#ForeignAffairsMonday, June 23, 2014
Perfect message, perfect format
For The Herald
Many US journalists say that The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country, The New York Times by those who think they run the country, The Washington Post by those who think they ought to run the country and The Boston Globe by people whose parents used to run the country. This comes to mind when analyzing some of the Argentine government’s moves in the handling of last week’s events. A strange — and apparently uncontrolled — saga followed. The US Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case of the holdouts (a.k.a. vulture funds), thus validating Judge Griesa’s initial ruling against Argentina. It started with the wrong presidential message delivered through a totally adequate format continued with the right message in a seemingly inadequate format, and ended with a perfect message delivered through a perfect format.
The holdouts/vultures saga invites a number of conclusions. One of them is that foreign affairs very often come blended with domestic politics and become “intermestic.” Judge Griesa could have perfectly argued — if asked — that his ruling answered to US domestic laws but it is quite obvious that it had a clear international dimension. If in doubt, just ask the personnel at the US Embassy in Buenos Aires faced with a crowd of angry demonstrators blaming the US for Giesa’s judgment, the vultures, and God knows what else. The mitigating factor — for them — is that, because of the US’s global role, this kind of things simply come with the territory, become routine and are simply a new example of the intermestic factor.
Ironically, the Embassy depends from the US State Department. And there was a generalized view in this country that the State Department would lobby in Argentina’s favour in order to obtain the much needed postponement of the decision until January 1, 2015, in order to avoid any claims from the creditors who had accepted the two initial debt restructuring offers. But the fact is that if (repeat: if) State tried to influence the decision, it failed. Proving — for the umpteenth time — that US foreign policy is an arena with multiple players.
It is a known fact that domestic messages become global with their own dynamics. In fact, when — on Monday — the cameras focused on Cristina, sitting by herself at an elegant desk, the expectation was of a “state of the Nation” type of speech rather than what she actually delivered. A fervent preach mainly aimed at the converted or — at best — at her domestic audience. And one can just imagine Judge Griesa’s staff, monitoring the website and reporting on her usage of the word “extortion” — at the earliest possible moment. In return, he made public his distrust for Cristina. Reply in kind? Yes. Justified? Perhaps. Helpful? Definitely notBy mid-week, it was quite obvious that, if the crisis was going to be managed, a move to a new screen was essential. Especially because the messages from the Argentine government were not too clear while those of the Cristinista hard line followers were far from helpful. And looming was the June 20 Flag Day commemoration in Rosario with the “Cristinistas” mobilizing their activists from all over the country. So there was a perfect stage for an inflammatory anti-vulture, “Yanks go home” speech in reply to Mr Griesa’s distrust, with flags waving and banners displayed. In addition, in Buenos Aires, Cristina’s followers were calling for demonstrations outside the US Embassy. A perfect occasion for split screen TV broadcasting contributing to heat things up.
Instead, the president delivered a totally reasonable message asking “the other side” (Griesa and holdouts/vultures) to be reasonable as well. True, the images from Buenos Aires, as well as the text in the Rosario banners were much harsher and not in line with the presidential speech. But even a newcomer to Argentine politics is aware of the fact that — for the time being — Cristina is the boss and the young activists fall in line when she speaks. Even if they have to “swallow a couple of frogs” to use one of the best established practices in the ruling party. No risk then for domestic politics going intermestic and getting in the way of government policies.
After that — for many, unexpected — turn of events came the final — and perfect — touch. A paid advertisement published by the Argentine government in The Wall Street Journal. The financial daily is not a friendly terrain for Cristina and her followers. After all, the daily runs — in partnership with The Heritage Foundation (anathema for learned Kirchnerites) — an Index of Economic Freedom. The Heritage Foundation defines itself as “a think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defence.” In the Index, Argentina ranks in position 160 out of 177 countries. And this is what makes the move perfect. Rather than going for friendlier media, the government chose to match the format to the targeted audience. And to deliver a factual message which can be read as a statement for the record, in the newspaper of record of “the other side.” True, the negotiations under Judge Griesa’s auspices still have to start. And the holdout/vultures are not easy customers. But as things stand now, it looks as if the government has the high ground. A perfect move for a good start.