The uncertain future of multilateralism in South America


Multilateral governance has been the subject of much scrutiny in recent years. While its efficacy is being put to test in Europe, South America is also having its fair share of disillusion with supranational frameworks for cooperation. Recent political shifts on the continent are undermining a number of processes geared towards regional integration in past decades.


South America has long been considered a fertile ground for regional integration due to the absence of strong contemporary rivalry between its biggest nations and the predominance of the Spanish language with its relative linguistic interchangeability with the Portuguese language. These factors all positively contribute to successful multilateral dialogues and societal interactions.


Institutional frameworks have successfully established platforms to promote a more integrated model of regional cooperation through organisations such as the Common Southern Market (Mercosur) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN). The former incorporates the two biggest nations in South America, Brazil and Argentina, in addition to Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. The Andean Community is comprised of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with Bolivia as a former member now associated with Mercosur.


Former members of CAN also include Chile and Venezuela, the latter also being a former member of Mercosur until its suspension in 2017. Both these organisations are usually classified as customs unions and are nearly entirely dedicated to facilitating economic ties between its members and neighbouring nations.


The more idealistic Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was established in 2008 to serve as a forum for multilateral debate on a wider range of political affairs including public health, infrastructure, social development and even defence. All sovereign nations on the continent joined UNASUR, marking an unprecedented achievement towards regional integration. However, UNASUR’s seems uncertain. 


UNASUR has long been the maligned subject of domestic political debates in all of its founding member-states. More recently, political shifts have compromised the union seemingly beyond repair. 


Leading this retrenchment is Brazil, a nation that, ironically, is usually credited as the most actively engaged in its creation. With the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has been signalled the start of a foreign policy far more focused on bilateral cooperation as opposed to its previous focus on multilateral initiatives. Although many of the recent developments undermining the UNASUR can be attributed to Bolsonaro’s desire to vanquish the organisation, disenchantment with UNASUR far predates his election. 


The crisis reached its peak in 2018 after a series of discussions relating mostly to Venezuela’s deteriorating situation, prompting fervorous debates in the South American Parliament that led to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru suspending their participation in the bloc. Soon after, Colombia formally announced it was to permanently leave the organisation, shortly followed by Argentina, Brazil, Chile and then Ecuador.


As a substitute for UNASUR, a new project has been proposed, the Forum for the Progress and Development of South America (Prosul), brought forward by the presidents of Chile and Colombia. The first meeting of this new initiative was held in Santiago in March, where the heads-of-state and diplomatic representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay and Peru signed a declaration supporting its creation. Representatives from Bolivia, Suriname and Uruguay were also present but solely as observers. The only uninvited nation was Venezuela.


This curious proposal raises some inconsistencies in the narrative surrounding the dismantling of UNASUR. The most common criticism towards the organisation is that it is too ideologically oriented, an argument usually associated with the fact that it was developed amid the so-called ‘pink-wave’, where the majority of South America’s governments were under progressive administrations. Two decades later, many of the heads-of-state responsible for its creation have been impeached, are currently facing charges or are serving sentences on corruption charges. Most of these countries have now elected conservative candidates. 


Nonetheless, although Prosul is being hailed as a forum ‘free of ideologies’, the organisation is being promoted exclusively by politically aligned heads-of-state like its predecessor, suggesting that, once again, ideologies, political alignment and presidential diplomacy are playing a central role in the nature of the union.


The collapse of UNASUR marks a new period in South America’s regionalism, where institutions are likely to relegated to the sphere of economic and customs affairs. Many questions remain unanswered following this retrenchment. The only certainty is that UNASUR’s collapse will mark a historic moment in South America’s regional integration.


The failure is primed to become an example of the inefficiency of supranational organisations and likely be leveraged by groups elsewhere who seek to undermine other similar regional initiatives.


Arthur Mac Dowell is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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