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Differentiation Theory and the Ontologies of Regionalism in Latin America – an interview with Jochen Kleinschmidt & Pablo Gallego Pérez, by Guilherme Frizzera

Since the 1960s, Latin America has been characterized as a region with several organizations focused on regional integration. Notwithstanding, this characteristic shows that, when compared to the process of European integration, Latin America lags behind issues such as supranationalism and institutionalism. These two concepts are central to the neo-functionalism, commonly used in research on regional integration. If Latin American regional integration has a low degree of supranationalism and institutionalization, why do regional organizations carry a considerable weight in political debates and are highly politicized?

To answer this question, professors Jochen Kleinschmidt, Universidad del Rosario/Colombia, and Pablo Gallego Pérez, Universidad EAFIT/Colombia, propose an analysis from the sociological systems theory and the possible impacts for the future of regionalism in Latin America. Their article entitled Differentiation Theory and the Ontologies of Regionalism in Latin America was published in the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N. 1) of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional and the authors gave an interview to Guilherme Frizzera is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Brasilia and member of the editorial team of RBPI.

One of the criticisms of Latin American regionalism is the concentration of power in the hands of presidents. This characteristic has been present in the regional organizations since former presidents have been chosen to occupy positions of general secretariat or also the model of rotating presidency of the institutions. How much does a technical and internal bureaucracy in organizations impact on the low degree of supranationality or institutional deepening?

Pablo Gallego: Having former presidents take roles in international organizations such as UNASUR or OAS certainly creates some added visibility or prestige for those organizations. In the absence of structured technocratic bureaucracies in Latin American regional organizations, leadership by experienced political operators with large personal networks probably increases their relevance. Without an institutional power base, and considering the presidentialist tendencies of Latin American politics, it may enable them to become involved in multilateral discussions in ways that otherwise would be impossible. On the other hand, of course, those personalistic tendencies may inhibit the development of stronger, institutionalized, more transparent bureaucracies.

Jochen Kleinschmidt: The criticisms made of Latin American presidentialism, ejecutivismo, and related phenomena certainly have their points. Yet, we should not forget that other highly presidentialist systems, such as that of France, have been well able to participate in supranational integration projects. I would argue that the lack of powerful institutions is mainly the result of a lack of economic interdependence between Latin American countries, of a lack of mutual trust, at least in some cases, and perhaps of the absence of shared perceptions regarding security issues. With these factors, of course Latin American regionalism can at times become a playing field for presidents, and sometimes a springboard for their personal ambitions or ideological projects. As we discuss in our article, this is well explained by conventional theories on regionalism.

The lack of supranationality and institutional deepening of larger or classical organizations (eg: UNASUR, MERCOSUR and CAN) could be an induction factor for subregional projects (eg: Pacific Alliance, ALBA)?

Pablo Gallego: It’s a plausible hypothesis. We can draw a parallel to how failure of the Doha rounds in the World Trade Organization actually led several countries, including Latin American countries, to pursue regional trade agreements like FTAs or regional economic alliances like Pacific Alliance. The failure of a large structure like that WTO – and in our specific case, UNASUR or OAS – could lead countries to pursue their specific interests within smaller, potentially more efficient projects.

Jochen Kleinschmidt: Of course, the hypothesis implies that those smaller organizations should then display a momentum towards institutional deepening. This has not been the case so far. I think the cause for the emergence of smaller projects, such as the Pacific Alliance or ALBA, rather lies in their strong ideological convergence. As we argue in our article, instead of providing supranational structures to regulate economic and other forms of interdependence, Latin American regionalism has evolved into a platform for achieving transnational constitutional legitimation for different answers to the problem of societal inclusion. You could say that overall, Mercosur has pursued a more classical, protectionist modernization approach, ALBA a radical, anti-hegemonic model, and the Pacific Alliance an orthodox liberal one. These models obviously are highly politicized, and therefore tend to express themselves in politically more homogenous communities rather than in politically diverse structures such as UNASUR.

Organizations go beyond a place that facilitates communication and practices among its members. They also create norms and rules, generating both a process of socialization and embarrassment. The degree of internalization of these rules and regulations are low in Latin America or are different for each organization?

 Pablo Gallego: Many Latin American organizations, like the Pacific Alliance or ALBA, are not created to establish hard legal rules. Rather, they propose a general normative outline of how progress might be achieved and then take tentative steps to work in the desired direction, which are generally organized in an intergovernmental fashion. The larger organizations, like CELAC or UNASUR, are generally designed as fora, not as rule-setting institutions. The irony is that Latin American countries, when dealing with the UN, for example, those same countries are often willing and able to internalize any decision made within a global setting. A similar dynamic can be observed when regional organizations organize transnational intra-elite cooperation, for example, within the judicial sector.

 Jochen Kleinschmidt: To take up that argument – the problem is not that Latin American countries are unwilling or incapable of following rules generated on an international level. It is rather that the specifically Latin American organizations tend not to follow that supranational, EU-type model. The expectation seems to be that member states – for example of Mercosur or the Pacific Alliance – should stay within the broad ideological parameters associated with that organization, and then behave in a basically cooperative fashion, but do so without necessarily following all the rules to the letter. I think we do see some indicators that when countries leave the general ideological consensus of an organization, their membership also becomes problematic in some way, if you consider the cases of Venezuela and Paraguay in Mercosur. The flirtations between Argentina and the Pacific Alliance after the election of Macri point in a similar direction. In general, we should, to some degree, expect a flexible geometry of regionalist projects, which will sometimes follow ideological currents within Latin American states.

The neo-functionalism provides a sufficiently adequate explanation for the project of European integration, but that would not be enough to explain regionalism in Latin America. How could Latin American regionalism contribute to a new theoretical and methodological perspective for regional integration literature?

Pablo Gallego: If anything, the Latin American case points toward a need to reconsider what states are looking for in regionalist projects. Its regional organizations differ from those of other regions in that they prioritize mutual legitimation over material interdependence. Critics might say that those efforts serve as “promotional ads” for politicians of each country to show their efforts, more so than actually using these groups for actually getting something done. However, as we argue in the article, some of the organization could serve a very real need for generating societal legitimation in countries that are undergoing rapid societal transformations.

Jochen Kleinschmidt: Already some time ago, authors like Amitav Acharya pointed to the need to understand the different regionalisms of the world on their own terms, and not as attempts simply to copy the European Union. I think our research underlines that need, and points to some real theoretical possibilities to conceptualize regionalisms that diverge from the neo-functionalist archetype. Moreover, as the European Union model as well as the traditional liberal ideas underlying FTAs such as NAFTA are losing their intellectual hegemony, I think there will be greater interest in alternative conceptualizations of how regions become meaningful in global politics. The Latin American case might be a poster child of this development precisely because of its rich history of regionalist projects that cannot be conceptualized in a neo-functionalist framework. And world society theory may provide a suitable theoretical setting for future research that goes beyond integrationism, and enables interesting cross-regional comparisons.

Read the article

Kleinschmidt, Jochen, & Gallego Pérez, Pablo. (2017). Differentiation theory and the ontologies of regionalism in Latin America. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e017. Epub October 23, 2017.

About the authors

Jochen Kleinschmidt – Universidad del Rosario,Facultad de Ciencias Políticas, Bogota, Colombia (;

Pablo Gallego Pérez – Universidad EAFIT, Departamento de Negocios Internacionales, Medellin, Colombia (;

Guilherme Frizzera is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Brasilia and member of the editorial team of RBPI.

How to cite this interview

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Differentiation Theory and the Ontologies of Regionalism in Latin America – an interview with Jochen Kleinschmidt & Pablo Gallego Pérez, by Guilherme Frizzera," in Revista Mundorama, 16/11/2017,

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