions, lent a strong continental thrust to southern geopolitical viewpoints, which one can easily observe in the literature. This continental impact, having reached receptive South Americans, represents a major point of departure between the two American interpretations of geopolitics.

Probably of greater significance, however, is the perspective of position and location. The United States directly confronts an encircling Eurasia from the European, polar, and Asian directions. Consequently, its location necessitates a strategic focus that considers the effects of a Eurasian balance or favorable imbalance on American security. Likewise, greater U.S. resources and a more unifying North American topography enable a strategic preoccupation with rimland Eurasia.

In contrast, the South Americans dwell in a more peripheral isolation. Their extracontinental ties focus more on Africa and North America, the former nonthreatening or of little global importance, the latter interventionist but distracted in East-West pursuits. Eurasia, the dominant world continent in traditional geopolitical terms, remains distant, buffered by the United States, and does not pose a security concern. Even if directly threatened by outsiders, the divided and, in most cases, militarily weak republics possess little power to exert a significant impact on northern affairs. In sum, positional and resources aspects contribute also to the different geopolitical directions of the two continents.

Location and Position As Vital to Geopolitics in South America

Location signifies place occupied: South America is located in the southern hemisphere of America. Position denotes relative placement or arrangement among an assortment of states: Latin America occupies the southern frontier of the United States. These two geopolitical attributes appear frequently in the literature, and they are vital to the understanding and use of the term.

The location of countries reflects the influence of environment on policy. For instance, based on traditional geopolitical hypotheses, states located on seacoasts or along large rivers may exert more of an impact on regional and world trade than do states located in the interior. Further, they tend to be less isolated from current technologies and cultures than countries located in the interior might be. South America's location, in the global sense, seems peripheral to Northern Hemisphere currents; as a result, its geopolitics focuses more on national and subregional events.

Position is utilized to appraise leverage or pivotal impact in international relationships. Certain countries are found in central or middle positions and, thus, may enjoy certain advantages in trade, resources access, and leadership. They may, in turn, suffer the disadvantages of possible border insecurity, foreign invasion, and dismemberment.

Location and position clearly have an impact on each other. Brazil's location in the center of South America motivates a tendency in foreign policy for balancing one neighbor against another. In contrast, Venezuela's peripheral location has insulated the republic from warfare with regional neighbors. In position, the centrally located buffer countries—Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay—have suffered intrusions and dismemberment from more powerful neighbors; unfortunately for them, their isolated placements have not kept them free of damaging regional involvement.

The Importance of Maps to the Study of South American Geopolitics

Maps show location and position, access to natural resources, areas of strategic importance, obstacles to and facilities for communication, and sources of conflict and cooperation. In the great majority of cases, the cartographic descriptions of South American writers validly render the continent's geography and geopolitics, and they assist interpretation of relationships between geographic factors and foreign policy.

Such depictions, however, may exhibit biases that expand an author's viewpoint, sometimes to the point of distortion. For instance, on map 6, Gen. Julio Londoño of Colombia sees the "Communist ideas" of the Southern Cone countries moving toward the "democracies" of the northern-tier states. Likewise, Brazilian Golbery do Couto e Silva alleges on map 7 a global antagonism between Communist forces (of course, in black) and the western nations. In similar terms, Gen. Edgardo Mercado Jarrín of Peru warns against Brazilian imperialism, as portrayed on map 8. His mapmaking depicts an evil and threatening Brazil (note his configuration of arrows). Finally, Venezuelan theorist Rubén Carpio Castillo accuses North America of plotting the formation of a buffer state between its southern frontier and revolution-prone central Mexico (map 9).

Three other examples of slanted cartography seem pertinent to this discussion. Ricardo Riesco of Chile demonstrates in map 10 what seem to be racist overtones in his presentation of a possible Asian "invasion" of South America, and he drafts a clear distinction between "dark-tropical" and "white-temperate" South America. Chilean writers use the "Arc of the Southern Antilles" (map 11) to draw on a series of Antarctic islands and flows of ocean current to help justify Chile's claim against Argentina to maritime territory in the South Atlantic, although, of course, this interpretation is not sanctioned by the Argentines. Rubén de Hoyos contributes a final example in map 12, a design meant to reveal NATO's alleged coveting of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands.

The Military Contribution to Geopolitics

Many South American geopolitical writers and practitioners come from the armed forces, and most relevant topics revolve around defense matters. Geopolitics receives much attention in schools of professional military training, and active and retired officers as well as civilians tied to the defense establishment sponsor geopolitical seminars, edit journals, head research clearinghouses, and publish books and monographs. With the arrival of democracy to South America and the new emphasis on development through regional integration, the military impact has become less visible within contemporary geopolitics than previously.

The "National Security State" doctrine merits our attention here because it examines an important feature of military geopolitical thinking. As stated by Jack Child (1988a: 42 - 43): "There appears to be a close link between the organic theory of the state [the state as a living entity], the National Security Doctrine, and geopolitical thinking in the Southern Cone . . . As perceived by many South American military professionals, the basic purpose of the state is to increase its power in order to provide for its security, and geopolitical thinking provides a pseudoscientific basis for it to do so." In the Darwinian and cruel world in which the organic states struggle to survive, neighbors are seen as potential adversaries, and even allies are viewed with suspicion. Hence, national security derives from factors both external and internal to the state. Protection from outside forces results from frontier defense and the ability to project national power. Internal threats stem from leftist subversives bent on overthrowing the organic state itself. Ultimately, in the thinking of many officers, safety results from military power, national economic development, and stable and conservative civilian leadership.

A "Feel" for Geopolitical Writing

Few South American geopolitical works are found in English translation, and some are difficult to locate even in Spanish or Portuguese in the United States. The style of these treatises reflects a simplicity and enthusiasm with, often, an emphasis on conventional viewpoints. In certain instances, for example, in the work of Juan Enrique Guglialmelli, Ramón Cañas Montalva, and Jorge Villacrés Moscoso, the prose becomes quite nationalist, emotional, and polemic. Many of the best-known publications, replete with English and German theories and general reviews of the traditional literature, serve also as textbooks, but with limited local application and little interest in testing theories that may not apply to contemporary South America. They deal primarily with frontier security, national development, and regional conflict and cooperation. (See chapter 3 for an inventory of the leading South American authorities.) The most favored foreign geopolitical authorities include Friedrich Ratzel, Rudolf Kjellén, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, Nicholas John Spykman, Karl Haushofer, and Saul Cohen.

At present, the major South American geopolitical journals are Geosur (Uruguay), Geopolítica (Argentina), and A Defesa Nacional and Política e Estratégia (Brazil). Four other journals, Estrategia (Argentina), Geopolítica (Uruguay), Estudios Geopolíticos y Estratégicos (Peru), and Revista Geográfica de Chile "Terra Australis" (Chile), merit our attention, although the first three are no longer published and the fourth has shifted its focus to political geography and away from foreign policy. The better general texts on the subject come from Atencio (1986); Badía Malagrida (1919); Briano (1977); Child (1985); Kelly and Child (1988); Londoño (1978); Marini (1982); Meira Mattos (1977a); Pinochet Ugarte (1984); Pittman (1981a); and Quagliotti de Bellis (1979a). Editorial Pleamar of Argentina is a leading publisher of geopolitical books.

New Directions in Geopolitical Theory

A "critical geopolitics" has emerged among a group of British and North American scholars who are attempting to reconceptualize traditional geopolitics. According to Klaus Dodds and James Sidaway (1994: 516):

The concepts of power, knowledge, and geopolitics are ... bound together in a provocative way. What is suggested is that forms of power/ knowledge operate geopolitically: a certain spatialization of knowledge, a demarcation of a field of knowledge and the establishment of subjects, objects, rituals, and boundaries by which a field (and the world) is to be known ... [b]y examining the various narratives, concepts, and signifying practices that reside within geopolitical discoveries, it would be possible to understand something of the power of these discoveries to shape international politics.

This reconceptualization is important because it shows how geopolitical words and expressions—especially when these become biased, ethnocentric, and ideologically motivated—can affect policy. South American geopolitical writers frequently use metaphor, for example, to legitimize their policy recommendations: organic, or "living," frontiers to justify Brazil's occupation of the Amazon valley or Argentina's settlement of Patagonia; "cancerous cells" to describe the internal subversion that destroys the state's health; or the "disease" of communism, which destroys the health of national development (Hepple 1990: 13-20).

Accordingly, the new school aims to point out and correct such distortions when they appear (see Dodds 1994; Ó Tuathail and Agnew 1992; Dalby 1990; Ó Tuathail 1986). Except for occasional articles that apply these features to Latin America, the South American writers appear not to have taken up these directions themselves. Of much greater importance to them is the "dependency thesis," a charge of northern abuse of southern nations and a demand for compensation.

Geopolitical Concepts and Theories

"Concept" implies ideas, objects, symbols, or actions; "theory" indicates connections or relationships between concepts that can describe, explain, and predict specific events. For example, "distance" represents a geopolitical concept: the extent of space or territory from one location to another. "Voting for peacekeeping measures in the United Nations" signifies another. A theory links concepts, in this case, the anticipation of a possible tie between distance and U.N. voting and attempts to determine whether explanations of such associations can be found by way of these theoretical connections.

I have found a strong statistical association between the distance of Latin American countries from the United States and General Assembly voting in the 1950s and 1960s on peacekeeping issues. The Latin American republics farthest from the United States voted more frequently for these measures than those closest to the United States (Kelly and Boardman 1977). Hence, both variables interrelate to reveal the existence of a geopolitical theory that ties distance to General Assembly voting.

The study of South American geopolitics must grapple with concepts and theories, since writers pay significant attention to both, and both are vital to interpreting important national and regional events. Following is a series of important concepts and theories that are central to an understanding of South American geopolitics.

Strategic Concepts and Theories

Something that is "strategic" represents a continental or an extracontinental relationship in which an event in one location will affect another, distant, event. For example, a U.S. president makes a speech in which he appears to favor Brazil over other Latin American states. This speech reverberates throughout Argentine and Peruvian policy. Or Brazil's new superhighways stimulate construction of canals in the Plata valley. Or the Malvinas/Falklands war of the South Atlantic increases Guyanan-Venezuelan frontier tensions. Or the cold war's end further isolates South America in world affairs. These four strategic examples exist within a geopolitical context also, since they embody position, space, terrain, and resources, albeit at great distance.

The Core-Periphery Thesis

A good assortment of strategic examples fall within the "core-periphery" format, in which certain world areas have become important core regions, and other spaces are relegated to less-vital peripheral locations. Many depictions of this dichotomy exist in the geopolitical literature.

The Hundred-Year Cycle Thesis

Two cyclical suppositions, also strategic in nature, offer other variations on the core-periphery format. Modelski's "hundred-year cycles" hypothesis, for instance, locates a regular technology- and maritime power-based rise and fall of western empires over the past five centuries (1982; 1978). Although these leadership cycles have bypassed the southern lands, competition and destructiveness among core nations could lead to the ascendancy of a peripheral nation. Brazil could achieve higher world status as a result (Kelly 1992c; 1989).

The Pan-Regional Thesis

A more specific core-periphery model occurs in the "pan-regions" design (map 13), also a concept one sees in the geopolitical literature of South America. This Orwellian structure compartmentalizes the globe into three or four self-reliant longitudinal sectors in which the placement of technology and industrialization guarantees continued northern hegemony. Many Latin Americans see in the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, Russia, France, Great Britain, and the United States) potential for panregional leadership. A more blatant conspiracy definition for panregionalism appears in the "condominium" concept.

The Key-Countries Thesis

The key-countries concept adds to the North-versus-South configuration of struggle and conspiracy (map 14). Here, the United States allegedly has chosen certain pivotally located periphery nations (Brazil, Iran, Zaire, and West Germany, for instance) that, with military and economic assistance, will be directed to pacify surrounding regions. President Richard Nixon and his security advisor and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, advocated this strategy and made statements backing Brazil as the natural leader of South America, much to the distaste and alarm of its neighbors. In the early 1970s, for instance, leftist groups in Chile and Uruguay feared attack from Brazilian "sepoyan" (mercenary) armies, allegedly supported by U.S. assistance (Mutto 1971).

The Heartland Thesis

The most prominent core-periphery structure springs from Halford Mackinder's "heartland" thesis. Here, heartlands emerge as rather isolated compact regions embedded within continents and that occopy interior and strategically important positions, contain the resources to support industry and larger populations, compete in various ways with coastal areas, and exert an impact beyond their immediate boundaries (Kelly 1991). Mackinder focused on the vast space from eastern Europe to Siberia and from Persia and Tibet to the Arctic Ocean (map 15). He posited that possession of a "pivotal" zone, or heartland, gave an advantage to nations or alliances bent on domination of outlying regions. Countries in this continental position could exploit the resources of Eurasia by means of improved land transportation. If the holders of Eurasia strengthened their military capacity by also developing a significant naval power, they could eventually encircle and defeat the great maritime nations, including the United States, and thus dominate the globe. Mackinder's thesis greatly influenced South American geopolitics, particularly Brazilian strategic thinking.

Three South American regions have received attention as centrally positioned heartland territories. Mario Travassos (1947), for instance, designated the Charcas triangle of Bolivia a heartland, as it links the towns of Sucre, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz de la Sierra (map 16). In Mackinder-like terms, U.S. diplomat and strategist Lewis Tambs asserted that the Bolivian "heartland power center" and its "political epicentrum," Santa Cruz, could someday govern the continent (1965: 36, 42-43). Tambs alleged that Brazil's trans-Amazonian highways and the moving of Brasilia, its capital, to the interior derived from the nation's intention of dominating South America and gaining Pacific Ocean ports by absorbing the Charcas triangle.

The Sea and Land Power Thesis

The designations "sea power" and "land power" likewise come from Mackinder and the heartland thesis. Both Eurasia, primarily a landpower focus, and the United States, part of the maritime world, allegedly struggle to control "rimlands," or peripheral Eurasian areas (western Europe, the Middle East, south and east Asia, for example). Nicholas Spykman (1942), a U.S. Mackinderisk theorist who is greatly respected in South American geopolitical circles, maintains that whichever bloc dominates the rimlands will eventually control Earth.

Latin America does not have maritime importance in this strategic geopolitical calculation. Although Chile is recognized as a modest sea power within the South American context, and Argentina and Venezuela to an even lesser degree, their navies resemble ill-equipped and politically weak forces designed primarily to guard the coast. Despite the primarily maritime continent within Mackinder's outer crescent, South America's geopolitics shows a clear landpower orientation in both policy and theory.


The URUPABOL configuration-Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguayalso lays claim to South American heartland status, as suggested by several Southern Cone writers (Dallanegra Pedraza 1983; Velilla de Arréllaga 1982; Quagliotti de Bellis 1976b). Centered in Paraguay, and more specifically at the giant binational hydroelectric power station at Itaipú, this strategic axis is visualized as stabilizing continental politics by separating the two prime antagonists, Brazil and Argentina, and thus preventing an escalation of tension aimed at the Andean states and beyond and by providing access to regional economic integration.

The Continental Welding Zone Thesis

Golbery do Couto e Silva's "continental welding zone" (map 3), like the URUPABOL pivot, encompasses a region that includes Bolivia, most of Paraguay, and the Mato Grosso and Rondônia provinces of Brazil. He envisioned the possibility of Brazilian control of the continent and the South Atlantic if the country became more integrated and developed(1981). According to U.S. geopolitical writer Howard Pittman (1981a: 347-348), the general specified approaches for realizing this expansion of territory:

1. Link the Northeast and the South [of Brazil] to the central nucleus [the heartland] to provide the economic base for continental projection and at the same time guarantee the inviolability of the unpopulated interior by closing off routes of penetration. 2. Starting from the central nucleus, stimulate colonization to the northwest in order to integrate the "central west peninsula" into the Brazilian ecumene. 3. Starting from an advanced base of the central west and under cover of frontier nodules (defense points) flood the Amazon basin with civilization, coordinating this movement with an East-West progression along the axis of the river.

Thus, central location means protection, maneuverability, access to resources, and the ability to use military force, all factors within the geopolitical perspective.

The Pentagonal Thesis

An expanded version of Mackinder's original heartland awards global dominance to a "pentagonal" alignment of world areas (Japan, China, Russia, Europe, and North America). What counts originates within this core, and other regions, including South America, are left behind on slower and less-important tracks. The marginal areas simply lack relevance; globally significant events, particularly positive and productive ones, seldom transpire there. Many South American geopolitical writers and practitioners have accepted this thesis of peripheral inferiority, which may have retarded the continent's participation in global affairs and limited its geopolitics more to the regional than to the strategic.

The Dependency Thesis

Several other theories arise from this strategic core-periphery juxtaposition. The "dependency" thesis, for example, which attracts wide notice in South America, alleges northern capitalist domination, which has created a southern subservience and exploitation. Northerners beget wealth at the expense of southerners because of superior location, resources, and technology. The solution, in the form of a "new international economic order," may lie in negotiation and the core's voluntary relinquishing of power and resources.

A violent remedy to this wealth imbalance takes place in the imperialist claim that only urban and rural insurrection can rectify the inequality among world peoples and continents. Uruguay's Abrán Guillén (1967:123-146) advised urban terrorism against capitalist enclaves in South America. If U.S. companies were weakened by armed attacks, he alleged, their "super profits" could no longer help pay higher wages to the "internal proletariat" of the United States, which would eventually prompt socialist revolution in North America. With the "colonial" ties between North and South thus broken, prosperity and independence would end the periphery's marginality.

The Ocean Cycle Thesis

An "ocean cycles" conjecture, supported primarily by Chilean and Colombian geopolitical writers, links world control or hegemony to certain bodies of water, formerly the Mediterranean, currently the North Atlantic, and possibly a prosperous and commanding Pacific Rim in the future. Enthusiasts of this idea claim that such ocean bodies are strategically located adjacent to population centers, significant sources of wealth, and pivotal communication routes. These basins transmit a seafaring mentality to surrounding peoples, prornote cultural and commercial unity, and provide a strong advantage for an eventual expansion of power. In the case of South American geopolitics, the Pacific Ocean holds promise from the standpoint of its great expanse and wealth, the rich technologies of Japan and the United States, and the immense economic markets of Asia and North America.

The Imperial Thesis

The "imperial thesis," another South American theory, applies best to the larger American states, particularly Peru, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. According to this theory, "imperial" countries originally filled small, compact areas that early on began a territorial expansion to satisfy defense and material needs. Peripheral lands became incorporated into the older and commanding middle, although the newly incorporated territories and inhabitants differed in many ways from the core. Thus, a spatial division based on distance and central-versus-outlying position was established. Such an environment encourages frontier tensions, authoritarian rule, regional rebellion, and national disunity, suffered to some extent by all of the aforementioned countries.

The Manifest Destiny Thesis

The "manifest destiny" thesis resembles the imperial thesis. Under this canon, certain nations, originally small and limited to coastal enclaves, felt a right or mission to extend their territory across continents and to other oceans. The need to spread civilization and religion frequently provided additional motivation.

Because western portions of North America were perceived as largely vacant and available, the United States fulfilled its "manifest destiny" by expanding to the Pacific. Because Brazil, Chile, and Argentina could not project their power over larger continental areas, for reasons of distance, climate, terrain, limited resources, and other countries' settlement in desired areas, South America has not experienced the higher unity of the United States. The failure of a South American manifest destiny—of a Brazil or Argentina as two-ocean nations and clear leaders—has meant not only a divided continent and checkerboard diplomacy but also a geopolitics of regional and not strategic impact.

The Realpolitik Thesis

A pejorative term, "realpolitik" connotes a sinister, Machiavellian "power politics," an amoral, pragmatic, secretive, manipulative diplomacy that some writers mistakenly equate with geopolitics. In the case of South America, many place Brazilian statesman and general Golbery do Couto e Silva under this rubric. Other leaders sometimes associated with realpolitik include the United States' Henry Kissinger, Germany's Otto von Bismarck, and nineteenth-century Brazil's Baron of Rio Branco. But, to me, realpolitik contrasts starkly with geopolitics in that, where realpolitik centers on power and exploitation, geopolitics pertains to position, resources, and adaptation.

The Monroe Doctrine

Strategic concepts apply to inter-American geopolitics as well, and for these one must begin with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. President James Monroe pronounced three themes in his declaration (Bemis 1943: 63-64): "(1) [T]hat the American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for further colonization by any European powers. (2) We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security. (3) Our policy in regards to Europe ... is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers." A variety of protocols and corollaries, some of which tended to contradict the original document, amended these statements in later decades. But Monroe's purpose has remained a constant feature of strategy: to prevent the spread of Eurasian conflict and intrigue to Latin America, which could jeopardize U.S. security.

The Western Hemisphere Thesis

The Western Hemisphere thesis, another geopolitical premise, suggests a common heritage and cooperation among all American countries (Whittaker 1954: 1): "The ... peoples of this hemisphere stand in a special relationship to one another ... [which] sets them apart from the rest of the world." But, a close-knit America clearly has not risen; wars, neglect, tensions, interventions, and broken regional economic ventures instead have proved commonplace.

A strong momentum for "regionalism," or cooperation within both Latin American and hemispheric contexts, seems evident in present American diplomacy, however (Hurrell 1992). Rapprochement since 1980 between Brazil and Argentina, a clear signal of South American regionalism, has paved the way for economic accommodation in MERCOSUR's Plata integration. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) offers another example of an integration that could spread farther south in the future.

Geopolitical Regional Categories

Within a geopolitical world system, six categories of regions and subregions also provide insight for interpreting South American geopolitics (Kelly 1986a):

  • "Strategic countries": great-power states, such as the United States and the former Soviet Union, that possess transcontinental economic, political, and military impact. None of the South American countries fit this designation; the best, but still quite distant candidate is Brazil.
  • "Allied regions": independent regional states more or less supportive of strategic countries' policies, for example, Western Europe during the cold war. Again, this type is not found in South America.
  • "Independent areas": relatively neutral or uninvolved areas in a strategic sense and not tightly aligned to any strategic country. South America is the best contemporary example of this category.
  • "Spheres of influence": regions more or less under the control of one strategic country or its allies, for instance, cold war Eastern Europe under Soviet dominance and contemporary Central America under the thumb of the United States. In the past, although not at present, South America was part of Spanish, Portuguese, and English spheres of influence.
  • "Shatterbelts": regions in which two strategically important countries compete for control, with a resulting two-tiered structure of interrelated regional and strategic conflict. Shatterbelts pose a danger of escalation, of wars that might spread elsewhere, and of smaller countries' prompting serious confrontation between their larger, strategically important sponsors. This happened in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Shatterbelts no longer exist in South America, although they were evident during the Spanish and Portuguese competition for the continent.
  • "Buffers": strategically neutral states or regions that help prevent contact between belligerent countries and a spreading of conflict. Middle America, comprising the Caribbean and Central America, serves this function between North and South America; the URUPABOL buffer countries plus Ecuador help contain strategic South American conflict among the larger states.

In this constellation, South America figures as an independent area and not as a strategic world force nor part of a strategic alliance, sphere of influence, or shatterbelt. Middle America, in contrast, has alternated between sphere-of-influence, buffer, and shatterbelt status.

Geographic Locations

The identification of certain important geographic locations forms another vital part of the continent's geopolitics (map 17). For instance, surrounding oceans demonstrate differing policy perspectives. The Caribbean, labeled by some geopolitical writers as the "American Mediterranean" because it separates the northern and southern continents and is controlled by a northern power, has rotated historically between shatterbelt and sphere of influence. Only Venezuela of the South American states possesses geopolitical interest in the Caribbean. Interestingly, the rimland of the American Mediterranean includes a large portion of South America, for the countries of Guyana, Suriname, Colombia, and Venezuela and the French colony of Guiana are located adjacent to the sea (see map 1). Uplands, jungles, and distance close off the Caribbean from the Amazonian, Plata, and Andean-Pacific sectors of South America and prevent a longitudinal unity that would connect the northern tier of South America more closely to Southern Hemisphere affairs.

Areas of strategic concern in the Caribbean include the Panama Canal, once a part of Colombia and still valuable to the nearby South American states and the United States; the oil-producing Maracaibo basin and the minerals-rich Guajira peninsula, both occupying tense frontiers between Colombia and Venezuela; the mouth of the Orinoco River, where several territorial disputes are ongoing among Guyana, Venezuela, and Trinidad-Tobago; and the offshore islands and "choke points," or straits, along the southern Caribbean edge through which oil and other traffic passes.

In this strategically relevant sectional configuration, a second portion of South America, the "Southern Cone," begins at the southern edge of the Amazon watershed and extends to the Antarctic. The most dynamic and prosperous part of South America, particularly along the South Atlantic coast of Brazil and Argentina, this region encompasses the Plata River system for the most part, although the Andean Pacific states of Chile and Peru belong to the Southern Cone as well. The most vital strategic areas happen at the Brazilian and Argentine industrial ecumenes (São Paulo and Buenos Aires); the great hydroelectric power station at Itaipú on the Paraná River; the Argentine "Mesopotamia," or interior provinces of Formosa, Corrientes, and Misiones, which separate Argentina from Brazil; the overland truck "corridors" passing across southern Brazil from Bolivia and Paraguay; and the strategic northern provinces of Chile, a "triple-point" area that has been tense since the War of the Pacific in the 1870s.

Southern Cone maritime choke points likewise are strategically important South American areas. The Atlantic Narrows between the northeast salient of Brazil and the west African coast, through which pass Middle East petroleum and other vital cargoes, gained distinction as a strategic passageway in World War II and also during the cold war. Hostile submarines and coastal batteries allegedly could have prevented these products from reaching Europe and North America. In addition, if freight through the Panama Canal was sabotaged, the significance of several "southern passages" between Antarctica and the lower extremes of Chile and Argentina (the Beagle Channel, the Strait of Magellan, and the Drake Passage) might increase. Adjacent islands as well, including the Malvinas/ Falklands, Easter, and Galápagos, would share the strategic relevance of the southern passages. Finally, the two most dominant river systems of South America, the Amazon and Plata, likewise assume value in strategic calculations because they access the resources of the continent's geographic interior and they flank the technological and population cores of Brazil and Argentina.

The Equilibrium Model

Several balance-of-power configurations require description for later analyses of South American geopolitics. "Balance of power" connotes various formations or structures of major-country alignments, ranging from an "equilibrium," or the fairly equal apportionment of influence among a particular system of countries, to a "preponderance," or the absorption of most power into one nation or bloc. Structures can also reveal various constellations or poles, for instance, bipolar or multipolar. Such distributions conform to a regional and a strategic perspective. The United States enjoys preponderance in North America, which enables it to project authority beyond its region, but it shared strategic equilibrium with the Soviet Union during the cold war.

The South American balance of power fits the equilibrium mode in that no country or alliance dominates the whole continent, although the larger republics overshadow and often make demands on the weaker states. The fact that Brazil or the other great nations of South America could not individually establish continental mastery, and thus extracontinental projection, has defined the continent's past and present geopolitics.

Within the equilibrium model, the historical pattern in South American geopolitics has resembled a "checkerboard" balance of power, in which neighbors appear as enemies, neighbors of neighbors as friends (Child 1988a; Seckinger 1976; Burr 1955). A "mandala" of concentric and alternating cycles of hostility and alliance offers a variation on this design (map 18).

South America's checkerboard and mandala structures correspond to a "multipolar" balance of power, a fragmented design in which the necessity of two-border defense probably has restricted conflict escalation. Because of its peculiar mix of climates, its isolation, topographies, country positions, and heritage of Spanish, Portuguese, and English competition, among other factors, the continent seems a natural for this checkerboard motif. As depicted on map 18, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia at times appeared in opposition to Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela. This multipolar balance-of-power framework has influenced regional diplomacy since the 1820s.

Checkerboards bring advantages and disadvantages to the region's politics. The alignment seems to have encouraged more peace than warfare among the republics, although often in the form of a wary, armed, and strained composure rather than the deeper harmony of trust and relaxation of tensions. Checkerboards share credit for power equilibrium (and thus a continuity of relations) among the larger countries, checkmate major regional shifts of power and territorial conquests, and guarantee the independence of the weaker buffer states.

The mandala system presents the possibility of escalation or a heightening of conflict, and even war, among opponents. These patterns foster frontier tension, force participants to plan two-front defenses (and thus detract from national development), allow the United States and other outside nations to manipulate regional affairs, and prevent productive cooperation among states by prolonging the status quo.

One of the remarkable evolutions in South American geopolitics, nevertheless, has come about since the 1970s in the apparent transition from the traditional checkerboard to a more cordial state of affairs, anchored in the Brazil-Argentine rapprochement. Will this dynamic expand into extensive regional cooperation, even confederation, or revert again to mandalas or some other balance-of-power mode? We shall analyze these possibilities in later chapters.

A number of South American countries fit the "buffer state" designation: Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay, with the recent additions of Guyana and Suriname. These smaller countries are located between larger republics, and their value lies in preventing direct contact between nearby states, which could escalate into high tension and warfare.

These pivotal nations, although protected to some degree by checkerboards as well as by regional cooperation, have not fared well throughout South American history. All have lost territory to larger neighbors; they have been the site of the continent's major wars; and their foreign policies have been manipulated by outsiders. But, probably the medial position of the buffers has helped deter continentwide escalation of conflict, and the buffers have guaranteed their own survival by virtue of being buffers. They may, in fact, play a central role in future regional integration.

Smaller republics centrally positioned among more powerful states frequently exhibit "pendulum foreign policies"; that is, they balance, for security and economic reasons, one stronger neighbor against another. This process relies on several criteria pertinent for the buffer state (Kelly and Whigham 1990): (1) competition among larger neighbors for the buffer's resources (and access to resources); (2) neighbors' awareness that buffers may prevent checkerboarddriven escalation of conflict; (3) larger states' guarantee of the buffers' independence, although one sponsor may have greater influence in the buffer than other sponsors; and hence, (4) reactive and not assertive foreign policy in buffer nations, with, normally, a penchant for regional integration and cooperation.

In sum, the pendular approach seems a reaction to the threats of the surrounding larger powers, which enjoy greater geopolitical maneuverability. Such a policy reflects relative weakness and clearly not the international status accorded a normally functioning state in contemporary world society.

Some commentators find "domino" formations common to Latin America. Jerome Slater describes this pattern as follows (1987: 107): "In its most familiar form, [domino] theory holds that the United States must take decisive action to prevent a communist victory in small country A, in itself of little or no economic or strategic significance to American interests, for the fall of that country would set in motion a chain of events that would lead inexorably to communist takeovers in geographically contiguous countries B, C, D and so on throughout the entire region." Sen. Jesse Helms claimed the existence of falling dominoes in Central America (Schoultz 1987: 66): "Cuba's already gone. If we sit out, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica—bam, bam, bam."

In contrast to checkerboards and buffers, however, dominoes appear alien to a study of South American geopolitics. The domino concept reflects an anti-Communist fervor that distances the thesis from geopolitics, which likewise exhibits a spatial dimension but attempts to avoid ideological tainting. Lack of a clear case of falling dominoes in contemporary South America also presents further evidence. Hence, except in cases of a contagion of political events (riots, subversion, democracy), which does occur in South America from time to time (Govea and West 1981), the domino phenomenon seems an inappropriate interpreter of South American affairs, although the theory remains important because U.S. policymakers continue to imagine its potential for harm.

Regional Concepts and Theories

The Frontier Theory

An assortment of regional qualities merit attention in our review of South American geopolitics. A majority of these concern frontiers. The term "frontier" encompasses not only specific boundary demarcations but also the larger territories within a transnational setting.

Frontiers represent a prime focus of geopolitical writers for a variety of reasons. First, South America contains a multitude of border areas, and these sometimes fall near disputed positions or resources. Second, some boundaries appear poorly drawn because of faulty colonial cartography or difficult terrain, which precluded accurate surveying. Third, the German influence on South American writers, with its emphasis on frontier concepts, maintains this characteristic because Europe, like South America, contains a multitude of frontiers. Finally, the territorial ambitions of some states, Brazil being the most noteworthy, prompt focus on frontier tensions as well.

All major South American territorial conflicts and wars relate somehow to frontiers. In the 1820s Cisplatine contest between Brazil and Argentina for control of Uruguay, access to the Plata River mouth underlay the struggle. The Triple Alliance War in the 1860s sprang from Paraguay's violation of the Argentine frontier. The War of the Pacific involved Chile's quest for nitrates on the Peruvian and Bolivian borders. Twentieth-century wars for the Leticia, Chaco, and Marañón territories were all frontier disputes, and the Malvinas / Falklands conflict of 1982 between Argentina and Great Britain likewise centered on disputed ownership of territory. (Discussion of these conflicts appears in chapter 4.) Interestingly, the growing South American movement toward common markets and integration seeks to remove frontier pressures and to substitute regional cooperation across international boundaries.

Because of the apparent correlation between borders and conflict in South America, some geopolitical thinkers (primarily Carlos de Meira Mattos and Julio Londoño) have proposed types of frontiers that might impede disputes. Some encourage "natural frontiers," where mountain crescents, jungles and deserts, river thalwegs, or some other geographic distinction clearly separate one nation from another. Artificially drawn borders (along lines of latitude or longitude, for example) that surround densely populated areas might encourage aggression because of their lack of clarity. Another conjecture describes "satisfied" and "imperialist" states (Meira Mattos 1990a), wherein the former accepts existing territorial ownership and the latter strives to expand national domain.

The Organic Theory

"Organic" theories appear in the geopolitical writings of South Americans as a reflection of the German impact on the republics' foreign affairs. As described earlier in this chapter, countries are made "human" in South American geopolitical writing; they begin life, mature, age, and then die, as would a person. Hence, as nations grow and die, frontiers naturally expand and contract to reflect the life cycle. This organic cycling resembles the concept of lebensraum, so notorious in fascism before the Second World War, in which "youthful" and therefore vigorous and expanding countries, that is, the fascist bloc, possessed the "right" to take territories and resources belonging to others. Common sketches of "dead" and "live" frontiers receive their inspiration from this format. The former are endangered by frailty, the latter by anticipating expansion. In South America, particularly in Brazil, this assumption of territorial expansion as a right of "growing" nations frequently appears in geopolitical discourse.

The Spatial Theory

Spatial theories are also common in South American geopolitics. The premise is that territorial space somehow affects foreign policy. Proponents of "space consciousness" argue, for instance, that a people's awareness of space and position will advance their national destiny. An expansive consciousness, which larger nations seem to possess, underlies the concept; a lack of spatial perception has hindered the weaker. Hence, states should strive for "space mastery," in which governments endeavor to fully populate and develop peripheral spaces to avoid absorption by neighbors. Along with the notion of space, or "raum" struggle, state survival depends on territorial growth, with the more secure countries assembling greater expanses of land.

"Autarky" or national self-sufficiency, commonly surfaces in the literature, often in the guise of "economic nationalism" or plans for national development. If countries modernize sufficiently to enable a high degree of autonomy, national defense and economic security allegedly follow.

Finally, those who favor the "law of valuable areas" claim that precious but unpopulated and underdeveloped spaces run the danger of seizure by stronger neighbors (Pittman 1981a). Neglect of and weakness in territorial policy may cause partition, which is feared by the menaced buffer states but endorsed by the Peruvians and Brazilians.

The Balkanization Theory

A fear of "Balkanization," or "Polandization," observed particularly in the geopolitical treatises of buffer state authors, derives from historical fact (all of the weaker nations of South America have lost territories to larger neighbors) and from the emphasis given the organic state theses (map 19). Frequently, the areas most susceptible to this dismemberment are in the "hinterlands," or interior regions distant and isolated from coastal population and industrial centers, and in the "Mediterranean," or landlocked, spaces.

The Geographic Opportunity Theory

Frontiers are closely associated with war and conflict in South America. James Wesley (1962) promotes the geographic opportunity axiom whereby the more borders a country possesses, the more wars a nation will be involved in. Hence, centrally positioned states suffer more warfare than countries of the periphery, as is frequently noted in the political science literature (Richardson 1960). I tested this proposition exclusively for South America by comparing the number of international frontiers with the frequency of war (Kelly 1992a: 47) and found a high association between the two variables.

The Fluvial Laws Theory

A variety of fluvial "laws" are enunciated within geopolitics: (1) Mediterranean countries inherently strive for an ocean outlet; (2) centripetally flowing rivers unify nations; (3) states naturally expand to dominate entire river watersheds; (4) major river estuaries embody strategic and sometimes shatterbelt zones where larger countries compete for control; (5) states that occupy estuaries tend to expand along adjacent seacoast lines; and (6) the direction of a river's flow reveals the regional directions in a country's foreign policy. None of these theories has ever been systematically tested by their pronouncers, so there is no proof that these geopolitical phenomena consistently occur.

Most authors normally see waterways as acceptable natural boundary lines, although rivers are best utilized as unifiers of nations and regions. Nonetheless, for the most part, South America's rivers have not played a significant role in the region's foreign affairs. The Amazon, Orinoco, and Plata Rivers access a largely deserted continental core where the development of resources has proved expensive. Indeed, it is uncertain whether the South American hinterland holds exploitable wealth that would make fluvial traffic profitable.

Antarctica and the South American territorial seas are growing in importance in geopolitical thinking as a result of recent technological advances. Although the 1961 U.N. Antarctic Treaty, which froze territorial claims to the subcontinent, continues in force, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina remain in competition for their claimed Antarctic areas, making this issue divisive and potentially conflictual. Brazilian theoretician Therezinha de Castro advocates the defrontação thesis, in which Antarctic ownership is determined by longitudinal lines that flow from a South American claimant's ocean frontage to the Antarctic pole (see map 20). Other sources assert common or national ownership of the southern continent.

Coastal states have come to recognize the strategic and, particularly, the economic value of adjacent ocean waters. Bolivia's quest for a port, Peru's and Ecuador's fishing demands, the Beagle Channel dispute, and the Malvinas/Falklands war are examples of the increasing strife currently associated with the territorial zones. Traditionally, just ocean straits, or choke points, and sea lines of communication figured in maritime geopolitics as pivotal transit zones. But with the new fishing and seabed exploitation technologies, the seas have grown in importance (Morris 1990; Glassner 1985). Continued technological advances and growing scarcities in natural resources could convert the coastal frontiers into a major concern in South American geopolitics.

The Climatological Theory

Some South Americans assert a link between climate and political behavior. Temperate regions allegedly invigorate, for instance, whereas the tropics sap the energy. General Londoño links topography and elevation to certain democratic and governmental behaviors. He also laments the disadvantages caused by South America's harsh environments and theorizes that northern "world power centers" benefit from lower average temperatures (1965; 1948).

Sometimes racial overtones intrude into these comparisons, as one can observe in Riesco's "White-Temperate" and "Dark-Tropical" South American depiction (map 10). But General Meira Mattos of Brazil contests the premise that the tropical impact constrains national power (1980a). Indeed, he sees a "challenge and response" feature in Brazil that will stimulate the nation toward higher international status once his people face and overcome the obstacles of the Amazonian jungles.

The Regional Integration Theory

Despite Simón Bolívar's widely accepted declaration for continental confederation, little has happened to help South America reach this goal until recently. Now, regional "integration," or an economic and political collaboration among the South American republics, receives significant support from geopolitical writers, indicating that South American geopolitics now encompasses harmony as well as competition. The momentum for integration, especially in the Southern Cone's MERCOSUR treaty, merits our close attention.

As will be shown in chapter 4, the transition in the 1970s from rivalry to regional cooperation occurred in both geopolitical writing and foreign affairs. This change seems to symbolize a significant shift in the continent's balance of power, one that many will follow with interest. If integration succeeds, will it expand into some sort of South American or hemispheric common market? Will the checkerboard power rivalries completely disappear? Might some type of political federation someday rise? How would federation influence relations with North America? What happens if integration does not take place?

The definitions, characteristics, concepts, and theories described in this chapter introduce South America's geopolitical milieu. They will appear again throughout the book. Now we turn to national geopolitics, regional and international issues, and an account of the South America-United States geopolitical relationship.



“[A] timely and significant contribution to the literature of international relations, history, geography, politics and economics of the region.”
The Americas


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