Peripheral Solutions for Peripheral Problems, by Luis Leandro Schenoni

As a well-known IR scholar famously put it, theories are problem-solving devices. Theories are, in other words, simplifications of complex realities that serve the purposes of understanding and changing the world to satisfy our needs. However, in the world of politics, Latin American scholars have been – and continue to be – keen to solve their own problems with foreign theoretical tools, devised by others and for different problems. In the field of IR, two exceptions stand in stark contrast with this common practice: Dependency Theory and Peripheral Realism. While the merits and drawbacks of the former have been largely acknowledge and debated, those of the latter have started to evidence themselves more recently and require more scrutiny.

The article Peripheral Realism Revisitedpublished in the issue 1/2016 (Volume 59 – 2016) of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional presents a new evaluation of this approach to international issues produced in Latin America.

Peripheral Realism is based in two simple propositions. First, as Thucydides phrase goes, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” or, in other words, countries can do what their capabilities allow. Second, countries can do more than that only at the expense of citizen welfare – as the fate of the Melians demonstrate. Based in these two simple propositions, Peripheral Realists conclude that elite-centered or statesman-centered regimes could lead to foreign policies that are at odds with economic development and the wellbeing of the citizenry of particular countries. These regimes allow elites to impose on the common citizen the elevated costs of overlooking the constraints derived from power distribution in the international system. It is what happens when those at the top isolate decision making from the citizenry, or use nationalistic arguments to convince public opinion that it is appropriate to extract more resources for costly and audacious international endeavors. Indeed, no matter how alluring a nationalistic discourse may be, the fact remains that in a country with limited resources, a grand foreign policy will always be at the expense of its citizens. As Carlos Escudé, the forefather of Peripheral Realism, has put it, in extremis, total foreign policy autonomy equals absolute domestic tyranny.

Simple as it looks, this theory illuminates much of Latin American history since it was first published in the early 1990s. It successfully predicted that the higher the democratic institutionalization in second-tier Latin American countries – all but Brazil, which has a considerably different size – the more these countries would prioritize economic development – instead of autonomy – and bandwagon with the US in a unipolar world. In the long run – i.e. from 1990 to 2015 – Argentina was not the best example of a peripheral realist strategy. Carlos Escudé recommended neither radical bandwagoning strategies that endangered economic development – such as Menem’s excessive reliance on IMF loans and foreign debt while maintaining recessive monetary policies – nor gratuitous confrontations with the US – such as those in which the Kirchner Administrations were involved several times. Chavez’s Venezuela was decisively the worst example, developing a foreign policy that was mostly at odds with any realist interpretation of world politics, and which led to huge costs for its citizens.

On the contrary, Chile and Colombia enacted Peripheral Realist strategies: Maintained cooperative relations with the US to the extent that it was convenient for their economic development, but maximized their margin of maneuver vis-à-vis the hemispheric hegemon by signing FTAs with other partners around the world, keeping a considerable defense expenditure and, more recently, by orienting their foreign policy towards the Pacific. Chile and Colombia pursued this strategy consistently. Success followed. From 1990 to 2015, both countries increased their participation in world GDP, while the Argentine and Venezuelan decreased. Moreover, from a citizen-centric rationale, economic growth is not the only factor to be considered, and democratic institutions have also been comparatively stronger in Chile and Colombia than in Venezuela and Argentina. Summarizing, Escudé correctly predicted that citizen-centered regimes would be more prone to follow a coherent strategy. Chile and Colombia – when compared with Argentina and Venezuela – have displayed increasingly institutionalized domestic politics, evidenced in lower electoral volatility and the absence of presidential crises since the 1990 until our days.

However, the predictive merits of Peripheral Realism are overshadowed by its capacity to foresee the future of the “Central Realist” debate. After Carlos Escudé’s Realismo Periférico was published in 1992, realists all over the world have intensely debated the concept of the state as main unit of analysis, the preeminence of security in the definition of the national interest and the concept of anarchy as the ordering principle of the international system – all features put into question in that pioneering book. Introducing domestic considerations, deemphasizing security and grasping the hierarchical nature of certain bilateral relations, Escudé developed a realist theory that had a powerful impact in the IR scholarly debate, both at the core and the periphery of the world system.

To summarize, Peripheral Realism has arguably been the most important theoretical contribution of Latin American academia to IR Theory in the last three decades. Very few works, however, tried to summarize the strengths and weaknesses of it as a research program. As such, Peripheral Realism has not only pioneered the realist debate but also made it possible to prognosticate the evolution of Latin American foreign policies during the last decades, showing that it remains a powerful theoretical tool for interpreting the foreign policy of weaker states. As a research program, Peripheral Realism has also demonstrated long-lasting influence and the particular resilience that characterize useful and successful theories. This short article tries to encourage the testing of the empirical implications derived from this theory but, perhaps more broadly, the theorization of peripheral solutions for peripheral problems.

Read the article:

SCHENONI, Luis  and  ESCUDE, Carlos. Peripheral Realism Revisited. Rev. bras. polít. int. [online]. 2016, vol.59, n.1, e002.


Luis Schenoni – University of Notre Dame. Political Science Department, Notre Dame – IN, United States (

Carlos Escudé – Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas – CONICET, Buenos Aires – DF, Argentina (

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