The promise and problems of an open foreign policy

Buenos Aires Herald. 30 de marzo de 2016.

Universality should be paired with predictable partners

Argentina’s new government has made it known that it wants an open and engaged foreign policy. As President Macri said the night of his electoral victory, “Argentina wants to co-operate with everyone.” In January, at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he announced: “Our country has decided to take its place in the world.” Quite deftly, the government’s foreign policy rhetoric has communicated that, while on the one hand, Argentina is once again on good terms with the United States, on the other hand the country is avoiding the equation of “open and engaged” with a special link with Uncle Sam.

Openness as a desirable policy strategy is supported by a great deal of social science. To cite former International Studies Association president Etel Solingen (born Argentine and professor at the University of California at Irvine), an international orientation has positive effects on the general pattern of development. In the medium to long term, countries whose leaders opt for openness become prosperous, peaceful and democratic, while governments that choose to close their states off to the world generate the opposite effect. Solingen points to many East Asian countries as examples of the first option and others in the Middle East as examples of the dangers of the second. The contrast between the two Koreas is also illustrative.

In an increasingly multi-polar world, the universal orientation (as opposed to falling in line with one particular power) is also a good choice as a general strategy. However, particular goals require working with certain states and regional organizations as partners.

Argentina’s new leaders and many ordinary citizens hope that the country’s new foreign policy will bring economic and political benefits of the type identified by Solingen and others. It is likely, but much depends on the details and context of choices, and the availability of good partners, in particular areas.

Luckily for the country, geography somewhat protects Argentina from some of the worst consequences of internationalized civil wars, such as international terrorism and waves of refugees, that have rocked other regions. However, it is not possible to remain completely isolated. Argentina can strengthen its reputation as a supporter of international solidarity and peace by joining or even leading global co-operation efforts.

Perhaps the most dramatic change in Argentine policy thus far has been the repudiation of the agreement with Iran and the related improvement of the bilateral relationship with Israel. This policy at least re-establishes the determination to find the truth regarding the terrorist attacks in Argentina of the 1990s. However, further progress than that may have to wait for deeper transformations in Iran itself.

Issues such as trade, investment and environment are usually what analysts like Solingen mean as dimensions of “openness.” To achieve its goals in particular areas, Argentina cannot adopt a purely universal approach. It will need to work with individual and regional partners but unfortunately it is not all that clear which ones.

Consider the European Union. For decades it has served as a model to follow in South America, but these days its viability is being questioned. At the same time, the political crisis in Brazil casts a shadow over the record of Mercosur. The Macri government’s interest in pushing forward with an EU-Mercosur agreement is a bet on the continued importance of both regional blocs.

Pragmatic relations with China continue to be crucial, but the cooling of the Chinese economy implies that Argentina may need to reduce its expectations regarding the bilateral relationship with that country.

Meanwhile, relations with the United States have improved. It may be that the US (and possibly its partners in the Pacific Alliance) will seek to include Argentina in its response to the economic rise of Asia. This might not seem all that likely given the anti-trade, nationalistic, and sometimes downright xenophobic rhetoric of the US primary elections.
However, it is worth remembering that while candidates may criticize trade and investment agreements on the campaign trail, most presidents end up promoting them. Witness the example of candidate Barack Obama, who in 2008 advocated renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, and President Obama, who hopes to leave the Trans Pacific Partnership as one of his principal legacies.

Openness and universality are good general strategies to follow. However, without stable and predictable partners, it will be especially difficult to implement concrete decisions about Argentina’s regional and global course of action.