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Reading: The Inter-American System in an Era of Declining United States Hegemony


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The Inter-American System in an Era of Declining United States Hegemony


Thomas Andrew O'Keefe

Stanford University Stanford CA, US
About Thomas
Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd,, a legal and economic consulting firm based in New York City that assists companies with their strategic business planning for South America as well as advises Latin American firms exporting to the United States. Mr. O’Keefe is a dual national of the United States and Chile. He is bilingual in English and Spanish, and fluent in French and Portuguese. He did his undergraduate work at Columbia University, and received his J.D. from the Villanova University School of Law. In 1986, he worked for the legal departments of the Chilean Human Rights Commission and the Vicaría de la Solidaridad (the human rights office of the Archdiocese of Santiago). He also worked as an associate for a number of years at the Wall Street law firm of Carter, Ledyard & Milburn and the Boston-based Gadsby & Hannah before returning to study at the University of Oxford, where he received an M.Phil. in Latin American Studies (History and Economics) in 1992. He has taught courses on Western Hemisphere economic integration, the Political Economy of the Southern Cone Countries of South America, Energy and Climate Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere, and Major Themes in U.S.-Latin America Diplomatic History at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and Stanford University as well as Colonial Latin American History at American University. He was Chair of the Western Hemisphere Area Studies Program at the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015. During the spring 2015 semester, he also taught a seminar on International Human Rights Law at the Villanova University School of Law. Mr. O’Keefe is the author of numerous book chapters and articles on Latin American economic integration, globalization, energy security, and climate change, and has lectured extensively on these topics both in the United States and abroad. He has also been invited to brief U.S. government officials and testify before the U.S. Congress on developments within MERCOSUR and the Free Trade Area of the Americas project. He is the former Managing Editor of Focus Americas, an analytical review of business and legal developments throughout the Western Hemisphere. He is the author of Latin American Trade Agreements (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, Inc. 1997-); Latin American and Caribbean Trade Agreements: Keys to a Prosperous Community of the Americas (Leiden NL: Martinus Nijhoff (Brill), 2009); and, Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Abingdon, UK: 2018). In 2001, Mr. O’Keefe participated in the U.S. AID/RAPID project as an African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade specialist based in Gaborone, Botswana. In 2005, he received a Fulbright Scholars Award to lecture on international trade topics at the National Universities of Córdoba and Rosario in Argentina and conduct research on the Argentine energy sector for a chapter in a book published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in 2007. In 2011, he was the recipient of a Fulbright Senior Specialist Award to lecture on the Peru-United States Free Trade Agreement at the Law School of the Catholic University of Peru. Between October 2005 and October 2006, he was the Legal and Economic Integration Specialist for the US AID funded Caribbean Open Trade and Support Program based in Antigua that provided trade capacity building and competitiveness assistance to the governments and private sectors in both Antigua and Barbuda as well as Dominica.
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The inter-American system encompasses the institutional and legal framework promoted by the United States of America following the first International Conference of American States in Washington, DC, in 1890 as a means of consolidating US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. After WW II, it became most identified with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (aka the Rio Treaty). The first significant challenges to US dominance and leadership within the inter-American system appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, although it did not become symptomatic of a wider decline in US hegemony in Latin America until the administration of George W. Bush. In particular, many countries withdrew from the Rio Treaty, refused to participate in the inter-American human rights system, and utilized the OAS to repudiate US foreign policy on Cuba and the “War on Drugs.” Furthermore, new hemispheric organizations appeared such as the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that purposefully excluded the United States. During the Obama years, a frustrated US Congress threatened to cut US contributions, while administration officials retreated from taking a proactive role in the OAS. For its part, the Trump government has boycotted hearings of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and reduced its funding. The article concludes with a discussion of the inter-American system without the domineering presence of the nation which spawned it to promote its own geopolitical priorities, precisely when an effective regional body is crucial for addressing many hemispheric challenges.


El sistema interamericano abarca el marco institucional y legal promovido por los Estados Unidos de América después de la primera Conferencia Internacional de Estados Americanos en Washington, DC, en 1890 como un medio de consolidar la hegemonía estadounidense en el hemisferio occidental. Después de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se identificó más con la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) y el Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca (también conocido como el Tratado de Rio). Los primeros desafíos significativos para el dominio y el liderazgo estadounidense dentro del sistema interamericano aparecieron en las décadas de 1970 y 1980, aunque no se convirtió en sintomático de una disminución más extensa de la hegemonía estadounidense en América Latina hasta la administración de George W. Bush. De hecho, muchos países se retiraron del Tratado de Río, se negaron a participar en el sistema interamericano de derechos humanos y utilizaron la OEA para repudiar la política exterior estadounidense sobre Cuba y la “Guerra contra las drogas”. Además, aparecieron nuevas organizaciones hemisféricas como la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas y la Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños que excluían expresamente a los Estados Unidos. Durante los años de Obama, un frustrado Congreso de los Estados Unidos amenazó con recortar las contribuciones estadounidenses, mientras que los funcionarios de la administración se retiraron de ejercer un papel proactivo en la OEA. Por su parte, el gobierno de Trump ha boicoteado las audiencias de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos y reducido su financiación. Este estudio concluye con una discusión sobre el sistema interamericano sin la presencia dominante de la nación que lo generó para promover sus propias prioridades geopolíticas, precisamente cuando un organismo regional eficaz es crucial para abordar múltiples desafíos hemisféricos.

How to Cite: O'Keefe, T.A., 2020. The Inter-American System in an Era of Declining United States Hegemony. Middle Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies, 4(2), pp.194–212. DOI:
Published on 27 Dec 2020.
Peer Reviewed


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