2023 South American Summit defies Western hegemony
The risks of overdependence on USD have prompted the likes of Argentina and Brazil – two of the region’s biggest countries – to expand their own bilateral outreach to high-performing economies in the Middle East and Asia.
On May 30, leaders of twelve South American countries descended on Brasilia for the first regional summit in nine years. The event featured a range of perspectives on overcoming political divisions and pathways for economic integration, especially at a time of heightened Western skepticism. In the lead-up to the gathering, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva openly called-out U.S. double standards on crisis resolution and the perils of unchecked dollar dominance. It is here that broad-based calls for non-interference, renewed focus on South America’s financial integration, and rival currency prospects signal defiance of Western hegemony.
Consider Brazil’s proposal for a regional trade currency to rival the US dollar. Nations have witnessed the weaponization of the dollar-driven trade system to target select regimes, such as Venezuela, while leaving South America to deal with the spillovers of illegal sanctions. Development assistance from Washington and Western allies has also been dwindling in recent years, putting the spotlight on the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) bloc to focus scrutiny inwards and prioritize group talks on alternative currency use.
Many of the leaders in attendance have also walked a tightrope on the Ukraine war, having observed the West’s exploitation of the dollar-driven financial system to score geopolitical gains against Moscow. The risks of overdependence have prompted the likes of Argentina and Brazil – two of the region’s biggest countries – to expand their own bilateral outreach to high-performing economies in the Middle East and Asia. At the same time, they wish to claim a stake in alternative currency talks under BRICS. This week’s South American Summit signified an opportunity to attract that momentum to the region’s own future advantage, principally by filling a trade vacuum left unattended by the West. In Lula’s own words, the goal is to “strengthen the South American identity in monetary policy, through better compensation mechanisms and the creation of a shared unit of transaction for trading” in a bid to offset external dependence.
Continued efforts by the Biden administration to treat South America as a battleground for geopolitical influence, most recently with China, will only validate concerns about trade self-sufficiency and accelerate the revival of the 12-member regional bloc.
The Brasilia summit is also noteworthy for its appeal to intra-regional peacebuilding. Simmering disputes over bloc leadership challenged the fortunes of UNASUR, which was established in 2008 with the specific goal of countering foreign influence and intervention. That leadership gap appears to have narrowed as nearly all 12 countries committed their top representation to the summit. Moreover, bloc members were reminded of key distinctions that put them at odds with the West: it is a region of peace, lacks destructive weaponry, and has a history of resolving disputes through diplomatic channels.
UNASUR’s potential revival can also enable the region to rise beyond more controversial “peace” offerings from Washington, such as the so-called Summit of the Americas. For instance, last year’s event in Los Angeles drilled a hole in South American unity as Washington barred the presidents of three countries from attending, prompting Chilean President Gabriel Boric to call it out as a clear “mistake.” More importantly, the U.S.-led summit wrongfully confined South America’s rich regional projection to an ideological binary between authoritarianism and what the West approves as democracy.
Make no mistake. The Brasilia summit refuses to put shared regional priorities on the back burner for long. It reflects in the potential to address the contours of effective intra-regional trade integration on the continent’s own terms, and a conscious effort to improve economic cooperation and climate offerings regardless of regime complexes. The summit’s collective consensus on committing to human rights, sustainable development, and social justice signals principled pushback against loud U.S. declarations of the past, such as a so-called international rules-based order that is imposed upon will.
The allure of Western investments in South America’s economic and political future is also fading fast. In a sign of exercised autonomy, the region is looking beyond the West to strike around $700 billion in trade with China by 2035. Many Latin American nations have also grown increasingly frustrated with the West because of unmet debt burden imperatives. Add to it Washington’s outsized focus on democratic dictates in the region, and it is clear that the rift between ideology and economy is forcing South America to rethink its priorities. That includes a stated focus on supporting the region’s energy transition, eliminating market and trade barriers sustained by the West, and ensuring that South America’s free trade imperatives are given due respect.
“There are presidents with diverse visions,” said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro after the summit. "We have no problem sitting down to talk with any political force or president in a respectful, tolerant dialogue of unity in diversity, that is what we had here [at the Summit].”
About a decade ago, it would’ve been virtually unthinkable to pull together distinct Latin American economies and regimes to vouch for their collective future. But given the West’s transactional diplomacy and cold indifference towards the region, South America is waking up to its own reality.