Americas / Foreign Policy

The Legacy of History: An Interview with Dr. Joseph Tulchin

In a world where technology has made travel much simpler, it is easy to live abroad and feel safe. Few Americans, however, have dared to reside in countries under military dictatorships. Fewer still have been in a state of siege even once, let alone five times. But Dr. Joseph Tulchin, a preeminent Latin Americanist, has: once each in Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay, and twice in Argentina. Dr. Tulchin –an expert on U.S. foreign policy, inter-American relations, and contemporary Latin America – is currently teaching a seminar at Bowdoin on United States – Latin American relations, as well as finishing up his latest book on Latin American foreign policy.

Tulchin, who graduated from Amherst College, did not know he wanted to study Latin America until he began graduate school at Harvard University. During his first year, he took a research seminar which sought to examine global reactions after WWI when the United States refused to join the League of Nations. “The person in my seminar next to me said ‘I’ll do the United Kingdom,’” explained Tulchin. “The young lady down the table said ‘I’ll do France,’ and so I said ‘well I speak Spanish a little I’ll do Spain.’ But [the professor] said, ‘Spain’s not really that useful, why don’t you do Latin America?’, so I did. And I started with A, which is Argentina, and that was it.” Tulchin ended up writing his dissertation on US foreign policy toward Latin America during the First World War.

Tulchin went on to teach US foreign policy and Latin American history, first at Yale University, and then at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Over time,” said Tulchin, “I began to sort of grope my way to a discussion of Latin American foreign policy.” He realized, however, that this debate did not actually exist, and began to search for a reason why. “Part of it, of course, was the absence of democracy, but part of it was a historic tradition,” explained Tulchin. So he began to participate in public policy and activist work, with the goal of involving Latin Americans in the comparative study of their own countries and their own foreign policies. This was his main focus during the 16 years he spent as the Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Public Policy.

Tulchin recently completed the manuscript of his latest book, From Hegemony to Agency. The purpose of the book is to ask why there has not been any definite Latin American foreign policy. Tulchin presents two separate conclusions. The first, explained Tulchin, is that “the United States comes to hegemony in the region and has no idea, not even today, of how pernicious that hegemonic behavior has been.” The second is that within Latin American agency there are two things lacking. “Well, one thing lacking and one thing that I don’t know what to do about,” said Tulchin. The former is that Latin America is afraid to take its place in the world. The latter refers to the residual anti-Americanism left over from US hegemony in the region. According to Tulchin, “the legacy of history is powerful,” and as the United States has proclaimed an end to its hegemony, the nations of Latin America must now find a way to exert their own agency.

In his search for Latin American foreign policy, Tulchin has spent a number of years living in countries under military rule, something to which he did not quickly adjust. “The climate of fear that’s associated with a military dictatorship or a repressive regime is inconceivable to us,” admitted Tulchin. To illustrate his relative naiveté, Tulchin pointed to one afternoon, shortly after he first arrived in Buenos Aires, when he was having a cup of coffee with a friend. He heard a siren go off and ran out onto the sidewalk to see what was happening. All he had time to observe was a black four-door Ford Falcon driving by and a man with a gun leaning his arm on the open back-seat window, before his friend tackled him to the ground. Unbeknownst to Tulchin, the Argentinian police charged with disappearing people during the “Dirty War” drove these “Black Falcons,” and since, according to Tulchin, “the streets of [Buenos Aires] are worse than the streets of Boston,” the guns would occasionally go off and accidentally kill innocent bystanders when the car hit a pothole.

And yet, despite multiple decades of travel through dangerous countries, Tulchin claims he has only once come close to experiencing real bodily harm. He was in Bogotá in the early 1980s, during the first years of the drug cartels. His colleague, the Dean of Architecture at the Jesuit School in Bogotá, was driving him to dinner along with a couple of friends from the US. One of Tulchin’s friends had broken her leg and was sitting with it propped up on the back seat. On the way to dinner, they were stopped by a young corporal on duty. The corporal asked to see the Dean’s license and registration, but he had neither and was driving his wife’s car.

Tulchin and his American friends showed the corporal their passports but unfortunately, according to Tulchin, “the kid was from the country and had never seen a passport, so he thought we were alien agents of some sort, probably guerrillas. We had documents he had never seen before, the driver of the car didn’t have identification, and there’s a lady in the back seat with her broken leg propped up.” So the soldier, who looked to be around 18 years old, took the safety off his rifle. After a significant amount of persuasion, Tulchin and the Dean finally convinced the soldier to contact his captain. They then walked the three blocks to find the captain, Tulchin and the Dean in front with the soldier pointing his rifle into their backs. They finally made it to the captain, “who it turned out, typical of the Colombian military, was from an elite family and knew the Dean’s brother,” said Tulchin. “At the moment it was scary, but in retrospect it was pure comedy.”

“What does it [really] mean to live in a military dictatorship?” asked Tulchin. “I could make you read ten books and then you’d go down [to Latin America] and be like a Martian looking around…You have trouble understanding what’s happening and you don’t know where the lines are.” In a career that has spanned several countries over multiple decades, Tulchin has balanced precariously on these lines in a continuous attempt to encourage a debate about Latin American foreign policy, one which he believes it is imperative to have. “If you look at process, you want discussion,” said Tulchin. “It’s natural to have debate about foreign policy. You have to have it.”