Is Latin America “International” enough for IR?

4 April 2024, 0900 EDT

The publication of the 100th edition of the International Affairs Journal  Special Issue “Race and Imperialism in International Relations: theory and practice” (hereafter, the “Special Issue”) brings important reflections on how racist and colonial structures produce and reproduce IR as a discipline. This brief reflection contributes to these discussions on how to decolonise IR and guarantee participation to the Global Majority (aka Global South) researchers in the scholar-practitioner nexus by bringing a Latin American lens.

I  explain the exclusion of Latin American knowledge in IR  (that is empirically and theoretically knowledge that is produced in Latin America and/or by Latin American researchers) due to three main reasons a) colonial logics, b) language and c) access barriers. Many of these points not only affect Latin American researchers’ participation in the IR scholar-practitioner nexus (see this Special Issue article on security studies and Africa).

The colonial roots of excluding Latin America in International Relations

The editors did an amazing effort to organise this special issue in the most representative way in the middle of a pandemic, but the lack of a Latin American perspective in the Special Issue reflects IR colonial and imperial deep roots. As a result of epistemic injustices, the United States, the United Kingdom, and parts of continental Europe remain the “centres” of IR discussion. Latin American remains peripheral to the supposedly “global” discipline of International Relations, both because of its colonial past and processes that actively usurp Latin American voices. 

Former colonisers tend to focus their attention on their former colonies. It is not surprising, then, that the academic IR in the United Kingdom does not pay much attention to the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies that comprise the overwhelming majority of Latin American states. In the case of United States,Latin Americanists are mostly U.S. scholars trained in U.S. schools. These “experts” on Latin America talk about the region in ways that perpetuates very ideas for how the United States should deal with the region—ones that, in turn, reproduce the imperial and colonial structures that shape the production of knowledge). For example, most Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Congresses happen in cities in the United States and other countries of the Global North.

Most scholars as the “centre” do not view Latin America as an important part of studying and theorizing international relations. In their view, Latin American countries are not important players in the global order. Thus, while few question the idea that International Relations theories must account for U.S. foreign policy or European international affairs, the discipline trends to relegate the international politics of Latin America (as well as other regions) to Area Studies. In this sense, Latin America is not “international enough” for gatekeepers in the field.

Dominant understandings of Latin America construct the region as a place that Global North researchers can speak for. Persaud’s contribution to the Special Issue centers our attention on this kind of “epistemological governance.” Edward Said describes how the West constructed the Orient by deciding what studying the Orient is; the same is true of Latin America; western ideas about Latin America as a subject of study structure which ways of representing and understanding the region receive space in “leading” outlets for International Relations.

Language as a dilemma in the scholar-practitioner nexus for Latin American researchers

Since English is not the native language in most Latin American countries, Latin American IR scholars face an extra dilemma when engaging in the scholar-practitioner nexus: should they publish in their national languages aiming to influence IR policies in their country (and region) or should they publish in English aiming to impact international decision-making?

Most recognised IR journals only publish in English; the discipline treats English as the “normal” IR language. However, English is emphatically not the language of most Latin American decision-making.

This creates a dilemma for Latin American scholars. Publishing in the original language can increase the probability of reaching practitioners in the region. But since most IR scholars in English speaking countries “do not read” in different languages, such publications do not generate academic capital for their authors or influence the contours of the broader field. This creates incomplete literature reviews due to language issues; it amounts to a form of epistemic violence. We routinely find Global North researchers addressing “gaps” that scholars working in other languages have already filled.

Language makes it is easier for decision makers (and Global North scholars) to ignore the Global Majority scholars in the international arena with the excuse that they cannot understand/find research from Latin America.

Access: can Latin Americans participate in the International?

Latin American researchers (and other Global Majority scholars in IR) have a hard time accessing discussions that affect the IR scholar-practitioner nexus. Danso and Aning (in the Special Issue) reflect on how privileged conceptions of knowledge formation and methodological whiteness make it difficult for African scholars to contribute to the subfield of Security Studies. Latin American scholars face the same kinds of challenges.

First, most of my Latin American colleagues will not be able to read the full International Affairs Special Issue; it is behind a paywall that many universities cannot afford. Disciplinary knowledge, as produced in North America and Europe, is often prohibitively expensive for Global Majority Scholars.

Work by such scholars seldom makes it past editors and referees at “leading” journals, which often do not consider their research “international” enough. Most take their research elsewhere. But even when Latin American researchers try and succeed at publishing in “traditional” English-language International Relations journals, neither they nor their universities have the resources to pay for “Open Access” publication. This ensures a diminished reached for their academic research, and thus feeds a vicious cycle in which Latin American scholarship is written off for lack of citations and visibility.

Latin American IR scholars also face physical, economic, and visa barriers to participating in academic conferences—and other decision-making spaces—that happen in the Global North. Going to a conference involves a lot of planning, which (among other things) limits our ability participate as “last minute guests” the same way as our Global North colleagues with the “right” nationalities and passports. Almost everyone has found themselves, or at least one of their friends, unable to attend an international event (for example the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention) due to visas delays or denials.

Final Thoughts

International Relations is a discipline that reinforces colonial, imperial and racist logics that exclude Latin American (and other Global Majority) scholars as Gani and Marshall reflect in the Introduction of the Special Issue. IR does not see Latin America as “international” enough due to colonial logics that are constructed and reproduced by ideas of whose knowledge matters.

Latin American researchers may publish their work and engage in impact research in languages other than English, therefore, Global North scholars and international practitioners “cannot” understand/read them. Even when they decide to engage in the Global North processes, they have huge barriers of access (due to visa issues and lack of Open Access possibilities in traditional IR Journals). All these exclusions result from clear colonial, racist, imperialist and gendered logics that continue to produce and reproduce IR which makes the scholar-practitioner nexus even more challenging for Latin American scholars.

Finally, adapting Spivak’s famous question: “Can Latin American IR scholars speak?” Yes, they can but they are silenced by not being “international” enough. Even when Latin Americans are allowed to speak, IR scholars and practitioners do not listen to them due to the language in which they produce knowledge, epistemic violence and access barriers.