Paradox of Autonomy: explaining flaws in
South American security regionalismo
Paradoxo da autonomia: explicando as deficiências no
regionalismo de segurança sul-americano
Paradoja de la autonomía: explicando las falencias en el
regionalismo de seguridad sudamericano
Víctor M. Mijares
DOI: 10.5752/P.2317-773X.2020v8.n1.p89
Received in June 13, 2019
Accepted in August 19, 2019
This article addresses the South American diculties in the consolidation of
regional security mechanisms, developing the explanatory model of “paradox
of autonomy.” This was developed through inductive and deductive criteria,
based on recent history observations, in order to attain generalizable lessons
from a relevant case for South American international relations, and using ratio-
nal analytical approaches that allowed their construction within the framework
of collective action problems. From the observation on the emergence and
performance of the South American Defense Council, it was identied that the
allowing conditions for a novel mechanism of regional (collective) autonomy
for security, paradoxically oered opportunities for the exercise of national (in-
dividual) autonomy. The article concludes that, although the conditions for the
paradox of autonomy are dicult to overcome in cases of security regionalism
initiatives, there are possibilities to do so. The key would be in less ambitious
institutional designs that recognize the inherent diculties for institutional
regional security cooperation in South America.
Keywords: Paradox of Autonomy. South America. International autonomy.
Security regionalism.
Este artigo aborda as diculdades sul-americanas na consolidação de mecanis-
mos regionais de segurança, desenvolvendo o modelo explicativo do “paradoxo
da autonomia”. Isso foi desenvolvido através de critérios indutivos e dedutivos,
com base em observações da história recente, para obter lições generalizáveis
de um caso relevante para as relações internacionais da América do Sul e o uso
de abordagens analíticas racionais que permitiram sua construção no quadro de
problemas de ação coletiva. A partir da observação sobre o surgimento e desem-
penho do Conselho de Defesa Sul-Americano, identicou-se que as condições
propícias a um novo mecanismo de autonomia regional (coletiva) de segurança,
1. Assistant Professor of Political
Science, Universidad de los Andes,
Colombia; Ph.D. in Political Science,
Universität Hamburg and GIGA German
Institute of Global and Area Studies.
Bogotá/Colombia. ORCID: 0000-0003-
4110-7763. The author would like to
thank Andreas von Staden, Andrés
Rivarola Puntigliano, Anja Jetschke,
Cord Jakobeit, Daniel Flemes, Detlef
Nolte, Diana Tussie, Jorge Garzón,
Leslie Wehner, Luis Schenoni, Michael
Brzoska, and Wolf Grabendorff for
their comments on early versions of
this article, and to Louise Lowe for her
English editing assistance. Also the
anonymous reviewers for their helpful
and constructive comments that contrib-
uted to improving the final version. This
work was possible due to the financial
support of DAAD and GIGA.
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
paradoxalmente ofereciam oportunidades para o exercício da autonomia na-
cional (individual). O artigo conclui que, embora as condições para o paradoxo
da autonomia sejam difíceis de superar nos casos de iniciativas regionais de
segurança, há possibilidades de fazê-lo. A chave estaria em projetos institucio-
nais menos ambiciosos que reconheçam as diculdades inerentes à cooperação
institucional de segurança regional na Sul-América.
Palavras-chave: Paradoxo da Autonomia. América do Sul. Autonomia interna-
cional. Regionalismo de segurança
Este artículo aborda las dicultades sudamericanas en la consolidación de los
mecanismos de seguridad regional, desarrollando el modelo explicativo de “pa-
radoja de la autonomía”. Este se desarrolló a través de criterios inductivos y de-
ductivos, basados en observaciones de historia reciente, para obtener lecciones
generalizables a partir de un caso relevante para las relaciones internacionales
de América del Sur, y el uso de enfoques analíticos racionales que permitieron
su construcción en el marco de los problemas de acción colectiva. A partir de la
observación sobre el surgimiento y el desempeño del Consejo de Defensa Suda-
mericano, se identicó que las condiciones propicias para un nuevo mecanismo
de autonomía regional (colectiva) para la seguridad, paradójicamente ofrecían
oportunidades para el ejercicio de la autonomía nacional (individual). El artículo
concluye que, aunque las condiciones para la paradoja de la autonomía son
difíciles de superar en casos de iniciativas de regionalismo de seguridad, existen
posibilidades de hacerlo. La clave estaría en diseños institucionales menos ambi-
ciosos que reconozcan las dicultades inherentes para la cooperación institucio-
nal de seguridad regional en Sudamérica.
Palabras clave: Paradoja de la Autonomía. Sudamérica. Autonomía internacio-
nal. Regionalismo de seguridad.
Inspired by the works of Juan Carlos Puig and Helio Jaguaribe,
studies on international autonomy have been reconsidered given the pat-
terns in South American foreign policy towards the end of the 20
the beginning of the 21
century. Driven structurally by the diusion of
power and exercised by strong presidents, most of them highly motivated
and ideologically aligned, the search for greater margins for action in in-
ternational insertion became an imperative of foreign policy. New intra-
and extra-regional alignments, as well as a new and more ambitious wave
of regionalism, took place in the face of the perceived global diusion of
power and the geostrategic reorientation of the United States (US).
However, South America has had problems consolidating a secu-
rity community. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) ex-
periment and its South American Defense Council (CDS) failed in 2018,
demonstrating that the internal tensions for national autonomy were
stronger than the exible design thought for regional or collective au-
tonomy. This could be analyzed throughout the “paradox of autonomy”.
It occurs in the tension between national autonomy–the freedom of de-
cision and action that a state can enjoy in the international system –and
regional autonomy– regarding organized regions.
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
Methodologically, this article is based on a systematic review as
a research design (DENYER; TRANFIELD, 2009), in order to develop
an analytical model based on the observation of the recent experience
of South American security regionalism. The explanatory model of the
paradox of autonomy agrees with the idea of regionalism as a tool for re-
gional autonomy, but also challenges it in two ways. Firstly, regarding ho-
mogeneity, the paradox of autonomy is a structural model, assuming that
the regional hierarchy is fundamental in the prediction of foreign policy
behavior. Secondly, it contrasts the notions of “common” and “collective”,
while the paradox lies in the potential conict between the notion of au-
tonomy as a recurring objective and that of autonomy as a shared objec-
tive. It is understood that for regional powers, and secondary powers,
autonomy is a key objective. Asymmetries generate stimulus for band-
wagoning, and can leave aside autonomous objectives in favor of security
and development. Thus, the paradox of autonomy commonly occurs at
the level of secondary powers, since collective (regional) autonomy can
be both a route and an obstacle for individual (national) autonomy. Thus,
even considering the possibility of autonomy as a common objective, it
might not be considered a collective one.
The paradox of autonomy can arise in many areas of foreign policy,
but it is a particularly sensitive phenomenon when it comes to issues of
defense and security in South America. An oft-forgotten aspect in the de-
veloped South American autonomist doctrine of international law is the
primacy of Westphalian sovereignty. The notion of territorial integrity
is central to security and defense policies, mainly for Hispanic American
countries. The connection between sovereignty and security puts nation-
al autonomy before the regional. This is a common problem for South
American cooperation in security, and remains a latent condition in bor-
der tensions and rivalries in the region. Hence, multilateral governance
agreements on regional security are unusual, making the region far from
being a security community. Thus, although forms of regionalism re-
lating to development have shown formidable resistance, reluctance in
terms of security cooperation is linked to the rigid meaning of sovereign-
ty, leading to the paradox.
Autonomy and regionalism in South America
Some literature states that regionalism is driven by the search
for autonomy as well as development objectives (BRICEÑO-RUIZ; SI-
Insofar as this literature does not specify dierences between national
and regional autonomy, it is possible that the complementarity between
the two is taken for granted, with the potential eect of leading to impre-
cise conclusions regarding security regionalism. That alignment is fre-
quent in the agendas of regional powers.
Following the ideas on South American regionalism, it is possible
to identify the main driving forces behind the search for autonomy. The
rst of these is development, the most prominent argument in favor of
institutionalizing regional cooperation. The combination of economic
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
underdevelopment and material potential has historically motivated re-
gional cooperation. The second driving force is democracy, since the third
wave of democratization contributed to the synchronization of political
regimes in the region, motivating multi-sectoral cooperation. And the
third driving force is the balance of power, given the changes in the dis-
tribution of power and the geostrategic reorientation of the US, securi-
ty regionalism has been identied as a driving force of regionalism in
a broader sense, mainly in post-hegemonic literature (BRICEÑO-RUIZ;
However, the paths of regionalism are not open ways in South
America. The primary obstacle to the institutionalization of regional
cooperation can be analyzed as a problem of collective action. Conse-
quently, the principal obstructing forces are national strategies for inter-
national insertion, rival ideological programs, and low regional interde-
pendence. Regarding the national strategies for international insertion,
global changes in the distribution and concentration of power brought a
new opening for external interactions beyond traditional relations based
on proximity and culture. The rise of new powers and orders modies
regional patterns for cooperation. Thus, regions have maintained im-
portance, but not exclusivity. Also, ideological rivalries in South Amer-
ica submit the region to the eects of ideological diversity and partial
de-democratization. Signicant dierences between political regimes in
the region promoted the advent of sub-regional blocs with ideological
biases. Finally, there is the low intraregional interdependence, resulting
from the generally high dependence on the export of raw materials, hav-
ing adverse eects on national industrialization processes. The lack of
economic complementarity and the technological-industrial decit orient
South American commercial interests outside the region, reducing the
possibilities of interdependence and cooperation.
Between autonomy and development
In the eve of the post-Cold War period, attention was drawn to
what was called a “world of regions” (KATZENSTEIN, 2015) or one of
regional orders” (LAKE; MORGAN, 2010; SOLINGEN; MALNIGHT,
2016). In Latin America, regionalism has had a long-standing agenda. The
new wave of literature on autonomy is connected to the fact that in Latin
America, the resilience of regionalism is directly linked to the search for
autonomy and development (BRICEÑO-RUIZ; SIMONOFF, 2015). How-
ever, the literature available so far has not been concerned with den-
ing positions of autonomy and development in an order of preference.
In doing so, there are two ideal types of foreign policy strategy towards
regionalism: the rst when autonomy-follows-development, and the second,
when development-follows-autonomy.
The rst type of strategy prioritizes development as a necessary
condition for autonomy. This used to be the dominant regional approach.
Two schools of thought also emerged in distinct periods, which of the
developmentalists, inspired by the “Cepalista” theory and the center/pe-
riphery diagnosis, and that of the (neo)liberals. On the other hand, devel-
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
opment through autonomy is associated with the Latin American turn
to the left. However, the preference for one approach or the other has
more than an ideological bias; it also has a material basis, since accelerat-
ed economic growth is capable of encouraging autonomist policies and
behaviors rather than development projects. The turn to the left com-
bined both factors, an assertive ideological package fueled by a boom in
the prices of the raw materials that underpinned the quest for autonomy.
The distinction between the two focuses on the search for autono-
my must be considered to better understand autonomy as a policy and as
a potential paradox. In the absence of a regional hegemony, regionalism
is a collective project with the typical problems of collective action. This
is especially true when it comes to security regionalism. Regionalism
understood under the strategy of autonomy through development, par-
ticularly in the (neo)liberal form, pursues autonomy through economic
cooperation and stability agreements, avoiding regional commitments,
pursuing modest goals and going one step at a time. On the contrary,
the strategy of development through autonomy tends to be expansive
and maximalist in its objectives. Economic cooperation comes in second
place, behind political commitment.
Generally for liberal democracies, growth and development are
priorities, not the expansion of their own regimes and political values
(SANAHUJA, 2009; VAN KLAVEREN, 1997). The opposite is the case
of hybrid and authoritarian regimes, for which autonomy is the priority
within regional projects, as well as the instrumentalization of these for
the diusion and promotion of their own values and political practices
(SÖDERBAUM, 2016). Considering this distinction is fundamental to ad-
dress the specicity of security regionalism and the paradox of autonomy
for secondary regional powers, especially when it comes to super-region-
al orders (super-complexes, following BUZAN and WAEVER (2003), p.
60), such as the Western Hemisphere, in which the traditional main pow-
er promotes liberal values.
Specicity of security regionalism
Few policies are capable of jeopardizing sovereignty and autonomy
that much as defense policy. In a broad sense, interior security policy and
foreign policy are articulated with national defense policy. This broad
set of policies can be attributed to the objectives of the preservation of
national grand strategy. The existential sense of defense policy is, in itself,
an obstacle for supranational security mechanisms, above all when the
potential partners are part of the same region or international subsys-
tem. Security regionalism, which would contemplate the possibility of
some coordination of national defense policies, lies at the base of the basic
needs of states (KELLY, 2007).
Generally, security agreements indicate two widely spread
schemes, collective security and/or collective defense.
Security region-
alism could respond to one or both schemes, but within a common
space, a regional security complex (BUZAN; WÆVER, 2003) within an
international subsystem. To understand why the paradox of autonomy
2. Although similar, collective security
and collective defense should not be
confused with each other. The collective
security scheme assumes the indivisibil-
ity of international security, so that any
aggressive action in the international
system must be deterred or punished.
It is the principle that inspires the UN
Security Council. While the collective
defense scheme refers to the principle
of military alliances, according to which
the threat or attack on one of the allies
will be considered as a threat or attack
on all members of the alliance. NATO
is the best contemporary example of it.
See Robinson (2008, p. 39-41).
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
arises, it is necessary to consider that national security and defense is not
simply another area in the range of public sectors. This is especially true
in South America, which as an international subsystem, has developed
in parallel a marked interest in regional autonomy and zeal for national
autonomy. Two phenomena explain the specicity of security regional-
ism in South America, one of a global character and the other rooted in
the geopolitics of the region.
The rst of these phenomena is the limitation of transferring secu-
rity and defense tasks to private actors. Although some South American
states have had problems of territorial control and there is a tendency
among some great powers to privatize security work, the transfer does not
occur as in other sectors of public policy in which private actors assume
core tasks. On one hand, because South American nation-state identities
are linked to territorial integrity (CLAPHAM, 1999; NWEIHED, 1992;
ZACHER, 2001). On the other, the geopolitical reason its link to regional
and national autonomies, there is the latent presence of a superpower
that never occupied any territory of the subcontinent, and the persistence
of territorial tensions, which limited mutual trust, and the generation of
regional cooperation mechanisms for security and defense. These con-
ditions had a parallel eect regarding the search for autonomy in South
America. This is because of it was considered that a goal as important as
development must have the possibility of taking and executing political
decisions without US tutelage. Also, the search for national autonomy
in terms of security, due to intraregional mistrust manifested in histori-
cal territorial tensions and rivalries (DOMINGUEZ, 2003; FRANCHI et
al., 2017; MARES, 2001) and caution facing a potential Brazilian primacy
These regional conditions are at the base of the problems of re-
gional multilateral cooperation in security and defense, emphasizing the
eects of the paradox of autonomy in the security regionalism.
Paradox of autonomy
The paradox of autonomy is an explanatory model with classical
roots within the study of the problems of rational choice and collective
action. Under power de-concentration conditions, bring opportunities
for external action freedom, especially for minor and rising powers. To
gain greater autonomy in a sensitive sector such as that of security and
defense, the states of a region could join eorts to build an alliance or a
security community, which would generate greater autonomy as a bloc.
However, and as in any collective enterprise, the autonomy of each mem-
ber would be adversely aected. This is when the paradox arises. Securi-
ty regional cooperation mechanisms would gain space for their creation
and development, but it is also possible that the incentives for cooperation
distress the growing alternative relationships for individual benet, that
is to say, for national autonomy.
This is a paradox, insofar as the conditions encourage contradicto-
ry outcomes. This, in turn, leads to decision-making crossroads which
become dilemmas. The basic requirement for a dilemma is the presence
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
of at least two courses of mutually exclusive action. False dilemmas di-
verge from real ones in the exclusivity-inclusivity dichotomy. Therefore,
a dilemma is false when at least two of an actor’s alternatives could hy-
pothetically be taken at the same time with harmless mutual eects. The
real dilemmas become problematic given the character of politics as a
strategic game, which makes the intentions of the other(s) impossible, as
well as ideological and material changes within a system of the interac-
tions. Thus, uncertainty plays an important role here, as it usually does in
international politics (RATHBUN, 2007). The paradox of autonomy leads
to an autonomy foreign policy dilemma, in which governments face the
decision of choosing between a collective good, such as regional autono-
my, and an individual good, such as national autonomy.
National autonomy frequently assumes distinct forms, from the
nominative and grandiloquent term of “independence”, to the tactical
but inelegant concept of “room to maneuver”. National autonomy on
the international stage presupposes independence and the absence of
control by another power, and goes beyond room to maneuver insofar
as it operates at abstract and complex levels of political strategy. In this
sense, national autonomy is a favorable condition of opportunity and
capability to mobilize resources by national elites to exploit the given
conditions in the search for a better position of international insertion,
preserving legitimate exclusivity in domestic aairs. These conditions
have both internal and external origins. The internal ones refer to the
conditions for resources extraction and mobilization (SCHWELLER,
2009; TALIAFERRO, 2006), while the external ones relate to a particu-
lar international constellation in terms of the distribution of power and
eective patterns of inuence.
National autonomy is associated with territorial, international and
Westphalian sovereignty (KRASNER, 1999). It is conventionally related
to the optimum conditions for the design and conduct of foreign poli-
cy strategies and, as an idea, can historically be traced (AYOOB, 2002).
The case of regional autonomy is dierent, not only in scale, but also in
nature. At the regional level, autonomy can be erroneously understood
as a coordinated aggregation of national autonomies. To avoid that mis-
take, regional autonomy should be understood as the harmonization
of external objectives by virtue of a shared principle and according to
self-imposed regional (supranational) governance, always with the aim
of developing joint abilities to better detect opportunities, coordinate the
mobilization of resources and take advantage of favorable conditions for
collective objectives. Regional autonomy supposes at least one of these
two conditions: a global system of regional blocs in uid interaction, and
a system of great competing powers which should be mutually balanced.
Regional autonomy under the criteria of security regionalism
implies a trade-o, regional security/stability in exchange for national
autonomy. However, accepting such an arrangement entails some pre-
conditions, such as the common denition of perceived external threats,
and/or the establishment of regulation mechanisms to avoid costly in-
traregional conicts. A signicant hierarchization is another route to re-
gional autonomy (LAKE, 2009; LAKE; MORGAN, 2010; LEMKE, 2010;
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
VIEIRA; ALDEN, 2011; WOHLFORTH, 1999). Theoretically, a region
under the clear leadership of its central power must be able to implement
a strategy of access control –diplomatic, cultural, economic and/or mil-
itary–facing external powers. Most of the recent literature on emerging
powers has taken for granted the possibility of some isolation of regions
driven by their central powers (BURGES, 2010; FLEMES; WEHNER,
2015; MALAMUD, 2011; NOLTE, 2010; VIEIRA; ALDEN, 2011).
The study of the interaction of regional powers has principally fo-
cused on strategies of contestation and of interaction facing extra-regional
powers. In theory, in a well-structured regional hierarchy, with a func-
tional internal market and an agreement on security and collective de-
fense, regional autonomy could thrive by restricting external inuences
and preserving an autonomous development model. Nevertheless, the
dilemma emerges based on political frictions within the regions. The har-
monization of interests is an arduous task within national elites, and even
more arduous between the ruling elites of various states. International co-
operation is possible when these elites succeed in aligning complementary
interests, or by the external imposition of an eectively hegemonic power.
In addition to the structural capabilities relating to its periphery, a
regional power must be capable of sustaining a strategy of denial of ac-
cess, or at least be capable of fullling the function of manger of regional
access facing external powers. Paradoxically, systemic conditions those
are likely to foster the rise of regional powers, can also do this in the
cases of secondary and minor powers, encouraging foreign policy strate-
gies that could include the launch or strengthening of bilateral relations
both inside and outside their regions. This would contain the grounds for
intraregional tensions and rivalries, not only in terms of economic rela-
tions, but also in the collective management of regional security.
Theoretical grounds
The explanatory model of the paradox of autonomy is based on
the theoretical developments that give it form and content. Strongly an-
chored to the rational theoretical framework of international politics, the
model has intellectual debts, which could be summarized in six pillars:
the South American theory of autonomy; the theory of sovereignty; col-
lective action theory; the security dilemma in multipolar conditions; the
security dilemma in alliances; and the model of alliance restraint.
1.Autonomy theory
The paradox of autonomy mainly lies on the South American the-
ory of autonomy. The early emancipatory movement of Latin America,
the type of colonial model of the region and the geopolitical conditions
of South America are the three factors, which combine to make autono-
my the original and persistent objective of the foreign policies of South
American states. On one hand, the Latin American emancipation was
part of a larger political and intellectual process of global reach, which
combined Enlightenment principles with the decline of the pre-industrial
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
empires. In the newcomer states, rstly in Hispanic America then later in
Brazil, this generated the necessity for an international insertion, which
preserved freedom of action, both against the old metropolis and imperi-
alism in the process of industrialization.
The Iberian colonial model was also key in the construction of an
Ibero-American political identity claiming for autonomy. Unlike the al-
most exclusively extractivist models imposed in Asia and, above all, in
Africa, by industrial empires, the preindustrial Iberian empires used a
form of conquest and colonization which incorporated the new politi-
cal-territorial components as integral parts of the empires themselves
(BOERSNER, 1982; GUERRA, 2011). Hence, the international insertion
of the new republics, and of the Brazilian empire, has been from the out-
set a legitimate necessity and on an equal footing in the conditions of the
international concert of the nineteenth. Geopolitics also played a role in
the early and persistent thirst for autonomy. The continental dimensions,
the predominant coastal occupation of the South American territory, and
the rise of the US in the hemisphere, generated the duality of relative-
ly low contacts with limited continental interdependence. Additionally,
boundary conicts where there is greater contact, and reserved coop-
eration facing Washington, fueled by military interventions in Central
America and the Caribbean basin (TEIXEIRA, 2012).
The paradox of autonomy includes in the debate the classical “de-
cisional autonomy” (JAGUARIBE, 1979; PUIG, 1986) and the later deni-
tion of “relational autonomy” (RUSSELL; TOKATLIAN, 2002). The rst
form of autonomy refers to freedom of decision, but also of political ac-
tion. It consists of the expansion of the external room to maneuver in the
sense of aspiration for international insertion motivated by the historical
and geopolitical factors already mentioned. The second form of auton-
omy, relational, poses cooperation between equals as a condition for its
realization (RUSSELL; TOKATLIAN, 2002). It corresponds to a distinct
historical moment in which the impetus for integration would have been
reached after the regional democratic settlement and changes in geostrat-
egy and the distribution of capabilities in the international system.
This debate is central to the paradox of autonomy, but it retakes it in
a non-sequential historical sense, neither epistemological, nor paradigmatic
–that of the transition from decisional to relational autonomy, but rather dia-
lectical, to say, its opposition to the generation of a political dilemma. This is
evident in the resistance of national autonomy in an area of high political im-
pact for states: security and national defense policy. When this resistance co-
incides with the interest to coordinate security and defense policies oriented
at gaining greater autonomy as a group, that is when the interest in relational
autonomy is manifested, and when the paradox of autonomy is presented.
2.Westphalian sovereignty
An explanatory model of South American international relations must
consider the regional propensity for a conventional conception of sovereign-
ty and territorial integrity. The Hispanic South American states were born
bound to the principle of uti possidetis iuris, making territorial integrity a sub-
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
stantial part of national identities. The historical experience of the region is not
without interstate violence (MARES, 2001; MARTÍN, 2006; THIES, 2008), but
it is much less severe than that of Europe, and the level of perceived external
threats is substantially less (BATTAGLINO, 2012). Moreover, the region is not
in the immediate military reach of great powers beyond the US. Westphalian
sovereignty is a central component in understanding the paradox of autono-
my. Autonomist tensions take place when governments dier in the degree
of sovereign exclusivity in defense and national security policies, especially if
territorial disputes persist, or if ideological aggravating factors emerge.
3.Collective action theory
The central presumption of the explanatory model of the paradox
of autonomy is that it is a collective action problem. The basis of the ex-
planation of its logical mechanisms can be found in the “tragedy of the
commons” (HARDIN, 2009; OLSON, 1965; OSTROM, 2015). The trage-
dy is centered in the tension between individual interests and collective
goods. Following instrumentally rational strategies, individuals –as well
as foreign policy executives, especially those dominated by strong lead-
ers in presidentialist regimes– can pursue and achieve their own objec-
tives, even though they negatively aect collective aspirations and goals
in the process. The paradox of autonomy confronts national autonomy
and regional autonomy, establishing the resemblance to the tragedy of
the commons. But the similarity is not perfect, as the tragedy of the com-
mons assumes that the common good is of equal benet for all individ-
uals involved, and although it is true that regional autonomy has been a
solid South American objective, it is not clear to what extent it has been a
method for achieving a more valuable national autonomy.
Given that the model of the paradox of autonomy is especially designed
for the sensitive sector of regional security, individual interests tend to be
more resilient due to the existential nature of national security and defense. In
the paradox of autonomy, the similarities between the “commons” are more
ontological than operational, as governments take care of what they consider
to be best for their societies and are more willing to sabotage formally shared
goals. However, under conditions of international deconcentration of power,
which are prone to encouraging the possibilities of national autonomy, secu-
rity regionalism can be damaged, but unlike the tragedy of the commons, not
necessarily destroyed as a common good. The paradox of autonomy could
(re)shape the institutional design of security regionalism, partially preserving
the shared objectives. And if liberal institutionalism has taught us anything,
it is that, with all its limitations and without knowing with certainty to what
extent, institutions are capable of moderating political behavior.
4.Security dilemma
The two main branches of structural realism, the defensive and
the oensive, are distinguished by what they assume to be the primary
objective of the state in international politics: maximize its security or
its power. This debate has consumed years of research without having
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
a clearer conclusion than the armation that, sometimes, greater pow-
er oers security, while in other moments it stimulates threats. This is
the content of the security dilemma, an explanatory model of which the
paradox of autonomy is also a subsidiary. The security dilemma (HERZ,
1950; JERVIS, 1978) exposes the potentially conictive relationship be-
tween national security and international security. It assumes that one of
the principal mechanisms to strengthen national security, if not the prin-
cipal one, is the strengthening and/or rening of military capabilities.
This is generally recorded in increases in defense budgets and/or military
exercises. The result, according to the dilemma, is that in trying to guar-
antee its own security, the state puts its neighbors and other potential
rivals on alert to what they could see as a threat, negatively aecting
international security.
The debt of the paradox of autonomy to the security dilemma is
evident. The potential conict of individual and collective interests is
present, as well as the tension between unilaterality and bi- or multi-lat-
erality. However, the dierences are also clear. Firstly, the security di-
lemma works at a tactical-operative level of national defense. Although
this has strategic implications, it does not compare to the ramications
that the model of the paradox of autonomy assumes to exist in the search
for room to maneuver, national defense and the freedom of sovereign
action in domestic politics, due to the already mentioned supremacy of
Westphalian sovereignty. Secondly, it is even further removed from the
structural realist debate between oensive and defensive realisms, inso-
much as it focuses on secondary powers rather than great powers. The
makes the paradox of autonomy part of peripheral realism (SCHENONI;
ESCUDÉ, 2016) or subaltern realism (AYOOB, 2002). Thirdly, and as a
corollary of the two previous dierences, the paradox of autonomy does
not result in drastic eects such as armament spirals, arms races, or war,
but rather in more, or less, signicant limitations in the reach of regional
security institutions.
5.Security dilemma in alliances
A pillar of the model of the paradox of autonomy is the security
dilemma in alliances (SNYDER, 1997). According to this, those respon-
sible for foreign policy of allied states can experience one of two fears.
Firstly, the fear of abandonment, when their allies do not follow a course
of collective action facing a threat, or do not assume an active role. This
behavior could be attributed to the existence of more attractive material
alternatives, intergovernmental ideological empathy with the third party
perceived as a threat, or to avoid tangible or ideological costs. Secondly,
the fear of commitment, which arises when the commitment to balance is
not aligned with one’s own interests, or when it could even result in dam-
age. As a rule, the lesser the asymmetry, the more probable the dilemma.
Thus, periods when international power is deconcentrated and asymme-
tries tend to ease, are likely to aect the commitment within an alliance.
The security dilemma in alliances is another example of a collec-
tive action problem, in which a conictive mechanism can be seen be-
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
tween distinct individual interests and the collective objective. Thus, it
maintains similarity with the paradox of autonomy, but they dier in the
phase in which they arise. While in the security dilemma in alliances the
collective action problem appears after the creation of a reciprocal as-
sistance agreement, threatening trust between the allies, in the paradox
of autonomy the problem appears before the formalization of the agree-
ment, threatening trust between potential partners and aecting the in-
stitutional design of the founding treaty. The dierence is important be-
cause the former is an operational problem for established and operative
alliances, or those with aspirations to operationality, and the second, a
problem in the process of forming regional security agreements. Thus,
the paradox of autonomy is an obstacle for an “operational alliance” (MI-
JARES, 2011; MORGENTHAU, 2005) before it has been established.
6.Alliance restraining
A secondary theoretical source is the alliance restraint. According
to this model, some alliances may not be oriented to counterbalancing
power or threats, nor be mechanisms for the pursuit of interests, but rath-
er mechanisms of mutual or unilateral control (PRESSMAN, 2008). As
foreign policy tactics, moderation alliance agreements are measures to
avoid involvement in an undesired conict due to the commitment of
assistance, or to control the behavior of a potential rival who is oered co-
operation. This tactic usually functions under conditions of broad asym-
metry between (potential) allies, with the greater ally being provider of
security, which reduces the uncertainty of the minor ally. Between states
of similar hierarchical position, alliances of restraint may present opera-
tional problems, unless they are generated in a multilateral format, closer
to that of collective security, as has been shown during decades of the
ve-power mechanism of the UN Security Council. In any case, being
part of a security agreement is in itself a restriction on one’s own auton-
omy, and can always lead to paradoxes and, at the same time, dilemmas.
The explanatory model
The main hypothesis of the paradox of autonomy is rooted in the
tradition of rational choice, to a large extent shared by the (neo)liberal and
(neo)realist theories of IR. However, it diers from the realist approach,
centered on power, because instead of assuming the search for power
(classical realism and oensive realism) or security (defensive realism), it
assumes the search for freedom of action or the reduction of obstacles and
external interference. In this explanatory model, actions take place at the
national and regional analytical levels, but the causal condition originates
at the international systemic level. Just as great powers in the internation-
al system could be motivated by pre-eminence, primacy, or even hegemo-
ny, lesser powers maintain more modest objectives, centered above all on
national development and autonomy. Some tend towards a mixed search,
especially emerging regional powers (NOLTE, 2010), seeking indisput-
able leadership in their region while improving their industrialization and
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
trying to create peripheral markets and security communities (ADLER;
GREVE 2009). To achieve these goals, the search for power and autono-
my are combined in a great national strategy. The following table pres-
ents a typology of states classied according to their status and objectives:
Chart 1 - Types of state and their expected objectives
Typology of state Predicted objective(s)
Great powers Global hegemony, primacy or pre-eminence
Emerging regional powers Regional hegemony, regional autonomy and national development
Secondary regional powers
(or sub-regional powers)
National autonomy and development (the order may vary).
Regional autonomy in instrumental terms
Small states National development
Own elaboration
The dynamics of power concentration/de-concentration in the in-
ternational system tend to be less stable than those of polarity (MANS-
FIELD, 1993). Let’s say, a multipolar order could be, at the same time, one
with a high concentration of power, which would imply that, although
there are many poles, these would concentrate the majority of material
capabilities. Inversely, a uni- or bipolar international constellation could
be far from being a hegemonic system if it is also deconcentrated, or in
other words, if the gaps of power are unimportant or diminishing. An
international system in de-concentration creates conditions for autono-
my insofar as it undermines the material primacy of the great powers.
The process of compensatory economic growth facilitates the diusion
of technologies, while confronting trade and security hegemonies.
At the regional level, emerging powers could be inclined to take ad-
vantage of the improvement in their capabilities to guard their own zones,
thus assuring their hegemony in international subsystems. However, they
could face challenges on two fronts. Firstly, that of external powers, both
established and emerging, trying to enter the region through bilateral
contacts and avoiding the regional power, and secondly, that of secondary
regional powers which could support the project of regional autonomy for
utilitarian purposes, wanting to take advantage of the pluralist order and
preserve both their national autonomy and their own development plan.
Chart 2 - Interaction of Polarity/Concentration:
typology of International (Sub-)Systems
Concentration (CON)
High (>.4) Medium (.4-.3) Low (<.3)
Unipolar Hegemony Primacy Pre-eminence
Bipolar Diarchy Dyadic System Dialogical System
Tripolar Triumvirate Triadic System Trialogical System
Multipolar Polyarchy Pluricentric System Anarchy
Souce: own elaboration
Regional autonomy and national autonomies coincide harmonious-
ly for the elites of central regional powers, but not for those of secondary
powers. For the latter, regional autonomy implies a concession in free-
3. Regarding that, chart 2 presents an
own elaboration proposal of a typology
of international (sub-)systems.
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
dom of action and the acceptance of external limitations. The paradox
of autonomy takes place at the regional level under global conditions of
de-concentration of power. This implies the conict between the central
regional power, which seeks to construct a bloc to guarantee regional
autonomy, and for its own hegemonic role, and the secondary regional
powers, which would partially support regional autonomy while this is of
use for their national autonomy and own development. The dilemma is
presented for the latter, as for their elites there is the possibility of a func-
tional separation between regional autonomy and national autonomies.
In other words, the elites of the secondary powers in a deconcentrated
system will try to encourage as much national autonomy as possible and
regional autonomy as is necessary, always with the aim of not empowering
the central regional power beyond what is manageable.
Effects of the paradox on security regionalism
The security dilemma predicts potential contradictions between
national security and defense policies, and international security, due
to the possibility of provoking arms races within action-reaction ratio-
nale (JERVIS, 1978). Regional autonomy could be considered an essential
national objective for a central regional power (MEARSHEIMER, 2001;
NOLTE, 2010). This is particularly true in the South American interna-
tional subsystem, due to the gap in capabilities of Brazil and its potential,
but not eective, regional hegemony. Like other (re)emerging regional
powers, Brazil had problems in making its relative power a true hegemo-
ny. Such powers experience a problem of state capacity—in the extraction
and mobilization of resourcesgiven the interaction of its physical and
human dimensions, and its unequal industrial and bureaucratic develop-
ment, in addition to regional counterbalancing policies from neighbors,
anxious to preserve their national autonomies, whether through intra-
regional cooperation or inviting external powers.
The paradox of autonomy is problematized given that the main
condition, which facilitates the collective search for regional autonomy,
is the same that conditions the search for national autonomy: the inter-
national power concentration pattern. For the majority of South Ameri-
can governments in the early 21
century, keeping the region out of the
direct inuence of the US was a shared interest. Brazilian regional hege-
mony would be unachievable if Washington played a hegemonic role in
the sensitive areas of security and defense policy. The limits of regional
security cooperation began to become evident with the open opposition
of Uribes Colombia to the original institutional design of the CDS, based
on the special Colombia-US relationship in the defense and security sec-
tor (TICKNER, 2008).
Less obvious, but not less eective, obstacles were put forward by
the secondary powers that embraced the original Brazilian project. Ar-
gentina, Chile and Venezuela supported the CDS, and assumed it as part
of their political priorities. However, a security and defense agreement
openly led by Brazil would have been a restriction on the objectives of
the national elites. The delicate balance between regional autonomy and
Víctor M. Mijares Paradox of Autonomy: Explaining Flaws in South American Security Regionalism
national autonomies plays an important role for South American sec-
ondary powers given that national autonomy is a necessary condition
for soft-balancing policies towards Brazil (FLEMES; WEHNER, 2015),
and thus, keeping regional hegemony at bay while preserving freedom
of action in terms of security and defense. Similarly, the idea of regional
autonomy was considered in order to block and soft-balancing US global
pre-eminence and its overwhelming hemispheric hegemony.
Another equally important goal for some secondary powers was
to pacify border disputes and avoid militarized escalations. This is par-
ticularly true in the cases of Chile and Colombia, and more recently
Peru, whose economic policy strategies demonstrate clear guidelines
for opening and whose governments are liberal democracies, but who
bear the weight of unresolved territorial conicts and have a relatively
high military spending as percentage of gross domestic product (GDP)
(SIPRI, 2019) and important arsenals (IISS, 2019). A regional security
agreement is likely to promote regional autonomy and limit the nation-
al, taking as a counterweight the reduction of border tensions, which
would permit the strengthening of regional integration and redirect
part of the national defense budget towards economic and social invest-
ment, for example. In this sense, the paradox of autonomy ts in with
the old dilemma of opportunity cost, illustrated with the dichotomy
of “guns versus butter” model of the production possibility frontier.
Thus, regional autonomy could partially benet the interests of nation-
al elites, although it could negatively aect the primary objective of
secondary powers: national autonomy.
The dismemberment of UNASUR, and with it the CDS, took place
in May 2018, when half of its members, including some of the most prom-
inent, decided to participate. The changes have become factors for this
regional disintegration, linked to the ideological tensions originated in
the changes of government, to an extremely lax institutional design, but
also to the paradoxical eect of the autonomy tensions (BARACALDO
The development of the research agenda on the theory of auton-
omy must be taken through challenges. This article has referred to two
of those, contributing to the encouragement of further progress. The
main challenge is the conceptual denition of autonomy, to overcome
the lack of agreement on what this means in the broad context of inter-
national politics, and in particular, in the study of regional security and
security regionalism. The denitions of national autonomy and regional
autonomy, proposed in parallel, reveal the possibility of a paradox with
dilemmatic potential, undoing the Gordian knot of the debate between
decisional autonomy and relational autonomy. However, while solving
the conceptual problem, this shows an analytical and political problem
which, until now, has not been dealt with.
Thus, the second challenge presented and confronted by this work
is the problematization of the theory of autonomy. In fact, that was the
estudos internacionais • Belo Horizonte, ISSN 2317-773X, v. 8, n. 1, (abr. 2020), p. 89 - 106
main task of the article. The rst step towards a compilation and reor-
ganization of ideas about autonomy was taken by Rivarola Puntigliano
and Briceño-Ruiz (2013), connecting autonomy with regionalism and de-
velopment, and relating it to ideological orientations and foreign policy
strategies (GARDINI; LAMBERT, 2011). In this work, steps were taken
in both directions, developing the research program on autonomy. First-
ly, it proposed a distinction between national, or individual, autonomy
and regional autonomy, or collective, autonomy. Secondly, it explained
their potentially conictive relationship. Therefore, the paradox of au-
tonomy and its dilemma does not contravene current advances in the
theory of autonomy; on the contrary, it expands the research agenda and
increases its complexity, instrumentalizing it as a conceptual tool to un-
derstand security regionalization processes under conditions of global
power deconcentration.
What the recent South American experience indicates is that the
dilemma produced by the paradox of autonomy, in the case of security
regionalism, is not unsolvable. The circumstantial evidence suggests that
in the case of the creation of the CDS the paradox was present, being
resolved through the rational and multilateral manipulation of the insti-
tutional design. The paradox that the diusion of power encourages both
national and regional autonomy was reinforced by the limits on regional
leadership, an eect that could also have among its causes the de-concen-
tration of capabilities. These lessons continue to be preliminary ndings,
which must be explored to establish the existence of causality. Howev-
er, the relationships between the consequences and the assumed causes
stand out, and this study opens a path which the research agenda can
follow in the future.
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