British Association for American Studies


Book Review: Cooperation and Hegemony in US-Latin American Relations: Revisiting the Western Hemisphere Idea edited by Juan Pablo Scarfi and Andrew R. Tillman

Scarfi, Juan Pablo and Tillman, Andrew R. (eds), Cooperation and Hegemony in US-Latin American Relations: Revisiting the Western Hemisphere Idea. Pp. 288. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.


The Western Hemisphere idea has never taken a hold upon scholars of United States-Latin American relations as much as it perhaps ought to have. Formulated by Thomas Jefferson in 1813 and given notable scholarly treatment by historian Arthur Whitaker in the 1950s, the Western Hemisphere idea posits that the peoples of the Western Hemisphere ‘stand in a special relationship to one another’, which in turn ‘sets them apart from the rest of the world.’ Whilst most obviously grounded in geographical terms, this concept is additionally applied to the political, social and cultural development of the nations of the Western Hemisphere, encompassing diverse expressions such as the Monroe Doctrine, the Drago Doctrine and Pan-Americanism.[1] It is this idea that lies at the heart of Cooperation and Hegemony and it is the ultimate aim of the editors, Juan Pablo Scarfi and Andrew R. Tillman, to bring the Western Hemisphere idea back into the forefront of scholarly inquiry. Whilst the Western Hemisphere idea was thought to have declined and faded into irrelevance in the years prior to the Second World War, the editors argue that it not only remained relevant throughout the Cold War period and beyond, but that it ought to be revived and utilised as a guiding framework for understanding the history of United States-Latin American relations.

For the editors, an overriding problem inherent in the historiography of United States-Latin American relations is that conflict and difference is highlighted more often than commonalities and cooperation. Whilst there has been an undeniable history of conflict between the United States and Latin American nations, Scarfi and Tillman argue that the nations of the Western Hemisphere do in fact share a common history to a significant degree, calling for scholars to reemphasise this overlooked aspect of inter-American relations. Ultimately, they propose that it is through the Western Hemisphere idea that scholars can best reconcile the tensions between a drive for United States regional hegemony on the one hand and inter-American cooperation on the other. The editors note, however, that three important issues must be considered for this approach to succeed. The first concerns the limitations of writing of a purely continental history. The Western Hemisphere idea needs to be considered in relation to global as well as hemispheric trends and the editors propose the necessity of opening ‘new routes of investigation for exploring how the idea of the Western Hemisphere has been also conceived and interpreted from a global perspective’ (7-8).

The second concerns the spatial dimensions of the Western Hemisphere, which has been most notably complicated by the manner in which United States foreign policy has divided the Americas into separate and distinct regions. Broadly speaking, United States policy toward the Caribbean and Central America has been dominated by interventionism, whereas policy toward South America has largely encompassed cooperation. If there are, in reality, multiple different Americas within the Western Hemisphere as this United States model suggests, then a continental approach to their history has to consider ‘the possibility of including entangling continental identities in which contending ideas of the Americas and hemispheric order and integration have been envisioned.’ Rather than destroying the basis of the Western Hemisphere idea, however, the editors posit that these ‘opposing visions and imaginaries’ are an essential component of it (10-12).

Finally, the editors argue that Latin American historiography and culture must play a more prominent role in the study of United States-Latin American relations. Whilst progress has undoubtedly been made in the field, Anglo-American scholarship has been shaped by a United States led vision of Pan-Americanism, which restricted traditional historiography and created an imbalance when an all-encompassing hemispheric scholarship was required (12-18). Scarfi and Tillman are confident that these shifts in historiography can be achieved, given recent work by scholars such as John H. Elliot, James Dunkerley, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Greg Grandin, and the essays within this volume certainly suggest that utilising the Western Hemisphere idea can achieve fruitful results.

Poster created by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s supporting the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy  Image Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2008678731/

Poster created by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s supporting the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy
Image Source: https://www.loc.gov/item/2008678731/

Following the introduction, the essays within Cooperation and Hegemony are divided into three sections, each of which includes two chapters. Part I focusses on methodological issues and Charles Jones begins by presenting a critique of the ways in which the discipline of international relations has been stunted by an obsession with European political culture, arguing that the Western Hemisphere idea ought to be used as a ‘laboratory’ for understanding ‘relations between highly asymmetric and culturally distinct political communities that have become characteristic of global international relations both between and within states’ (34-35). Tanya Harmer follows by examining recent trends in the historiography of United States-Latin American relations, echoing the concerns of the editors that scholars working in the field need to ‘engage seriously in exploring the concept of the Western Hemisphere from within and from beyond the Americans, but that we do so consciously together’ (90).

Part II explores the history of Pan-Americanism within the early twentieth century, with Mark Petersen focussing on Chile and Ricardo Salvatore on the United States. Petersen explains how the Pan-American movement was adopted in Chile to advance concerns over social policies, including health, women’s rights and alcoholism. Whilst Pan-Americanism was without question a tool for ensuring United States hegemony, Petersen provides evidence that it was simultaneously used as ‘a platform from which Latin American actors could contest hegemony and manipulate cooperation for a variety of purposes’ (112). Salvatore examines how Pan-Americanism as a United States led movement impacted upon the field of Latin American history within the United States.[2] Accustomed to the concept that the Western Hemisphere was divided into clearly identifiable regions, United States historians of the period used this framework to ‘organize a stylized narrative of events and processes in the history of Hispanic/Latin America.’ Histories of the region touted a ‘comparative dimension with the exemplar or exceptional trajectory of US history’, whilst Latin American historians specialised the histories of their own nations, developing a noticeable historiographical tension (159-160).

Part III examines the development of inter-American systems of human rights and international law. Scarfi outlines how United States and Latin American international lawyers engaged with Pan-Americanism and sought to develop common principles of hemispheric order and peace, overseeing the emergence of two ‘contradictory interpretive prisms, which epitomized the two contradictory faces of US foreign policy in the period: Pan-Americanism and interventionism’ (192-193). Par Engstrom rounds off the collection by tracing the relationship between the Inter-American Human Rights System and inter-American relations, explaining how the organisation has developed into a ‘transnational political space’ despite critiques that it merely acts as an extension of United States foreign policy (210).

The Western Hemisphere idea is an intriguing concept and I am certainly in favour of seeing it revived, particularly considering that the essays within Cooperation and Hegemony provide ample evidence of how it can alter our understandings of Untied States-Latin American relations. The emphasis given to what the editors perceive as the two major themes in United States-Latin American relations, hegemony and cooperation, is also warranted and I agree that reconciling these two issues is crucial to the history of inter-American relations. As far as faults go, I felt as though the absence of a reference to the relationship between Canada and the Western Hemisphere idea was one possible oversight, given that its position within the Western Hemisphere complicates perceptions of Pan-Americanism and the Monroe Doctrine in particular. At only six chapters, plus the introduction, this collection is far from all-encompassing, but if this collection is considered as a means through which to ignite interest in the subject matter, I believe it succeeds, providing a number of interesting blueprints that scholars might benefit from utilising in future research. Personally, my own thoughts lead me to wonder how the Western Hemisphere idea influenced the workings of inter-American organisations such as the Pan American Union and the Organization of American States, or how events such as the First World War impacted upon perceptions of hemispheric unity? If nothing else, revisiting the Western Hemisphere idea allows scholars to demonstrate how rich and complex the history of inter-American relations is.


[1] A. Whitaker, The Western Hemisphere Idea: Its Rise and Decline (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954), p. 1.

[2] This chapter provides an early glimpse into Salvatore’s upcoming book: R. Salvatore, Disciplinary Conquest: U.S. Scholars in South America, 1900-1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

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