Regional Peace in Latin America

Regional Peace in Latin America

Chiara Villani

Máster en Relaciones Internacionales

LUISS Guido Carli (Italia)

From the second half of the XIX century, some areas of the world have progressively and rapidly become peaceful. This trend is evident when considering Latin America. Indeed, between XIX and XX century only fourteen inter-state warsoccurred in this region: the Argentina-Brazil Cisplatine War (1825-1828), the Gran Colombia–Peru War (1828-1829), the War of the Confederation (1837-1839), the Peru-Bolivian War (1841-1842), the Platine War (1851-1852), the Ecuadorian-Colombian War, or War of the Cauca (1863), the War of the Triple Alliance or Lopez War (1864-1870), the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), the Second Central American War (1885), the Third Central American War (1906), the Fourth Central American War (1907), the Chaco war (1932-1935), the Soccer War or 100 Hour War (1969) and the Cenepa war (1995). Besides, there have been no wars in the region since 1995. This historical evidence leads to an additional observation: not only has Latin America been interested by few inter-state wars but it has also witnessed a decline in the frequency of inter-state conflicts between XIX and XXI century. Indeed, most of the wars have erupted during the XIX century, which unveils that Latin American states progressively started to establish peaceful relationships with their regional counterparts. These observations raise two questions: firstly, it is essential to analyze the underlying causes of the few inter-state wars erupted in Latin America. Secondly, it is worth to understand why this region has been interested by few wars and why the frequency of inter-state conflicts has progressively declined during the centuries.

Analyzing the causes of Latin American inter-state wars

In order to address the first issue, it is useful to take in consideration the main International Relations’ theories about war: the realistic balance-of-power approach, the geopolitical theories as well as Vasquez’s theory on territorial wars.

At the core of balance-of-power theories there is the idea that peace results from the balance of strength and capacities among states at regional or global level. In fact, when military capabilities are equally distributed, states are not strong enough to prevail over their counterparts. When a country starts to strengthen, the balance-of-power breaks thus creating a security dilemma. Thus, insecurity spreads between neighbour states that, feeling threatened, unite in a defensive coalition as to restore equilibrium in the international system.

Geopolitical theories are based on the idea that geographical variables such as the position, the dimensions and natural resources (i.e.: proximity to water) of a country influence its behaviour in the International System. In particular,Mahan emphasizes the role of proximity to water in determining the war-proneness of a state. Indeed, Mahan considers that wars result from inter-state rivalries for the control of seas, which is fundamental to establish commercial routes and increasing political power.

Vasquez’s theory mixes Geopolitics and Realism as to provide a complete explanation of the underlying causes of wars. The author highlights that inter-state conflicts usually arise between neighbour countries because of territorial issues. In particular, war is the consequence of the exacerbation of territorial disputes caused by border incoherence, territorial claims and identity questions. Since ancient times, land has been considered as a source of survival for the humankind since it provides the men with space to live in, food and natural resources. War is a social practice that was born in order to preserve and conquer territories as to grant men’s survival. Vasquez underlines that since conflicts arise from territorial disputes, Once boundaries are accepted, peace can reign”. Therefore, it is possible to eliminate inter-states wars by reconciling states’ claims.

Considering the motivations of the countries involved in Latin American inter-state wars, their strategic interests and the historical and political context in which the wars occurred, all Latin American conflicts appear to be external balancing operations aimed at preventing a country from altering the regional balance-of power. This is the case of the War of the Confederation (1837-1839) and the Peru-Bolivian War (1841-1842), both caused by territorial claims and by an ill-concealed Peruvian attempt to increase its political influence at regional level, thus spreading insecurity and threatening the status quo. Similarly, the Platine war (1851-1852) resulted from the exacerbation of a territorial dispute on the cisplatine region, an important area from a strategic and economic perspective. Likewise, the Ecuadorian-Colombian War (or War of the Cauca, 1863) was caused by Cipriano de Mosquera’s attempt to restore Gran Colombia, thus breaking the regional equilibrium. Finally, the Second (1885) and the Third Central American War (1906) were the consequence of a number of military interventions aimed at unifying Central American states, which would have altered the regional balance-of-power.

The Geopolitical approach further provides tools to analyse inter-state wars in Latin America, highlighting that geography can influence states’ attitudes. Mahan’s theory is particularly suited to explain the underlying causes of Latin American inter-state conflicts. Indeed, considering the history of this region, most of the wars erupted for the control of water resources such as rivers, lakes and seas. This was the case of the Argentina-Brazil Cisplatine War (1825-1828) and the Platin war (1851-1852), both resulting from a dispute concerning the control of the Río de la Plata basin; the War of the Triple Alliance (or Lopez War, 1864-1870), emerging from a rivalry between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil on the control of the Paraná river; the Chaco war (1932-1935) caused by Bolivian efforts for controlling the Paraguay river; the Cenepa war (1995), resulting from the exacerbation of a territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru following the discovery of Cenepa river in the contended area.

These historical evidences further corroborate Vasquez’s theory on the territorial causes of war. Considering Latin America, it is undeniable that territorial disputes have influenced the war-proneness of countries in the region. Indeed, most of the Latin American inter-state wars resulted from the exacerbation of territorial disputes for the control of strategic areas, relevant both for the economy and identity of countries in the region.


Why is there peace in Latin America?

In order to address the second question, namely why Latin America has been interested by few wars and why there has been a gradual decline in their frequency, it is useful to consider the main theories of peace. These can be classified in two groups depending on whether these explanations identify democracy or other elements as underlying causes of peace.

The first group is composed by the Democratic Peace theories, which, as their name suggests, link regional peace to the presence of democratic institutions, values and rules. Focusing on the role of democracy in fostering peace, Democratic peace theories are useful to explain regional peace in Latin America from 1980 but cannot clarify why there have been few wars in the area even before the democratization process had started. Indeed, a gradual decline in the frequency of inter-state wars in the region has been registered since the end of the XIX century. Therefore, Democratic Peace theories are not suited to explain regional peace in Latin America before 1980.

The second group of theories explains regional peace by focusing on a variety of variables. The first theory belonging to this approach is from Deudney. Even though this author links regional peace to the presence of Republics (which indeed present the same characteristics of democracies), thus making his theory not suitable to explain the Latin American peace before 1980, it is still worth to consider his explanation since it also focuses on the role of geographic variables and the balance-of-power in peace maintenance. In particular, Deudney highlights that the presence of balance-of-power fosters security and peace, thus decreasing the frequency of inter-state wars. Considering Latin America, evidences show that, since its Independence, this region has been characterized by the presence of a strong balance-of-power inasmuch as all the countries of the area had equal military and economic capacity and, even if unbalances in terms of capacities existed, these were not enough strong to give birth to hegemonies.

A second theory belonging to this family is from Gibler. As Vasquez, Gibler links the presence of peace with the appeasement of territorial disputes. Indeed, peace can only be ensured when inter-state rivalries ends and countries accept the clear demarcation of common borders. This creates peaceful relationships between former rivals thus fostering an internal process of demilitarization. Reducing military power and allocating economic resources towards other objectives (i.e.: national development) have a great impact on national economic growth: indeed, positive effects resulting from the elimination of territorial threat and the allocation of economic resources combine, ultimately fostering economic growth in the former rival countries. Economic growth influences states’ social structure, thus originating a middle class whose presence usually foster democratization. Therefore, according to Gibler, democracy is not the ultimate cause of regional peace. On the opposite, peace results from the elimination of territorial disputes and the stabilization of borders and it helps spread and consolidate democratic institutions. Even though this theory is useful to explain Latin American regional peace before the democratization, his author does not clarify the reasons that push countries to solve territorial disputes.

A third group of theories belonging to this family considers peace as a cultural phenomenon. According to this approach, cultural homogeneity helps peaceful relationships among states belonging to the same civilization. This approach can be easily applied to Latin American regional peace. Indeed, people in the region share languages and traditions since they result from the fusion of local inhabitants with the European and African civilizations. Besides, Latin American people share a common history and destiny since they united to fight against colonialism and achieve their independence. In the aftermath of the Independence, Latin American people started to feel they belonged to a single wide cultural entity. In many cases, this fostered political movements aimed at transforming this cultural entity into a well-structured and institutionalized unified state. These circumstances have fostered brotherhood between Latin American people and made the states in that region less prone to use violence in relationships with their neighbour.

The last theory belonging to the second group is from Miller. According to the author, peace is determined by the presence of high level of state-to-nation balance at regional level. This means that in the considered area there is a high degree of coherence between territorial partition of a region and national aspirations of people living in those areas. Miller considers that regional war-proneness is determined by the combination of two elements: the strength (or weakness) of states and the degree of coherence between political and national borders within the considered area. In particular, the author highlights that peace results from the presence of state-to-nation balance, which hinges on two conditions: complete coherence between political and national borders (state-to-nation coherence) and presence of strong states within the considered area. As far as the first condition is concerned, high levels of state-to-nation coherence are ensured when the political framework and the administrative institutions governing a certain territory reflect national aspirations of the people living in that area. State-to-nation coherence derives from the resolution of territorial disputes and, above all, the elimination of nationalist territorial claims. Therefore, when high levels of state-to-nation coherence are present there is a strong identification between people living in a certain area and the institutions that govern the same area, which enhances the legitimacy of existing borders thus helping maintain regional status quo. With regard to the second condition that fosters peace, the strength and weakness of states is measured taking into account the efficiency of their institutions as well as their economic and military capacities. Strong states have the legitimate monopoly over the means of violence within their territories, rely on efficient institutions and are supported by strong economies. According to Miller, peace results from the simultaneous presence of strong and coherent states characterized by a well-defined territorial identity, a strong capacity to control revisionist movements and a deep engagement in maintaining regional status quo.

Considering regional peace in Latin America, the first condition, namely state-to-nation coherence, has been present since the Independence and it resulted from the interaction of two elements: the rise of nationalist movements and theuti possidetis principle. Nationalism spread in the early 1800s, when the colonies began to show the first signs of weariness with regards to foreign domination and, by the end of the century, anti-colonial sentiments lead to independence of Latin America. At local level, nationalism helped state-to-nation coherence since people easily identified with the new states born from the Independence wars. These last maintained the territorial conformation of the former colonial administrative areas (Spanish viceroyalties and Portuguese dominions) since their borders were traced applying the uti possidetis principle. At regional level, nationalism fostered brotherhood among Latin American people highlighting that they shared the same history and ancestry since they were the result of the combination of Indigenous, European and African people. During Colonialism, Latin American people began to acquire their own national identity and to claim their right to self-determination thus rejecting the colonialist administrative institutions. Even though nationalism spread everywhere in Latin America, it did not lead to the unification of the region under a single political entity. This was due to the absence of a powerful country able to establish its hegemony and to control effectively a unified territory in the region. Post-colonialist Latin America was characterized by the lack of a strong central power and deep-routed localism. Indeed, caudillos, upper-class families and rich landowners competed for the power and developed sub-national institutions in their areas of influence at local level. Localism slowed down the creation of strong institutional framework at all level, which hindered state-building processes thus giving birth to weak states. Herein lies the paradox: Miller’s regional peace hinges on the simultaneous presence of state-to-nation coherenceand strong states. While state-to-nation coherence has characterized Latin America since its Independence, the second condition has not been present until the democratization began in the early ‘80s.

Regional peace in Latin America: a multifaceted explanation

The above-mentioned theories do not provide a complete explanation of regional peace in Latin America. Indeed, each one of them links this phenomenon to a single key element (alternatively the presence of democracies, the absence of territorial disputes, etc.) and forgets to take into account other relevant variables. Therefore, in order to elaborate an exhaustive and multifaceted explanation of regional peace in Latin America it is essential to recompose the puzzle, combining the above-mentioned theories and their main intuitions. To this purpose, it is useful to reiterate that not only has Latin America been interested by few inter-state wars but it has also witnessed a decline in the frequency of these wars between the XIX and the XXI century.

Up until now it has been proved that the few Latin American inter-state wars resulted from the exacerbation of territorial disputes originating from nationalist, economic and political interests. Besides, it has been showed that Miller’s state-to-nation coherence has helped states establish peaceful relationships with their neighbour in the region. However, opposite to Miller’s fundamental conditions for peace, Latin America lacked strong states until the democratization process. This paradox can be easily addressed considering that another key element caused low levels of war-proneness in the region, namely the absence of external threats. Not only did internal weakness of institutions hinder the creation of strong states in the region, but it also caused absence of external threats since all countries had similar military and economic capacities in terms of aggregated power. Indeed, military powers was almost equally distributed within the region and, at the same time, since their Independence Latin American countries showed reluctance in using violence against their neighbour due to their common lineage and history as well as to the presence of legitimate borders. Besides, countries in the region shared low demographic levels, insufficient industrialization and poor quality technologies. The absence of a state that could prevail on the others in terms of capacities and power granted the balance-of-power at regional level. Further, equal distribution of capacities across the region and the presence of weak states led Latin American countries to consider their neighbour as pacific, thus diffusing the perception of absence of external threats.

To address the second question, namely what caused the decline in the frequency of wars in Latin America, it is essential to understand why countries began progressively to resort to peaceful settlement of territorial disputes instead of fighting wars with their neighbour. The key to solve this puzzle lays in the internal and external weakness that has been characterized Latin American states since their Independence. Weak states are countries that lack control over the means of violence in their territory, have inefficient institutions and lack resources to carry out their basic tasks, as for example ensuring protection to their citizens. Centeno considers that Latin American countries’ weakness due to three circumstances: the absence of an elite able to guide its country in the process of state-building after the Independence; the absence of an efficient fiscal system able to better distribute economic resources as to grant growth and development; and the absence of a strong central power that could prevail over localism and centrifugal forces. According to Tilly’s bellicist theory, the presence of these elements is essential to enable war to trigger state-buildingprocesses that lead to the creation of strong countries. The absence of these conditions in Latin America, brought to the creation of weak states. Besides, together with the widespread general satisfaction on border issues, this led to absence of external threat. These circumstances explain why there have been few wars in Latin America and why those few wars that were fought did not bring to the creation of strong states as Tilly’s theory suggests.

At the core of countries’ weakness were a deep-routed localism, a strong presence of military at the power, and fragile institutions. Indeed, after the decolonization, Latin American countries lacked strong elites that could guide the new-born countries through an effective process of state-building. Even before the Independence, political power was decentralized and held by caudillos and rich landowners. The Independence wars did not eliminate this structure: indeed, the aim of the revolutions was not to free Latin American people from caudillos’ power but to free the whole region from European domination. Therefore, localism survived and hindered the creation of modern state structures. At the same time, Latin American countries raised concerns on the lack of a strong central power that could grant national security and regional stability after the wars of Independence. In particular, there was a strong need for a ruling class that could concentrate political power in its hands as to prevent any attempts of secession that could mine regional stability. These circumstances facilitated the rise of military regimes in the region. Indeed, militaries were the unique actors able to monopolize the means of violence and to take the power. Military-led governments exploited political power in order to enrich, to gain personal advantages and to satisfy interests of their supporters (i.e.: upper-classes and landowners), thus spreading clientelism and hindering the creation of effective institutions. Since they hinged on elites support, military government were intrinsically weak. Indeed, leaders’ legitimacy was tightly linked to the capacity of the military government to satisfy elites’ requests. Together with the absence of institutional mechanism that could regulate succession to power, this condition undermined internal stability, fuelling persistent political fights, the overthrow of military regimes, uprisings and civil wars.

While countries’ weakness fostered internal instability from a domestic point of view, at regional level it helped states maintain peaceful relationships. Indeed, Latin American states concentrated all their efforts in achieving internal stability, which made them concretely unable to face or produce any external threat at regional level. Therefore, internal instability has facilitated peaceful settlement of disputes and peace maintenance even before the democratization. Obviously, after the rise of Latin American democratic governments, regional peace strengthened and improved in terms of quality. Indeed, it evolved from mere absence of war (cold peace) to security community (hot peace) thanks to the spread of democratic institutions, values and norms, which improved mutual trust among Latin American countries. Even though territorial disputes continued to emerge, democratization avoided the exacerbation of inter-state rivalries, thus preventing the outbreak of conflicts. The consolidation of democracy, and in particular the diffusion of principles such as accountability and responsibility, further stabilized the region. By linking political power to public consent, these mechanisms pushed the leaders to take in consideration citizens’ will in policy-making processes. Since war was onerous for the citizens in terms of lives and resources, political leaders started to pledge to not resort to arms and to resolve their rivalries through peaceful and diplomatic means in order to gain the consent of their citizens. Nowadays, Latin America appears to be one of the most peaceful areas of the world inasmuch as main territorial disputes have been settled (or are on the verge of being solved) through negotiation, dialogue and international arbitration.


The above-mentioned explanation of regional peace in Latin America results from the fusion of a number of theories of peace and war. Combining these approaches within a common theoretical framework is essential to provide an exhaustive explanation of such a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Indeed, since regional peace derives from the interaction of a number of elements both at domestic and regional level, this issue cannot be addressed through monocausal explanations. Indeed, all the above-mentioned peace and war theories are suited to explain just a single aspect of regional peace in Latin America. This observation allows for further consideration. Firstly, democracy is not the underlying cause of regional peace, even though it is a key element in strengthening this phenomenon. Secondly, it has been proved that non-democratic states can generate and maintain regional peace, even though as mere absence of war. Solving this puzzle has certainly helped pinpoint the main causes of regional peace but it has also highlighted that peace and war theories are not irreconcilable. Indeed, they are complementary since they can coexist within a common theoretical framework, providing a complete, multi-causal and exhaustive explanation to regional peace in Latin American.

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(*) This article was also published at “A Different View”, blog of the International Political Science Students Association. You can see it here:

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