How to make sense of 21st century regionalism in Latin America, by Gian Luca Gardini

In the last ten years, four brand new projects of regional and sub-regional integration were launched in Latin America: ALBA, UNASUR, CELAC and the Pacific Alliance. These did not replace existing schemes but added to the already abundant offer of regionalisms in the region. In this article, Gian Luca Gardini, Professor of International Relations at Friedrich Alexander University in Nuremberg – Germany, addresses three fundamental questions: First, is it possible to find a coherent and comprehensive explanation for this surge of regional projects in Latin America? Second, how to capture and characterise the current multi-faceted situation that encompasses efforts from different historical phases and ideological positions? Third, how to make this complexity work?

The academic literature has coined a number of labels: post-neoliberal regionalism, to stress the overcome of open regionalism; post-hegemonic, focusing the enfranchisement from the US; third generation, pointing to increased international presence and networks; spaghetti bowl, highlighting the growing intricacy and juxtaposition; rhetorical regionalism, targeting the gap between political narrative and reality , and the peak of regionalism, stressing the preference for cooperation over integration. All these approaches provide for credible explanations of the current situation but they all fall short of a characterisation that fully captures the overall direction and historical moment of regionalism in Latin America. Also, their prescriptive and policy-oriented dimension is at best loose.

Professor Gardini makes a case for modular regionalism. This is not limited to the explanation of one or more schemes but defines a comprehensive trajectory, a mood, by the same token as open or closed regionalism defined the Sixties and the Nineties respectively. By its own nature, modular regionalism is based on modules. That is to say that the architecture of Latin American regionalism is structured in different projects (modules) competing for members; the latter can choose which module(s) to join depending on the issue, time and opportunity. The decision depends on both national and international factors and allows for multiple memberships and non-exclusiveness of alliances and interests. As a major asset, modular regionalism offers a number of policy recommendations to make complexity work: Highly specific modules with regard to substance and scope; ad hoc secretariat and coordination mechanisms; creative approach to problem-solving; need for leadership; special differential treatment; and transfer of concessional development assistance.

Regionalism in Latin America has not produced a region but many regions. The new wave of Latin American regionalism in the 21st century is a wave of cooperation, not integration, Professor Gardini argues.  This is why so many diverse projects can coexist. The idea of modular regionalism explains the coexistence and proliferation of cooperation, which reflects the diversity of interests and visions in the continent. Perhaps it may also offer a framework for analysis of regionalism in other regions of the world.


Gian Luca Gardini, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Nuremberg, Germany (

Read this article:

GARDINI, Gian Luca. Towards modular regionalism: the proliferation of Latin American cooperation. Rev. bras. polít. int. [online]. 2015, vol.58, n.1 [cited  2015-10-02], pp. 210-229 . Available from: <>. ISSN 1983-3121.

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