Next 1st December, Argentina is going to take over the presidency of the G-20. In late 2018, it will host the summit of the International Trade Organization. The Macri administration argues that this role is an ‘acknowledgment to the change’ the country is undergoing. How much changed has happened since Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015? The recent mid-term elections (on 22 October 2017) offer an opportunity to assess the records.
In an effort to highlight contrasts with the predecessor and expand its base of support, change has been the key slogan of the coalition in government called, indeed, Cambiemos (let’s change). In foreign policy, two ideas summarised this proposal: ‘re-joining the international community’ (volver al mundo) and adopting pragmatism (des-ideologizar). In other words, Argentina now attempts to resume its historical goals, principles and roles, open and integrate itself to the world, and pursue what officials call an ‘intelligent’ and ‘mature’ positioning in world affairs. The underlying goal is to re-establish other countries’ confidence, presumably lost in the past decade due to a confrontational rhetoric and conflictive actions mostly inspired by economic and political nationalism.
Two years down the road, there are some signs of changes, although these are still a work in progress. First, efforts to mend relations with the US led to establishing a good rapport at the presidential level during the Obama administration. This continues under Trump’s term as trade negotiations progressed and changes in Argentina’s policy orientation and discourse are welcome in Washington.
Second, expanding and diversifying partnerships follows from an aggressive trade and investment strategy. These include reviving MERCOSUR (the regional trade bloc of which Argentina is founding member), pursuing trade agreements with the European Union, and joining as observer the Alliance of the Pacific in June last year (another regional organization formed by Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Chile). This last move is consistent with increasing economic links with China and Asia more broadly –where four of the ten main destinations of Argentina’s exports are (i.e., China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia, in that order). In other regions of the world, redefining relations has proved to be more controversial at the domestic level: the agreement with Iran (signed during the previous administration) has been declared non-constitutional. The President accepted this judicial decision and did not use his veto power in this case. Iranians have been linked to the 1990s terrorist attacks to Israeli institutions in Buenos Aires. Former president Cristina de Kirchner and other high officials were to be prosecuted when a federal judge died the day before presenting the evidence. Both legal cases are still open in the context of increasing efforts of the Judicial power to re-gain autonomy and enhance transparency.
Third, relations with regional partners deserved special attention in the last two years because of the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. In clear contrast with the Kirchners’ alliance with Chavez and Maduro, Macri forcefully requested the liberation of political prisoners, denounced violations to human rights, and was in favour of not allowing Venezuela to take over the pro-tempore presidency in July 2016. He was keen on ‘passing from rhetoric to action’ and even applying the Organization of American States’ Democratic Clause. This position finally prevailed within the bloc: on 5th August 2017 MERCOSUR finally applied the 1998 Ushuaia’s Protocol, suspending rights and obligations of Venezuela as member state for indefinite time (i.e., ‘until the democratic order is restored’).
Fourth, the bilateral relationship with the UK also shows some signs of change. Aware of the constrains posed by the long-standing dispute over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, Argentina argued that this item should not be the focus of the relationship as it represents, at most, a figurative 20% of the links with the UK; instead, Macri’s government proposed to concentrate efforts on the remaining 80% which promises mutual benefits. This new approach led to a joint declaration in early 2016 and some progress afterwards. One of the goals in that document was achieved: clarifying the identity of Argentine soldiers who died during the war and were buried in the islands. The other two are still pending: resuming flights to/from the islands and ending sanctions to economic activities by islanders. Political, diplomatic and cultural relations improved and intensified in the last two years, in the spirit of ‘construction of empathy,’ as the British Ambassador to Buenos Aires called it, that is, setting a positive, mutually beneficial and long-term bilateral agenda.
These incipient changes are not exempt of pitfalls and criticisms. The 20/80 figure used to represent relations with the UK is questioned by the opposition, which also charges the government with a lukewarm approach in the defense of sovereign claims at international forums and an ambiguous approach to the case of Venezuela. Trade partnerships also represent a source of concern because of Argentina’s trade deficit and specialization in commodities. This is more of a continuity than a change between the current and the past administrations, and a pending issue in the governmental agenda. Another sign of continuity is to be found in the management of this area of public policy: as usual, presidential diplomacy is at the driver’s seat of most initiatives in foreign policy. Signs of dissent within the Cabinet (as the ones recorded between Macri and his former minister of Foreign Affairs over the issue of Venezuela) are seen as detrimental to the overall strategy. The replacement of Susana Malcorra by Jorge Faurie in that post (last June) was presented, in the official discourse, as a sign of ‘continuity and trust,’ presumably meaning that, from now on, no fundamental changes and disagreements in foreign policymaking are to be expected.
In sum, foreign policy might not have been a top consideration for voters in the recent mid-term elections, but it certainly contributed to construct a narrative about the identity of the coalition in power and to suggest a path to the future, a projection of national interests in a certain direction that seeks social support. Macri won the recent elections, defeating the dominant political force (Peronism, in its multiple forms). However, a narrative based on contrasts with the predecessor inevitable has limits in the long-run. Interest groups and society at large are eager to see, for instance, if Argentina has the capacity to resume steady economic growth, capture foreign investments, or play a leadership role at the regional level. In other words, the challenge is now to show if slogans translate into concrete changes at both the domestic and international level.