In Chile and Mexico today, a vigorous debate is taking place that illustrates both the great opportunities available to Latin America on the international scene and the immense difficulties that the region faces in taking advantage of them. Finding themselves between a rock and a hard place -- support the U.S. on Iraq and betray their principles or oppose the U.S. and face the consequences -- many in Santiago and Mexico City are questioning whether their two countries should have joined the U.N. Security Council at all.
Behind this debate lies a broader, more complex dilemma: Should Latin America actively participate in the design and construction of the new post-Cold War world order, characterized by U.S. hegemony, even though this participation involves the acceptance of new responsibilities, the modification of basic principles and the ceding of important segments of sovereignty? Or should it remain faithful to its traditions and convictions, knowing that this implies its "absence at the creation" of an order that it will have to submit to in the long run?
Most arguments used in Mexico and Chile against participation in the U.N. Security Council are contradictory. A country cannot support multilateralism, the United Nations and international law on the one hand and refuse to participate in the council on the other. A nation cannot denounce U.S. unilateralism and then refuse to belong to the only mechanism that can, possibly and very rarely, place limits on that unilateralism.
The arguments that Mexico and Chile are vulnerable because of U.S. influence over immigration and trade issues can be applied to almost every country in the region.
Three Latin American countries still use the dollar; there is a strong and growing U.S. military presence in Colombia; Venezuela sells a considerable proportion of its oil to the U.S.; Costa Rica largely lives off U.S. retirees.
If every Latin American country that is to some degree vulnerable to the United States and/or maintains a traditional foreign policy abstained from joining the Security Council, it would be left without Latin American membership.
But beyond this unpersuasive reasoning, a contradiction of even greater dimensions stands out. Latin America is one of the regions of the world whose interests would best be served by the existence of a new international order that is at once rigorous, broad and precise.
When it comes to environmental law, international trade, the defense of democracy, human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, migrants or workers, Latin American nations have more to gain and less to lose than almost any other region in the world from the creation of a regime of universal values, obviously of a supranational character.
But, at the same time, few parts of the world today demonstrate such commitment to and respect for a series of traditions and principles contrary to this universalist project. Nonintervention, the unrestricted defense of sovereignty, an emphatic rhetorical and ideological nationalism -- are all constants in the stances and sentiments of most Latin American governments.
Partly for historical reasons, occasionally because of internal political considerations, in other cases for geographic motives, the majority of the hemisphere's nations maintain a great deal of skepticism about the type of new order that can be constructed.
Identifying the opportunities offered by today's situation regarding Iraq and taking advantage of them is now up to two Latin American governments in particular -- Mexico and Chile -- which would play an international role that goes beyond their real capacities of diplomatic, political and economic power.
With their economic and political clout, their geographic locations, their diplomatic vocations and traditions, and their visions of the world, Mexico and Chile are perhaps the only nations capable of championing forward-looking stances in the region.
Nonetheless, they still face an uphill battle against the ideological resistance and baggage that constantly undermine their ability to provide diplomatic leadership in Latin America. Part of the problem is that their national identities were both forged by 19th and 20th century nationalism.
Latin American political and intellectual elites have demonstrated a stubborn reluctance to engage in these efforts and in their countries' separation from the past. Mexico and Chile, the countries that, fortunately, represent Latin America in the Security Council, are without a doubt the most capable of breaking this inertia and assuming leadership.
It's not an easy task, but it has become increasingly indispensable and unavoidable.
Jorge Castaneda was foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 until earlier this year.