Cristina Fernández de Kirchner: great expectations, skimpy results
Fernández de Kirchner must put aside the diplomatic arrogance full of grand proclamations and responsibly face up to a foreign policy in which the results coincide with Argentina’s strategic guidelines. A preliminary assessment of her performance leaves big question marks and a feeling of deception.
(Buenos Aires) IT WAS ASSUMED THAT the world would be a much more comfortable place for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner than it was for Néstor Kirchner. This supposition was based, among other things, on the fact that in foreign policy -more than in any other area of public policy- manners affect the substance of decisions. And it is known that the new leader gives more importance to manners than her husband.
However, far from this promise of change, a preliminary assessment of her performance in international affairs during her year and a half in power (December 2007 – May 2008) leaves big question marks and a feeling of deception in regard to the expectations she had generated.
“Argentinian foreign policy has not managed to come up with an answer to one of the questions regarding an aspect that is crucial in defining its international insertion profile – who is it looking to favor in terms of regional ties: Latin America or South America?”
HAS CHANGE BEGUN?
In this very space, I stated the following regarding the challenges awaiting the government of Cristina Fernández as she took office:
“The foreign policy of the new president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, will have to deepen the appropriate slant of Néstor Kirchner’s management: the defense of universal values (human rights and no nuclear proliferation) and combined amounts of realism and prudent autonomy, within the framework of cooperative relations with the principal world power (the United States) and the greatest regional power (Brazil). However, even if these correct guidelines are followed, it will not be enough for international success during the current term.
It is urgent to eliminate from Argentina’s foreign policy the tendency for excessive personalization and decision concentration, which has led to the difficult matter with Uruguay concerning the paper factories and the suspicion of corruption in the parallel diplomacy with Venezuela in the four years from 2003 to 2007. Finally, it is fundamental that the bond that, aside from the ideological coincidences that exist between the leaders, has not consolidated as much as is necessary, be recovered. This means the Argentina-Brazil-Chile (ABC) axis, which is vital for regional integration and the peace and stability of South America. Reestablishing the link is fundamental to offset Venezuela’s destabilizing potential in South America and to develop strategies that would enable Washington’s interference and influence in the region to be contained.”
Without a doubt, at the beginning of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s term, the objective conditions were ripe for carrying out a foreign policy that would tackle these unresolved issues head on. As such, there was no longer justification -that is, if there ever was in the first place- for the kirchnerist strategy (2003-2007) of turning important aspects of foreign policy into mere appendages of domestic policy.
Néstor Kirchner’s excessive concentration on domestic affairs -which in some matters, such as the disagreement with Uruguay over the Botnia paper mill, had transformed foreign policy into a sort of “assembly diplomacy”- no longer had any means of support. The leader had successfully overcome the two issues that, according to his entourage, justified said strategy: the difficult conditions caused by the country’s level of foreign debt and the “legitimacy of origin” problem that dogged his government.
THE RIGHT MOMENT
The renegotiation of unpaid foreign debt was one of the key issues in the period between 2003 and 2005. Then minister, Roberto Lavagna, directed said undertaking with success: of the 102 billion dollars in default, considering indebted capital and interests, nearly 78 billion dollars was deposited into the treasury; in other words, 76% of the total. The government estimated the acquittance percentage at 66 percent (including the 24 billion dollars of accrual not deposited into the treasury, which represents a savings of approximately 45 billion dollars for the country.
In turn, in the parliamentary elections of 2005, officialism dominated at the polls, and as such the problem of his weak legitimacy of origin was overcome (it is worth reminding the reader that Kirchner had risen to power in 2003 with 22 percent of the votes, denied the possibility of a second electoral round by the desertion of his opponent: Carlos Menem).
This massive support, added to the positive image that the president planted in the public opinion -he ended his term with an approval rating of 70 percent according to the majority of polls- constituted a suitable framework so that his successor would be able to face up to a foreign policy less dependent on the domestic dynamic and more in tune with the new challenges.
The foreign policy strategy of the government that came to power on December 10, 2007 has been based on, as stated above, a generally correct slant. Characteristics that stand out are: the pursuit of relative autonomy -both in economic and political terms-, the unrestricted defense of human rights, a trumpeted pro-integration profile and distancing itself from the most contentious problems in the world.
“While on the rhetorical level the commendable flag of regional integration is being defended, when it comes to actual events, Mercosur is being weakened by the political inability to redefine the asymmetry with Brazil, and the conflict with Uruguay over the paper factories”
At the core of this strategy -which in terms of discourse is presented by the current administration as the antithesis of the unsubstantial subordination to the United States in the nineties- the outline of what Juan Carlos Puig defined as “heterodox autonomy” can be discerned.
This academic and former minister of foreign affairs (chancellor) of Argentina understood said strategy as the ability of a government to capitalize as much as possible on the empty spaces left by the dominant powers, due to weaknesses or mistakes. However, Puig claimed, the groups in power that define the foreign policy of a periphery state had to be capable, in turn, of recognizing their own limitations and identifying the existence of a group of vital issues regarding which they should act in line with the aspirations of the central countries (see Puig, Juan Carlos, América Latina: políticas exteriores comparadas, Tomo 1, Buenos Aires, GEL, 1984).
However, this aspiration for autonomy -in principle correct for a periphery country like Argentina- has often been poorly implemented by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government. Its foreign policy has repeatedly succumbed to diplomatic pompousness, a vice nearly as costly -albeit for different reasons- as the characteristic submissiveness of the “automatic alignment” strategy employed by Carlos Menem’s government (1989-1999) more than a decade ago.
UNIMPORTANT TO WASHINGTON
One of the major challenges facing Argentina’s current government when it first came to power was the pursuit of a constructive dynamic in relations with the United States, Brazil and Venezuela that would allow Argentina to recover some diplomatic weight in a climate of growing tension between Washington and Caracas and, to a lesser degree, between the latter and Brasilia.
Regarding the United States, and as a result of a historical process that has reached its lowest point regarding Argentina’s foreign power and influence, the relationship has became virtually unimportant from Washington’s point of view. This is the result of objective factors -Argentina has nothing to do with any of the issues at the top of the American agenda like immigration, trade, drugs, energy and domestic security-, but also because it is the product of a political and economic model that causes some serious doubt in Washington, both in George W. Bush’s outgoing republican government and the incoming democratic administration of Barack Obama.
In this way, while it is clear that the Kirchners’ model does not fit into the “Latin American populisms” category, nor does it have as a goal turning Argentina into a confusing Bolivarian-style participative democracy, what is certain is that it also has not invoked the confidence in Washington that their colleagues Michelle Bachelet, Lula and Tabaré Vázquez have indeed generated. The result of this process is Argentina’s growing loss of weight at the regional level, crystallized in the fact that the containment of the most irritating aspects of chavism -without a doubt, the most important inter-American diplomatic, task together with the pursuit of stability in the turbulent country of Bolivia- has come to depend almost exclusively on the diplomatic ability of Lula’s government.
Not even in terms of bilateral relations has the relationship between Chávez and the Kirchners -which, it is fair to point out, is more of a pragmatic than an ideological bond- been fruitful recently. Hugo Chávez has ceased to be the trustworthy financial partner that many believed he was, with last August’s increase in interest rates (15.5 percent) on the Argentinean Boden 2015 bonds, which he got rid of by reselling at an interest rate of 17 percent. We must add to this Chávez’s recent nationalization of three of the firms of the Italian-Argentinean group Techint: Venezuelan Steel Pipes (Tavsa), Iron and Steel Materials (Matesi) and The Iron and Steel Complex of Guayana (Consagra). Along the same lines, last year, Chávez nationalized Orinoco Iron and Steel (Sidor), a subsidiary of the same economic group.
In turn, Argentinian foreign policy has not managed to come up with an answer to one of the questions regarding an aspect that is crucial in defining its international insertion profile – who is it looking to favor in terms of regional ties: Latin America or South America? Whatever the answer might be, the facts are indisputable: Argentina has shown itself to be absolutely erratic when it comes to answering this question.
“Our relationship with the United States has become more and more limited to a few shared interests in very specific topics on the agenda (narcotrafficking, terrorism)”
ASYMMETRY WITH BRAZIL
Let’s take the cases of Brazil and Uruguay in the Southern Cone, and relations with Mexico at the Latin American level. With respect to Brazil, Argentinean historically pendulum-like diplomacy has strengthened the normal uneasiness -refueled from the Brazilian side-, which has led to an ever-more clearer stagnation of Mercosur’s integration process. What is visible behind this process is, as Juan Toakatlian has correctly pointed out, Argentina’s inability to “renegotiate the asymmetry in relation to Brazil and define a strategic society with said country” (La Nación, November 8, 2009).
In short, if we get past the trumpeted integrationism, Argentina is far from establishing a mature relationship with its northern neighbor, the only way to face up to the subregional bloc’s problems, above all the institutional issues and the asymmetries suffered by the bloc’s smallest states (Uruguay and Paraguay).
Mercosur’s discouraging outlook is completed by the virtual standoff in Argentinean-Uruguayan relations as a result of the paper factories, which shows signs of the national leadership’s inability to secure a shift in the bilateral relationship on time, without waiting for La Haya’s ruling.
Finally, regarding Mexico, our most important Latin American negotiator outside of the Southern Cone -the fifth largest provider and sixth most important international client, aside from being an important foreign investor-, our relationship has been cracking, and has reached unsuspected levels. Far from Cristina Fernández’s auspicious visit as a presidential candidate in July 2007 -when the relationship with Felipe Calderón and many Mexican businessmen appeared to be dynamic-, relations hit rock bottom with the Argentinean government’s suspension of direct commercial flights between Mexico and Argentina as a cause of the swine flue epidemic. Buenos Aires took this measure this past April 30, and kept it in place for more than 15 days, completely disregarding the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), which had recommended that the cancellation of flights be avoided. It is in this context that President Felipe Calderón accused foreign governments -obviously referring to Argentina, but also Ecuador, Peru, Cuba and China- of discriminating against Mexican cities.
TIME FOR CHANGE
Argentina urgently needs to improve its efficiency when it comes to implementing policies regarding international affairs.
We are not looking at completely unsuitable or unsubstantial strategic guidelines -in fact, we have emphasized the correct general slant of a foreign policy that aims to combine reasonable limits of autonomy with the defense of regional integration and human rights-, but rather at a problem of apparent distance between the general outlines of the policies and the skimpy results obtained.
With things as they are, while on the rhetorical level the commendable flag of regional integration is being defended, when it comes to actual events, Mercosur is being weakened by the political inability to redefine the asymmetry with Brazil, and the conflict with Uruguay over the paper factories. In parallel, we do not know whether to give priority to our South American or Latin American international insertion profile, but in order to not raise doubts regarding our eternally erratic state, we made the mistake of closing our borders to Mexican flights as a result of the swine flu.
“In order for the correct foreign policy slant to translate into effective results, a lot more than bombastic rulings from various international courts is needed.”
As if that weren’t enough, our relationship with the United States has become more and more limited to a few shared interests in very specific topics on the agenda (narcotrafficking, terrorism), but we have fallen completely off of Washington’s radar in regard to a key issue that defines the diplomatic clout of our country in the region: the possibility of containing the propagation of the most irritating aspects of the “21st century socialism” promoted by Hugo Chávez. This task has unquestionably been handed over to the much more “trustworthy” Brazilian leader, Lula da Silva.
In short, what is trying to be emphasized here is that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner must put aside the diplomatic arrogance full of grand proclamations and responsibly face up to a foreign policy in which the results coincide with the big strategic guidelines. I do not doubt that the “unorthodox autonomy” strategy that Juan Carlos Puig devised more than a quarter of a century ago must be at the core of our foreign policy. However, in order for the correct foreign policy slant to translate into effective results, a lot more than bombastic rulings from various international courts is needed.