Argentina Foreign Policy – National Pride or Domestic Consumption?

Photo by Jonathan Huston

The stridency of Argentina’s foreign policy over the past two years suggests an effort by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to capitalize on elements of authentic nationalism and harness them into a durable political tool at home.  Buenos Aires has dialed up the pressure on the Falklands-Malvinas dispute with the United Kingdom by seeking regional support and calling for a boycott.  The nationalization of the holdings of Spain-based oil giant Repsol has also soured relations with several European states.  Recently, the Argentine government has assailed the impounding of an historical frigate, the Libertad, in Ghana by agents of an investment fund that owns defaulted Argentine sovereign debt, labeling them “vultures.”  Argentina has ramped up criticism of U.S. restrictions on its agricultural exports, as the two countries trade accusations in the World Trade Organization.

The conventional wisdom in Washington has been that President Fernández de Kirchner is picking fights abroad to distract attention from economic and political problems at home.  Following its record $100 billion default in 2001, Argentina remains locked out of most international financial markets despite deals to discount and reschedule much of that debt.  Inflation is high and capital flight is so serious that the government has imposed strict controls on sending dollars out of the country – a measure unpopular with the middle and upper classes.  These problems have taken a toll on the president’s popularity, as have intimations that she might change the Constitution to permit her to run for a third term.

The view from Washington misses a couple key points.  Many of these nationalist moves have been wildly popular – above all the Repsol decision.  To attribute them to President Fernández de Kirchner alone ignores deep feelings in Argentina that the country deserves greater respect than it gets, as well as the fact that since the peso crisis, rejection of the sort of “carnal relations” that President Carlos Menem had with Washington (in his own words) in the 1990s has grown strong.  The current foreign policy orientation harkens to a much longer tradition, from Peronism and beyond.  There is little chance that issues such as the Malvinas or the Libertad are going to make Argentines forget about everyday economic challenges.  Rather, they are a manifestation of an Argentine narrative in which the country is denied its rightful place in international politics and trade – and in which it is being held unfairly in the penalty box for the peso crisis.  The United States support for the billionaire investors and hedge fund managers who bought deeply discounted bonds but are demanding full payment, and Washington’s subsequent vote against loans Buenos Aires needs from international financial institutions, are playing into nationalist themes.  Fernández de Kirchner’s foreign policy rhetoric taps into resentment; she is hardly responsible for creating it.

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