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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 05-06-2021 00:36

Through the foreign-policy looking glass

Why does the government led by Alberto Fernández go out of its way to snub the Western powers and their allies, so it can make common cause with the enemies of what, despite everything, still remains of the old international order?

Say what you like about the Peronist government’s foreign policy, but it would be hard to deny that it is idealistic. The people behind it are far less interested in securing material advantages for Argentina than in scoring points in what for them is an overwhelmingly important debate. In their world, abstractions count for far more than the bread-and-butter issues lesser beings go on about in the naïve belief that people will take them more seriously than promises to replace the existing universe with something radically different. What they most want is to win an argument which began many years ago and which, they doggedly insist, is far from over.

If this were not the case, it would never have occurred to them that it would be worth their while to support Nicolás Maduro’s thuggish regime, which has transformed Venezuela into a wretched crime-ridden, poverty-stricken backwater from which millions have fled, or to gang up with some of the world’s worst abusers of human rights in order to attack Israel for defending herself against Islamic jihadists who make no secret of their determination to slaughter all the Jews they can get their hands on.

For straightforward practical reasons, it would be far better for Argentina to get as close as possible to the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and other members of the European Union, plus Japan, Taiwan and, of course, Israel, than to snuggle up to Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and the bloodthirsty holy warriors of Hamas. Why, then, does the government formally led by Alberto Fernández, who on occasion seems to be a sensible bloke, go out of its way to snub the Western powers and their allies so it can make common cause with the enemies of what, despite everything, still remains of the old international order? Because, for over a century, there have been plenty of Argentine politicians and intellectuals who have grown accustomed to attributing their country’s many woes to the, in their view, baleful influence of first the UK and then the US. The ‘narrative’ peddled by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her courtiers is the most recent manifestation of a long-standing tradition which has its roots in Europe.

In the 1940s, the people ruling Argentina, who by and large had favoured the Axis powers, tried to offer the world an alternative to the liberal “rules-based” world order the United States, after emerging almost unscathed from World War II, was busily promoting. Unfortunately for the country, their efforts to come up with something better soon proved counterproductive.

As the late Carlos Escudé liked to point out, it was then that Argentina set out on a path that would lead her to a thoroughly unsatisfactory present. Had she chosen differently almost three-quarters of a century ago, by now she would surely be among the world’s most prosperous countries. What is more, by her example and, as a trading partner and source of investment, she would have been able to help her neighbours overcome mass poverty.

A country’s foreign policy is a mirror in which can be seen reflected the hopes and preferences of its rulers and, unless it is a full-blown dictatorship, a considerable proportion of its inhabitants. Though there cannot be that many Kirchnerites who want all of Argentina to look more like Venezuela than some parts of the Buenos Aires Province slum belt already do, large numbers of them must think Vladimir Putin has the right idea when it comes to dealing with his critics and also believe that the future will be made in China. As for Iran and the jihadists, their chief merit in Kirchnerite eyes is their hostility towards the US, which for them is what matters most; they take literally the allegedly Arab saying according to which the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For Cristina and her intimates, putting a brake on the Judiciary is an absolute priority. Understandably, she has no desire to spend the rest of her days in jail, as she most certainly would if the legal system worked properly. If this means turning Argentina into a country akin to pre-revolutionary France in which people like her and her cronies are above the law, so be it. This no doubt is one reason why she and her followers find Russia and China so attractive, though some at least must be aware that in the domains of Xi Jinping individuals plausibly accused of corruption are sporadically sentenced to death.

Another reason is the old one; they feel Argentina should not surrender to the ways of thinking that have long been typical of well-off democracies, but should continue resisting them, as did predecessors such as Juan Domingo Perón before, to the outspoken disgust of many of his followers, among them Cristina though she took her time before realising it, the man many still call “the general” went all soft and wobbly. 

The Kirchnerite variant of Peronism is staunchly conservative. Its cheerleaders are often said to be stuck in the 1970s, which for them was a golden decade, but the “red fascist” urban guerrillas who ushered in the military dictatorship saw themselves as the heirs of 19th century rebels who, for their part, often looked back with nostalgia to the days when what became Argentina belonged to the Spanish Empire whose laws Juan Manuel de Rosas took pride in restoring. Like many political movements in pre-war continental Europe, they are continuing the battle against the predominately protestant and therefore commercially-minded Anglo-Saxons who, by spawning the industrial revolution, changed the world in ways many disliked. 

Nothing lasts forever. The US-based order that followed the Pax Britannica could soon be history. Should this happen, the Kirchnerites and many others would be more than happy to dance on its grave, but that does not mean they would find whatever came next to their liking. A world in which the Chinese Communist Party plays a hegemonic role would be far more demanding than the one we have grown used to. If the Kirchnerites think the International Monetary Fund is inhumanly tough with countries whose governments insist on their sovereign right to make a mess of the economy and patriotically refuse to pay their bills, they might find the thought that before many years are out they will have to depend on the good will of hard men from China distinctly alarming. As another saying – which predates by at least a millennium the one attributed to the Arabs about friends and enemies – has it: be careful what you wish for.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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