#FOREIGNAFFAIRSMonday, June 16, 2014
Handle with care
For The Herald
Rumour has it that Russia is courting Argentina. The signs are quite clear. Mr Putin took the initiative of inviting Cristina to a BRICS summit even if it means that — Russia not being the host country — he took the liberty of asking her to someone else’s home. In fact, the invitation had the bonus of allowing the Argentine president the chance of shouting such prestige from the Twitter rooftops.
Argentina is responding with subtle gestures of its own. To those in the know, the presence of several ministers and high level government officers at the celebration of Russia’s national day last week did not go unnoticed. The Argentine government is far from generous with the ministerial time it devotes to activities at the Embassies it hosts.
The new friendship has triggered comments, some quite qualified, about the possible negative impact of these developments, on Argentina’s relationship with the US. True, the Cold War has been over for more than 20 years. Moreover, Russia and the US have occasionally complemented each other in containment policies, at the time of dealing with rogue or extremely rogue states. But these actions are never automatic or even totally predictable. And the fact remains that both big (still super?) powers do not see eye to eye on many issues as well as often competing for regional influence. The most recent example is — obviously — Ukraine.
President Putin’s policies seem aimed at recouping past imperial glories. And it looks as if many Russian voters share his nostalgia. After all, in the last Presidential elections his “United Russia” party obtained 63.6 percent of the vote, almost doubling the total sum of 36.4 percent of votes obtained by his five opponents. So it comes as no surprise that the Russian Federation wants to extend its presence and influence in Latin America. Consequently, Argentina is worth courting.
But: is it worth it for Argentina to be courted by Russia, even at the risk of raising some US eyebrows? Especially because, despite some recent helping hands on several financial matters, the bilateral relation with the US has not been trouble free. The Argentine government does not share the US’s views on some rather important matters that range from relations with Cuba and Venezuela to the role of the IMF and the Security Council. This can — perhaps — be quantifiable in terms of the smallish number of high-level contacts which the Argentine government was offered by the Obama administration, thus contributing to the view of an “isolated Argentina” espoused by opposition columnists and politicians. Following this line of thought, the Russian dimension would only be adding to the aggravation.
The big question brought up by the possibility of closer ties with Russia is what is in it for Argentina. Currently, bilateral trade stands at a — some would say — unimpressive US$ 2,000 million. How much can this be expanded? Will the Russian state-owned company Rosatom — specialized in nuclear power electricity generation, effectively be cooperating more with Argentina in that sector? The improved benefits for Argentina will have to be seen. Whilst the consequences of incurring in the US’s wrath can come quite quickly.
In terms of foreign policy management, Russia should be a more comfortable new friend, especially if compared with the US. The Russian decision making processes seem to be quite centralized, so the number of interlocutors at the time of lobbying and negotiation are limited and clearly defined. This comes handy to the Russian government at the time of linking apparently disconnected issues, thus increasing its negotiating capacity. And — for a foreign policy interlocutor like Argentina — it makes it easier to strike delicate balances in the negotiation.
The other good news is that the US government can be quite pragmatic and — off necessity — it is used to allowing some deviations within its areas of influence. Perhaps it is the privilege of the powerful.
But the very bad news about is that the pragmatism that can be shown by the State Department is easily overtaken by other players. Because, the truth is, that the foreign policy field in the US is full of players. The first point of call is — obviously — the State Department. But — as the Argentine, and many other governments have learned at their own cost — it is frequently necessary to knock on other doors as well. Congress, including both sides of the bipartisan aisle is often a necessary stop. And then there are the specialized lobbying arenas. The Council of the Americas is the best example. It often works as a powerful loudspeaker for the American private sector. Far from being a mere chat shop, what is said there, often finds its way back to influence in Congress and the State Department. After all, many of those who speak there are — at the same time — important contributors to the politicians’ campaigns.
So, if things go forward with Russia while, at the same time, Argentina wants to keep its links with the US, the ideal dictum would be “both and” rather than “either or.” But because the world is far from ideal, the best dictum stamped in Argentina’s foreign policy management with the two big players should be “Handle with Care.” (Please note that — at he time of writing this — the US Supreme Court ruling on the holdouts’ demands is still unknown.)