This study examines the triangular relations between the United States, the European Union and MERCOSUR as a case of soft balancing against the hegemon in the post Cold War international system. Most existing literature focuses on the relations between the hegemon and the other great powers (i.e. secondary powers) and on hard balancing and the use of power and force as a means to restrain the hegemonic power. The present research offers, therefore, a twofold contribution; a theoretical framework and an empirical analysis which examines the relationship between three levels of power: the hegemon, a secondary power, and a tertiary power.
The study traces both the US-MERCOUSR relations and the EU-MERCOSUR relations in four subsequent periods, between the years 1991- 2006. In this way I attempt to show that the greater the US involvement and attempts to influence economic and political structures in the region, the more the secondary and tertiary powers – the EU and MERCOSUR – cooperate in order to strengthen their global and regional position, respectively, and weaken the hegemonic endeavor.
Following a careful analysis of the developments during the period of study I have established that the EU-MERCOSUR relationship should be considered a form of soft-balancing the hegemon. The EU challenged the American initiative of the FTAA and succeeded in influencing the events of the Western Hemisphere by supporting MERCOSUR politically and economically, holding bilateral meetings in response to the FTAA meetings and offering MERCOSUR a better FTA agreement, and strengthening MERCOSUR’s bargaining position in the FTAA talks. The result is that the FTAA negotiations are stalled and MERCOSUR is the only integration or group of states in the American continent that did not sign a free trade agreement with the US.
This case study shows, I believe, that using political, economic and diplomatic means and strengthening ties with tertiary powers can be fairly successful in soft-balancing the hegemon. Furthermore, applying this to different cases of triadic relationships can provide a useful comparative understanding of the conditions under which soft power is more or less affective.