Nations are products of their environments, and not the other way around. They simply have to behave in certain ways if they want to remain nations, and more often than not their behavior is expressed not by what they can do but what they can’t do. Nations can’t move mountains or rivers. They can’t create farmland from scratch. They can’t produce more resources than what the ground allows.

Particularly bound by these kinds of constraints is South America. The geography of this often overlooked continent is oddly egalitarian: Some nations are stronger and richer than others, of course, but the preponderance is less pronounced than it is in other regions of the world. For this reason, South America may seem inconsequential, so uninvolved is it in the wars of the Middle East, U.S.-Russia sanctions, Islamic terrorism and the South China Sea. But its apparent complacency elides more pressing geopolitical imperatives. The following report explains why.


The defining characteristic of South America is that its geography will not allow any nation to project power across the continent. Those that have come to power have been confined to either the Pacific Coast or the Atlantic Coast. Some were even able to hold power on both coasts, but none were able to form a seamless political entity.

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Their separation is largely due to the Andes Mountains, which span the entire length of South America near the continent’s western edge. Other geographic features, however, accentuate the east-west divide. In the north, the vast Amazon rainforest prevents the movement of people from one population center to another and stunts urban development. The Amazon River and its tributaries, which flow from the west to the east, enable ventures farther inland, but upstream waters quickly become unnavigable to large ships.

Reinforcing the division of South America are the Gran Chaco, a semi-arid, sparsely populated lowland region roughly at the center of the continent; the wetlands of the Pantanal; and the Atacama Desert. They are as difficult to traverse as they are inhospitable to human settlement.

South America’s largest and most important cities are therefore found primarily on the coasts. Their situation is particularly pronounced on the Pacific Coast, where there is little room between the ocean and the Andes. Cities along the Atlantic Coast have a little more breathing room – people were able to settle in the Rio de la Plata Basin, which boasts fertile soil, useful river systems and hospitable climate and terrain – but they are nonetheless densest near the ocean.

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Complexions Change

The inability to project power over the entire region has plagued South American empires and countries throughout history. Before Europe colonized the region, the Incan Empire was the predominant power in the Pacific region. At its height, it comprised Peru, Ecuador, large parts of Bolivia and Chile and smaller sections of Argentina and Colombia. The Incas were resourceful and formidable, but they could never really expand past the Andes. There was no single pre-colonial empire in the Atlantic region. Broadly speaking, the Tupi dominated Brazil, the Guarani controlled Paraguay and parts of the Plata Basin that extended into southern Brazil, and groups related to the Mapuche inhabited much of the southernmost portion of the continent.

European colonization, especially Spanish and Portuguese colonization, changed the complexion of South American power but could not escape its geographic constraints. Spain, for example, could govern the Viceroyalty of Peru easily enough but found it more difficult to govern the territory as a single unit as it added territory to the east. So it divided the area into three viceroyalties – Peru, New Granada and Rio de la Plata – that correspond with the continent’s natural geographic barriers.

The emergence of capitanias – autonomous territories controlled by high-ranking generals but still technically under the viceroyalty banner – likewise illustrate the limits of power projection. Chile had been lumped into the Peru Viceroyalty because it was on the same side of the Andes Mountains. But distance and desert obviated the need for a middle man in Lima, so Chile instead interacted directly with the crown.

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In the Atlantic region, geography pitted Spain and Portugal against each other. Portugal arrived in 1500 and began to colonize Brazil, focusing largely on coastal areas with good ports. It could not expand west because of the Amazon, Chaco and Pantanal, so it went south, to the Rio de la Plata Basin, a desirable tract of real estate in central South America east of the Andes. It is large, hospitable and arable, with natural irrigation systems. Spain, meanwhile, had arrived in southern South America and, having taken control of territory west and just east of the Andes, likewise turned its attention to the Rio de la Plata Basin.

Spanish and Portuguese interests thus collided in central South America. As it happens, the basin in which they fought was flat, unobstructed terrain, ideally suited for combat. Years after they fought there, subsequent wars waged in the same vicinity would eventually produce the modern states of Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, which served as buffer states between Argentina and Brazil.

A final example of obstacles to power projection comes from the Spanish colonies’ wars for independence in the early 19th century. Simon Bolivar led an independence movement in the north that included Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and eventually Peru, while Jose de San Martin led the independence movements in the south that included Argentina, Chile and initially Peru. Bolivar ambitiously tried to create a united Pan-American entity from the wars of independence but, when faced with the difficulty of unity in South American terrain, ceased to do so. Instead he ruled Venezuela, Colombia and Peru as separate entities, giving each of these countries the individual identities that exist today.

Contemporary Candidates

Modern South America is thus shaped not by what leaders of the past could do but by what they could not do. The geography is just as divisive today as it has ever been. Currently, neither the Pacific nor Atlantic region has a natural leader – but not for a lack of candidates.

The Atlantic Coast

In the Atlantic region, Brazil could be such a leader. It borders all South American countries, save Chile and Ecuador. It is the fifth-largest and fifth-most populous country in the world. It boasts the ninth-largest gross domestic product in the world at $1.8 trillion, according to the World Bank. With its low population density and ample mineral, hydrocarbon and agricultural resources, it has all the makings of an even stronger economy.

But Brazil faces two initial obstacles to realizing its potential. First, the government has yet to consolidate the country. The country’s core consists of the triangle formed by Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte. The remaining periphery can be divided into three regions – the South, Center-West and North-North East. To build national strength, Brazil’s core must have strong social, economic and infrastructural ties to these three regions. Presently, the South, which sits largely on uncomplicated, flat terrain, is the only one of the three firmly connected to the core. Inadequate infrastructure and economic development between the Center-West and North-North East and the core fuel economic and social disparities, making it all the more difficult to bring them into the fold.

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Argentina is nearly as potent as Brazil but would struggle to subordinate its neighbor to the north. Though it is South America’s second-largest economy, it is just a third the size of Brazil’s (21st globally). It has the size and resources to help keep Brazil in check but not enough to overpower it.

The remaining Atlantic region nations are even less equipped to challenge Brazil. Paraguay and Uruguay are buffer states, fated to play their larger neighbors off one another as the situation warrants. Paraguay is particularly resigned since it is a landlocked nation wholly dependent on others for maritime trade. Venezuela’s position on the southern rim of the Caribbean means that the United States will make sure Caracas is never powerful enough to challenge U.S. influence in the region, in turn limiting its influence in South America. (Venezuela admittedly isn’t doing itself any favors right now.)

The Pacific Coast

In the Pacific region, Peru is best positioned to assume a leadership role. Peru was the seat of power in the pre-Columbian era. It still boasts mineral, metallurgical, hydrocarbon and agricultural resources that allow it to support a large portion of its domestic needs. It also has a burgeoning manufacturing sector. Eight of its 10 largest cities are along the coast, which facilitates trade and communication.

On the surface, Colombia appears to also be a potential candidate for Pacific power. The country’s economy is on the rise (it was especially so before oil prices dropped), and now that the country’s longest insurgency has come to an end, security has improved. But what helped shelter the insurgents for so long is precisely what hinders the construction of a viable regional power: mountains and jungles. Even before it was colonized, Colombia never had a great empire based there like Inca in Peru. This is because the terrain lends itself to poorly connected and uncoordinated population centers. And, like Venezuela, Colombia borders the Caribbean Sea, and though it is a strong U.S. ally, Washington would never allow it to challenge its power.

Other countries don’t qualify. Chile is one of the most developed countries in South America, but it is so narrow, so dependent on energy imports and so far removed from the rest of the continent that it could never overtake it neighbors. Bolivia, another landlocked nation, is at the mercy of others for trade. Ecuador is even smaller in area than Bolivia, and only slightly less alienated.

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The countries of South America have been too preoccupied with their own issues for the past half century to worry about projecting power abroad. In that time they have experienced dictatorships, rebuilt their governments after toppling the dictatorships, clashed with domestic militant groups and suffered economic crises. Competing for regional power or expansion was secondary to survival. But even if they dedicated themselves to regional hegemony, and even if they de facto led their respective region, they could never subsume the other.


As important to South America is its location. The continent sits in the Southern and Western hemispheres between two oceans, making it remote from major trade routes and seats of power. In short, it is a peripheral region and, as such, was a latecomer to the global economy. Consequently, economic development has come slow to South America, and its domestic issues are magnified.

Geographic barriers, an abundance of natural resources and a legacy of colonialism created an economic dependency on raw materials. From the European perspective, the purpose of the colonies was to provide wealth for the monarchies and ready-made markets for the consumption of manufactured goods. To this day, the production and export of commodities links South American countries to the rest of the world. They all but define trade ties to virtually every region, most notably China, India and other Asian nations. Growing demand for their resources only aggravates the problem.

In some areas of production – sugar cane, soy, corn, copper, iron ore – South American production can drastically affect commodity prices and supply. With other commodities – wheat, coal, beef, oil – these countries significantly factor into global supply but do not single-handedly affect the global market. In these cases, the commodities have a much larger importance and impact on the individual economies than on the global supply or price.

Production and control of these commodities has been a major source of social conflict in South America as government desires for economic performance ran counter to some local demands. In the area of agriculture, the government must balance the domestic consumption with the desire for export revenue – something that pits producers against government regulators, as is sometimes the case in Argentina. In mineral extraction, the profits of mining companies come into conflict with the health and livelihoods of underpaid workers and regional governments. It is little wonder, then, that Chile and Colombia, two major mineral-producing countries, have seen major mining protests throughout the years. Extractive industries and supporting infrastructure projects, moreover, create environmental concerns among indigenous communities and activists, as can be observed in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

Other sources of friction are inevitable so long as South American countries adopt economic policies meant to reduce their vulnerability to commodity prices, develop domestic industry and shift away from an emphasis on raw materials. So far, they have experimented with various schemes of import substitution (a policy that replaces foreign imports with domestic production, which is often costlier), industrial subsidies, import tariffs and general protectionist measures. But most have not worked. Brazil and Argentina are now moving ahead with economic reforms while Ecuador and Venezuela still cling to failing policies. Peru, Colombia and Chile are trying to compensate by turning to free trade and finding areas of competitive advantage.

South America shows that while the laws of geopolitics may be immutable, the way nations obey them are circumstantial. The things that divide the region are the same things that have prevented the kind of conflict that exists in other places – it’s hard for groups to clash if they are not forced to confront one another. But South America has a role to play on the global stage, even if it’s only recently trying to figure out how to play it.