What is Argentina’s current foreign policy?
To understand Argentina’s current foreign policy it is necessary to understand the economic crisis of 2001 and its effect on what we are calling the ‘current’ policies of former President Nestor Kirchner and his wife, the current President, Cristina Fernandez.
As we mentioned in the last section, the government of Carlos Menem embraced open market liberalization, influenced by the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus which, it is claimed, were responsible for the financial crisis of 2001. Accordingly, subsequent administrations, have tried to distance Argentina from both the policies and institutions of the Washington led financial institutions while balancing the realities of Argentina’s public debt and the need for foreign investment at home.
The economic stimulus program begun by Kirchner has required increased government spending and the need to look for new sources of foreign investment, all while not appearing too cozy with the traditional international financial system. Within this context the government has articulated and pursued a series of bilateral and multilateral foreign policy goals.
Bilateral foreign policy is to continue to demand sovereignty over the Falkland/Malvinas islands with Britain as discussed earlier, to deepen strategic alliances with Brazil in all respects, strengthen the strategic alliance with Chile, establish a special relationship with Mexico, and achieve a mature relationship with the US. On top of these stated goals Argentina has dealt extensively with Venezuela, with Chile over a number of issues from commerce to borders, with Uruguay over the protests against the paper mill; and with Bolivia and the possibility of increasing energy supplies.
During Nestor Kirchner’s term in office Argentina signed a total of 208 bilateral treaties. The following table details the regional emphasis placed by Argentina on opening trade with countries in the region. As seen in the table, Latin America and the Caribbean have received the most attention during this period. Within the Latin American region, Chile represents the country with the highest number of bilateral agreements signed (30), followed by Venezuela (27), and Bolivia (23). The 27 agreements signed between Argentina and Venezuela represent 25 percent of the total agreements ever signed between them. Nueva Mayoría, en base al Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio Internacional y Culto de la Argentina.
The multilateral agenda items can be further subdivided into two groups, regional and global, but both are used to promote Argentina’s primary goal of seeking a more equitable international order. Specifically this means,
“prioritiz[ing] the integration of Argentina into the World through consensus; oriented towards strengthening international law, the promotion of values associated with international peace, democratic forms of government, respect for human rights, a more balanced system of commerce, a better distribution of the benefits of globalization, and a democratization of the decision making system in international organizations.”
Argentina’s official regional policy objectives are to:
“Advocate the opening of the country to the world in a realistic manner, in a framework of deepening regional integration – in particular through MERCOSUR – applying flexible negotiating criteria, in accordance with the international circumstantial context, with the objective of strongly reestablishing the credibility, trust, and foresight of our country.”
These policies have been difficult to implement in practice and have often been superseded by internal political conflict that inevitably has spilled over into the foreign policy realm. For example, although Argentina specifically seeks to strengthen its strategic alliance with Chile, President Kirchner has been unwilling to raise the price of combustibles internally, leading to an over-demand for natural gas. Unable to satisfy both national consumption and fulfill its supply agreements with Chile, Kirchner has repeatedly surprised Chilean politicians with abrupt announcements of gas shortages and price hikes.
The paper mill dispute between Argentina and Uruguay is another international conflict whose progression has largely been driven by public opinion. Even though a MERCOSUR decision ruled on Sept. 6, 2006 that Kirchner had not done enough to reopen international roads during the protests, he refused to take definitive action. The issue was then sent to the World Trade Organization (WTO) where both sides hope to resolve the conflict definitively. Interestingly enough, while the dispute between the two countries does not help Argentina “strengthen strategic alliances with neighboring countries” (point VII Foreign Policy Agenda), Kirchner’s use of MERCOSUR and WTO arbitration reflects his desire to support multilateralism through active involvement in international organizations (point II of foreign policy agenda).
Perhaps the most striking example of how internal politics has affected foreign policy was the decision to pay off Argentina’s debt to the IMF in full and transfer the balance to Venezuelan creditors. As mentioned, the issue of debt repayment was at the center of the political collapse of Argentina’s government between 2001 and 2003 and was one of the most controversial items voted on in the 2003. The opportunity to transfer US$3.1 billion from the IMF to Venezuela allowed Kirchner to symbolically thumb his nose at the IMF and resolve his country’s problems through regional cooperation (point III of foreign policy agenda). The decision to go with Chávez demonstrated a certain amount of shared support between the two left-of-center governments for a new international order not based on Washington (point I of foreign policy agenda). It is worth noting that Kirchner has, in some ways, sacrificed the “maturing” of his relationship with the US (point IX of foreign policy agenda) for a closer alliance with regional governments like Hugo Chávez’s and Evo Morales’ (point III and IV of foreign policy agenda). Yet this is understandable given Argentina’s desire to promote regional integration in South America and Washington’s continued lack of any distinguishable policy toward the region.
Finally, the sovereignty issue with Great Britain over the Falkland/Malvinas, Georgias South, and Sandwich South islands has gained greater attention under Kirchner than at any point since the failed war in 1982. The Economist views Kirchner’s “upping the ante” as a cynical attempt to garner support ahead of the 2007 elections. Under Kirchner Argentina stopped all charter flights between the island and the mainland, refused to send scientist to the bi-national commission that decides fishing licenses, sent 15 letters of protest to the British Embassy, and used the OAS and the UN as vehicles to attack Great Britain over its continued control of the islands. However, the dispute is not entirely political, the island is the potential source of an estimated 500,000 barrels of oil a day and an annual income at US$40 million per year in marine resources.
Based on an analysis of both the formal aspects of Argentina’s foreign policy, the issues that have arisen during Nestor Kirchner’s one term as president, as well as the historical context of Argentina’s role in the region and world at large, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions. Generally it seems that Fernandez and the Kirchner political team are primarily concerned with public opinion and “recovering” Argentina’s former status and influence in the region.
The emphasis on public opinion is seen in willingness to spite close national allies, like Chile or Uruguay, for fear of damaging the administrations’ image at home. In terms of specific policy conclusions there are four. First, that President Kirchner and his administration view MERCOSUR as the vehicle that will help Argentina meet the challenges of the 21st century. Second, that they believe MERCOSUR has the ability to counter-balance other regional blocks in the future, creating an economic and political force capable of influencing global events. Third, that they are working to make sure that Argentina is a leader within this block. And finally, that although the government realizes the difficult position of Argentina’s current social and economic conditions, it is determined to maintain Argentina’s political independence regardless of that cost.
The first point that Kirchner and members of his government view MERCOSUR as the way forward, is visible throughout Argentina’s foreign policy agenda, in comments made by high level officials and the frequent use of MERCOSUR in efforts to achieve its foreign policy goals. With 60 percent of the bilateral trade agreements signed during Kirchner’s administration dealing with Latin America countries and five of the 16 official foreign policy objectives dealing specifically with MERCOSUR members and associate members, it is clear that Argentina values the region. Argentina wants to expand and diversify its market base, ensure a stable supply of energy, and create enough internal stability to attract investors. It hopes that MERCOSUR and its associate members can help with the first two points which will hopefully create the internal stability necessary to achieve the third.
The second point, that the Fernandez de Kirchner administration believes that MERCOSUR has the ability to counter-balance other regional blocks, was evident at the IV Summit of the Americas in 2005 when MERCOSUR leaders broke with the US and 29 other OAS member countries over disagreements concerning the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).
The third point, that Argentina’s government hopes to position the nation as a leader within the block, is evident from both Argentina’s historic role as the second largest country and economy in South America and its current initiative within MERCOSUR and South America. Finally, the current government of Argentina values its political independence even at the expense of other issues. This Peronist tradition can be seen in Argentina’s criticism of the Washington Consensus, participation in MERCOSUR as a counter-weight to the U.S., and its reentry into the Non-Aligned Movement are indicative of an independent stance. Former President Kirchner supported Venezuela’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council knowing that the U.S. was worried about Chavez’s support of Iran. At a time when the unresolved issue of nuclear armament in Iran made the future member’s stance on such issues especially relevant and that the US has labeled it part of the Axis of Evil, the vote suggested that Argentina was willing to oppose the US’s strategic interests as well as its economic ones. However, this loyalty to Venezuela is not unlimited, when the Venezuelan Ambassador in Buenos Aires Roger Capella convinced the then Argentinean Deputy Secretary for Social Habitat Housing Luis D’Elía to organize a street protest against a court decision to charge the former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and seven others Iranian authorities for the bombing of the Nov. 2006 Jewish-Argentine Mutual Association (AMIA) community center Kirchner’s protest to Caracas and the subsequent withdrawal of Ambassador Capella were a sign that administration is very protective of Argentinean sovereignty, whether in the strategic, economic, or political realm and will use any resource necessary to maintain it.
By Nathan Gill – Southern Affairs
 Jozami, Ángel. Argentina, la destrucción de una nación. Santiago de Chile: La Tercera – Mondadori: 2003: 131 – 158.  Argentina Foreign Ministry Website.  Nueva Mayoria 17 May 2006 website.  Ibid.  Argentina Foreign Ministry.  Ibid. Translation by author.  Ibid.  La Nación de Buenos Aires 4 Dec. 2006 EMOL website.  The Economist. 5 Oct. 2006 website.  Organización Mundial de Comercio (OMC) in Spanish.  Hale, Briony. “Elections rock Argentina’s fragile recovery” BBC. London, England: Apr. 28, 2003. Accessed on Nov. 5, 2006.  The Economist 26 Oct. 2006.  The Economist 13 July 2006 website.  Ibid.  PINR 2006 website.