Of the 200 or so global leaders that address the United Nations General Assembly, very few manage to grab the attention of the international community. That attention is generally reserved for the global super powers or nations that threaten the status quo imposed by the dominant players. Sometimes, up-and-coming regional players squeeze in as well. Argentina would’ve probably been in that category this year, but President Mauricio Macri decided to focus on domestic politics instead, sending Vice-President Gabriela Michetti to represent him in New York.
Not only does it demonstrate the existence a certain fragility in the Let’s Change (Cambiemos) governing coalition, it’s also disappointing that the president passed up on a perfect opportunity to position Argentina as a key regional player with sound policies in the face of increased global fragmentation, rising nationalism and violence and disregard for key issues like climate change and immigration. The fact that Argentina will preside over the G20 and host its summit in 2018, and is looking for acceptance into the OECD, makes his absence even more conspicuous.
Led by Michetti — who was flanked by Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, Modernisation Minister Andres Ibarra, and Strategic Affairs Secretary Fulvio Pompeo — the delegation did a decent job. In a 15-minute speech, Michetti touched on the basic tenets of Argentine foreign policy: the sovereignty of the Malvinas Islands, the seeking of the global community’s help in getting Iran to allow a fair trial of those responsible for the AMIA and Israeli Embassy bombings and adherence to the UN’s development goals, along with the Macri administration’s hard-line approach toward Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Michetti also accepted a private invitation from US President Donald Trump to dine alongside the presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Panama and discuss the situation in Venezuela, held bilateral meetings with key dignitaries, and held photo-ops with figures like Princess Máxima of the Netherlands.
Yet Macri’s presence would have showed the global community a different level of commitment from Argentina. While Michetti’s speech went unnoticed, an Argentine president speaking of multilateralism, globalisation as a force for good and the perils of climate change would’ve contrasted nicely with Trump’s belligerent nationalism. It also would’ve been fitting ahead of Argentina’s presidency of the G20 and Macri’s attempts to get the country accepted into the OECD – dubbed “the rich countries club” – and helpful in attracting foreign capital. With Brazilian President Michel Temer in an absolutely weakened position, politically, economically, and socially speaking, Macri would have also positioned Argentina as a regional leader within the Mercosur bloc, taking the lead on the slow-motion train wreck that is Maduro’s Venezuela.
That the domestic political agenda was more important than the 72nd UN General Assembly seems to speak more of weakness than disinterest. While it appears true – as Perfil’s world news editor Santiago Farrell pointed out this week – that the main purpose of Macri’s foreign policy is to gain access to international debt markets and foreign direct investment, staying in Buenos Aires also indicates that Macri has to roll his sleeves up to protect the fragile political victory in last month’s PASO primaries.
It has become increasingly clear that Macri is running out of trustworthy and electorally palatable members of his PRO party after he became president, deploying his best cards in the City (Horacio Rodriguez Larreta) and Buenos Aires province (Maria Eugenia Vidal). In that ever-important province, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s knife-edge electoral win over Esteban Bullrich has forced her into campaign mode, and she’s pretty good at it. Last week, she generated a de facto cadena nacional by conceding an interview to Luis Novaresio of Infobae. It should come as no surprise to anyone that she loves to be the centre of attention.
At the same time, the saga of Santiago Maldonado continues to threaten the government’s aspirations of a clear victory in the October midterm elections. With the public’s attention focused on possible foul play by the Gendarmerie, the political beneficiaries will be the opposition. Even the Alberto Nisman case, which came back to the fore this week with a forensic report suggesting the late AMIA prosecutor was murdered, didn’t manage to overshadow the missing man.
While it’s easy to understand why Macri decided not to fly to New York, it could’ve been his chance to shine where he has proven to be the strongest, abroad. Alas, the immediate always seems more important than the strategic. And this time, politics beat out policy.