In the early 1990s, Carlos Menem had just won the presidency and with him Peronism was back into power. Setting aside a colorful campaign style, an enigmatic Menem directed the country’s course toward Western trends.
He closely aligned Argentina with Washington, abandoned his disreputable Middle East connections (including a shady relationship with Muammar Gaddafi), and slammed the door on the Non-Aligned Movement of Nations, an anachronistic club that historically gathered some of the most tyrannical and corrupt regimes. In making these decisions, Menem was braking away with the foreign policy of his immediate predecessor, Raul Alfonsin. More startlingly, Menem jettisoned some of Peronism’s core tenets. Particularly, the party’s long-standing anti-Americanism inoculated in the early 1940s by its founder and three-times President Juan Domingo Peron. Menem’s decade-long firm hold on power came to an end in 1999. Soon afterward, Argentina experienced a devastating political crisis and unprecedented economic and social collapse. An improbable series of short-ended and convoluted presidencies aggravated the general situation. Ultimately, the election in 2003 of fellow Peronist Nestor Kirchner to the presidency allowed the South American nation to regain a measure of both political stability and economic growth. However, unlike in motherland Spain, where a transfer of power from the arch rivals Popular Party to the Socialist Party inevitably resulted in a drastic reorientation of its foreign policy, Argentina’s turnarounds occur even when there is a dose of political continuity. Thus, Kirchner’s Peronism has regurgitated dormant anti-Americanism while subtly manipulating an old-fashioned and politically-useful set of anti U.S.-stances, which many thought were long buried during Menem’s era. The Argentine administration has also made a point of cultivating almost exclusively those governments in the region sharing similar ideological world views.
At the beginning of its term in 2003, President Kirchner kept a rather low international profile. Emboldened by sustained approval ratings, electoral triumphs, an extremely docile congress, and the growing support of his party, Kirchner felt free to adopt a more daring international approach. Since then, he has conspicuously courted a group of leaders united only in their relentless and unceasing anti-Washington rhetoric. In 2005, the Argentine President hosted a chaotic summit in Mar del Plata that torpedoed America’s free trade initiative without moving the region one inch closer toward a constructive alternative addressing Latin America’s enormous challenges. Moreover, Kirchner has relentlessly sponsored Venezuela’s accession to Mercosur (over Brazil’s more cautious approach), while Hugo Chavez indulges in his vitriolic anti-American crusade. And until an unfortunate fall-out with Havana (over the frustrated reunification of a Cuban family in Argentina), Nestor Kirchner flirted at length with Fidel Castro, and even toyed with the idea of paying a visit to the island.
In his immediate neighborhood, Kirchner’s diplomatic skills have been seriously tested. Even though, he long supported the emergence of Evo Morales in Bolivia (another self-proclaimed admirer of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution), the relationship soured after the radical Indigenous leader won the presidential elections. To the Argentine’s great surprise, Buenos Aires was not listed among the capitals Morales planned to visit during his pre-swearing-in international tour, which was to take him to far-off Beijing, Havana, Caracas, Brasilia, several Western European cities, and even a hardly-vital stop-over in Johannesburg. It was only after an intense back-an-forth between both foreign ministries that the Bolivian’s already-filled international agenda added Buenos Aires. Across the Rio de la Plata, Kirchner’s diplomacy has not fared much better. The relationship with Uruguay deteriorated overnight despite an overstated “ideological closeness” with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vazquez. However, a conflict over paper mills to be built in the border area has grown out of proportion, risking turning self-identified “fellow travelers” into distraught would-be partners.
The Argentine government continues to articulate its foreign policy according to dogmatic and old-fashioned ideological patterns. Ultimately, this has been Kirchner’s overly-tested formula when handling issues emerging in the domestic front. As an utterly-frustrated French diplomat candidly stated in Buenos Aires, the Argentine President is quintessentially a ‘68 generation man. To his dogmatism and plain overconfidence, one has to add a black-and-white understanding of the complex international dynamics born out of an entire life spent in far-off Patagonia. However, a not-yet-fully recovered Argentina needs as many connections with the outside world as possible if it is to emerge from its worst crisis ever. By limiting the country’s partners to those inhabiting Kirchner’s dogmatic highlands or building strategic alliances based only on circumstantial developments (such as the whimsical fluctuations of international markets) constitutes an unsound understanding of the country long-term interests. As the recent months have shown, Kirchner is in for a fast-learning experience.
* Pedro G. Cavallero is a policy analyst.