On March 27-28, 2009, the Progressive Leaders’ Summit took place in Viña del Mar, a resort on the Chilean coast, some 75 miles from Santiago. Hosted by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, it brought together British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, Spanish PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Norwegian PM Jens Stoltenberg, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentine President Cristina Fernández, and Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez. The purpose of the summit was to engage in some “brainstorming” on the global financial crisis, ahead of the April 2 G-20 in London, to be attended by four of these leaders, and to be hosted by Brown himself.

This was the first time the Progressive Summits, an initiative launched by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the late nineties, were held outside Europe. It was also the first official visit by a British Prime Minister to Latin America and the first visit to the region by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden.[i]

The location of the meeting underscores the degree to which the days of European and North American leaders meeting among themselves in their own part of the world to make decisions about the course of international affairs have become a matter of the past. Some gestures towards the realities of the new century are warranted, and the ideas and proposals of emerging powers in the Global South merit some consideration.

Yet, the choice of Chile as the location for such a meeting is puzzling. Chile is not a member of the G-20, like Argentina and Brazil are, and both in territory and population is much smaller than quite a number of other Latin American nations. This summit was only one expression of the many ways Chilean foreign policy and its diplomatic initiatives have managed to put it in a privileged position in world affairs, “punching far above its weight,” as the expression has it.

In one month, from March 17 to April 19, President Michelle Bachelet undertook a five-day state visit to India, hosted the above mentioned summit in Viña del Mar, attended the Arab-Latin American summit in Doha, made a three-day state visit to Russia, and participated in the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain.

The notion that any Latin American president would conduct such a whirlwind program — spanning three continents in four weeks, meeting close to seventy heads of state and government, more than a third of those holding office — would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. And these visits are not just to show the flag. They express the opening of Latin American economies, the globalization of Latin American societies and expanded interaction of Latin American nations with the broader world.

More importantly, for the purposes of this article, they show the degree to which a relatively small country at the end of the world, like Chile, has managed to overcome such structural determinants as size and geographic location (one is reminded of Henry Kissinger’s mocking comment, “Chile is a dagger pointing straight at the heart of Antarctica”) and become, for all intents and purposes, one of the region’s leading middle powers, with an impact that often reaches far beyond the confines of the region.

Traditionally, the Latin American middle powers were identified as Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, with everybody else in a second or third tier. Lately, the emergence of Brazil as a power to be reckoned with in international affairs, something that has happened only during the past 15 years, under presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), has put Brazil in a different category. This in itself is an object lesson in international affairs: The reason Brazil made the jump from just another Latin American middle power to a different category is not structural — its growth has been rather low in this period, and so has been its defense spending. Rather, it has to do with a different way of approaching its international environment, embracing ambitious foreign policy projects and reaching out to Africa and Asia.

With Brazil carving a singular path, this leaves us with Argentina and Mexico on the one hand, and with Venezuela and Chile on the other.

There is a definitional problem in dealing with middle powers. Some prefer a structural approach that relies on GDP, military might, landmass and population size. Others emphasize behavioral traits — that is, whether we find the diplomatic conduct traditionally associated with middle powers, in areas such as international activism, commitment to multilateralism and the rule of international law, as well as coalition building and log-rolling on issues of common interest.

My own view is somewhere in between. To sort out which states might qualify for middle power status, one first needs a structural approach that separates middle powers from those that clearly are not and will not become one. Having done that, the real question becomes whether the powers so identified actually behave as middle powers, which is by no means a given.[ii]

A story related to the protracted 2005 election for Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) illustrates this point. The election was so close — with Mexican foreign minister Luis Derbez, and Chilean home minister José Miguel Insulza tied with 17 votes each — that five consecutive votes were held. The election was eventually postponed, and resolved only in a subsequent meeting in Santiago, with the withdrawal of Derbez and the election of Insulza, the current incumbent.

One of the ironies of this election was that the Caribbean largely sided with Chile. This is odd, since Mexico itself is a Caribbean nation and Chile is not only much smaller, but about as far as one can get from the Caribbean without actually reaching Antarctica. As a former high-ranking Mexican official told me shortly thereafter: “What made the difference is that Mexico is a regional power that does not behave as one, whereas Chile is not a regional power that does behave as if it were one.” It was a brilliant insight that tells us much about the conduct of foreign affairs.

Unlike Brazil, Chile does not have the size to aspire to join the P-5 at the United Nations Security Council; unlike Argentina, it has not even been invited to join the G-20; unlike Mexico, it is not considered to be part of BRICSAM[iii], the acronym of choice for the newly emerging powers. But over the past nineteen years, ever since its return to democracy after the tragic years of Pinochet’s military rule, it has carved for itself a unique niche in the international system.

In these years, it has been elected twice, in 1996-1997 and again in 2002-2003, to be a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, although according to the rotation system, its turn should only come once every seventeen years; a Chilean has thrice been elected the director-general of the International Labor Organization (ILO), one of the UN’s largest agencies, in 1998, 2003 and in 2008; a Chilean has been elected the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2005; Michelle Bachelet is the founding, pro-tempore chair of UNASUR[iv], the South American community of nations; in 2008, Chile had, for the first time, a Special Representative for the United Nations Secretary-General at a UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti in 2004-2006. It is also the country that has signed the largest number of Free Trade Agreements — some 54, as of the last count, a key element for Chile’s export-led development.

It was Rafael Bielsa, Argentina’s foreign minister at the time, who coined the term “Chile’s conceptual leadership,” by which he meant Chile’s ability to articulate key issues in international affairs and put them on the agenda.

To some extent, this has been made possible by the success of Chile’s peaceful transition to democracy and its fast clip of economic growth. In recent years, Chile has had the highest rate of growth of any country outside Asia. This has led the Financial Times to comment that Chile should be considered an example not just for Latin America, but also for Europe — as can be seen in the cartoon below — which shows Chilean Finance Minister Andrés Velasco teaching a class to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

All this, however, is not enough. An accurate diagnosis of the current international system, and a robust but realistic sense of the role that one’s country can play in it, is also needed. Then, the necessary diplomatic follow-up and allocation of resources is needed. Over the past twenty years, with the continuity provided by the same ruling coalition, the Concertación de partidos por la democracia, that has elected four presidents in a row, this is exactly what has happened[v].

It is interesting that, as Raúl Bernal-Meza has pointed out in a fascinating book on International Relations theory in Latin America, Chile has lagged behind its neighbors in contributing to the development of scholarly theory and systematic thinking about the region’s place in the world.[vi] Instead, academic specialists in international relations have been drawn into government, and especially into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — not just as advisers or speechwriters but, crucially, as Ministers and Deputy Ministers.[vii]

The net result has been a diplomatic service “front-loaded” with IR specialists. The service has been able to articulate a foreign policy discourse that is closely attuned to the needs of a rapidly changing environment, and has often been able to make the most of the opportunities offered by that environment.

Revealingly, Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have a Public Diplomacy unit, and its budget for exercises in “country image” is limited. The Ministry itself also faces severe budgetary constraints, and is tied down by all sorts of self-imposed, legal obstacles that do not make it easy to contend with a rapidly changing environment and to compete with the much better endowed Ministries of several neighboring countries[viii].

Yet, Chile, which is often singled out as one of the countries in the Global South that has been most successful at navigating the treacherous waters of globalization, has managed to do so by pursuing quite single-mindedly a “diplomacy-for-development” approach. In it, international trade policy has been backed up by diplomatic “charm offensives” in key markets around the world.[ix] This has gone hand in hand with a clear sense of the principles and values that have historically inspired Chilean foreign policy: the rule of international law, a commitment to multilateralism and the principle of non-intervention, as well as to democracy and human rights.

The rise of Chile from its condition of international pariah during the Pinochet era, to one of Latin America’s key middle powers — seen as an “honest broker” by North and South, East and West, in less than two decades — is a remarkable case of the power of ideas and their impact on the relative standing of nations in the international system. Conceptual leadership in foreign policy and in diplomatic theory and practice is here to stay.

Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. He has served as Chile’s ambassador to South Africa (1994-1999) and to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (2003-2007) and is Vice -President of the International Political Science Association (IPSA).


[i] For an earlier discussion of the significance of the Progressive Leaders’ Summit in Viña del Mar, see Jorge Heine “Los árboles no dejan ver el nuevo orden”, Foro 21 (Santiago), 9: 84 (April 2009), pp.13-16.

[ii] For a broader discussion of Chilean foreign policy and its use of “soft power” to position itself as a middle power in international affairs, see Jorge Heine “Between a rock and a hard place: Latin America and multilateralism after 9/11”, in Ramesh Thakur, Edward Newman and John Tirman (eds.) Multilateralism under  Challenge? Power, International Order and Structural Change (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2006), pp. 481-503.

[iii] The BRICSAM countries are Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico.

[iv] The Union of South American Nations/Unión de Naciones Suramericanas

[v] These presidents have been Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) and Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010).

[vi] See Raúl Bernal-Meza, América Latina en el mundo: El pensamiento latinoamericano y la teoría de las relaciones internacionales. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 2005, pp.286-294.

[vii] Of the seven individuals who have occupied the position of  Minister of Foreign Affairs of Chile since 1990 (Enrique Silva Cimma, 1990-1994; Carlos Figueroa, 1994; José Miguel Insulza 1994-1999; Juan Gabriel Valdés ,1999-2000; Soledad Alvear 2000-2004; Ignacio Walker ,2004-2006; Alejandro Foxley, 2006-2009; and Mariano Fernández (2009-), three are political scientists : Insulza (MA, U. of Michigan), Valdés (PhD, Princeton) and Walker (PhD, Princeton). Of the seven Deputy Ministers that have occupied the position, since 1990, three have been political scientists (Insulza, 1994; Heraldo Muñoz, 2000-2002; and Alberto van Klaveren (2006-).

[viii] For example, the number of embassies Chile is fixed by law. The opening of any new mission has to be preceded by the closing of an already existing one. Initiatives such as that in Brazil under President Lula, a country that opened 32 new embassies between 2003 and 2008, would be impossible in Chile from a strictly legal perspective.

[ix] As can be seen from Graph 1, this has also meant that the conduct of its international relations has been systematically the best evaluated of all public policies ever since 1990.