Updated: 22-Apr-2002 NATO Review

No. 3 - Jun. 1993
Vol. 41

p. 28-318


Alberto Miguez
diplomatic correspondent for
"La Vanguardia" of Barcelona

Argentina is one of the few countries in Latin America which, over the past few years, has radically revised its foreign policy and reassessed its geostrategic interests.

The succession to the presidency of Carlos Saul Menem in August 1989, marked a major shift in Argentina's foreign policy. The shift was all the more surprising in view of the fact that Menem came to power under the banner of Peronism, the political doctrine of General Juan Domingo Peron, which in the 1940s and 1950s expressed itself by a certain diplomatic isolation both within Latin America and beyond.

The presence of Argentine warships alongside coalition forces during the conflict with Iraq, as well as Argentine participation in peacekeeping operations under United Nations sponsorship, are testimony to the magnitude of the change. Argentina has abandoned the Non-Aligned Movement, of which it was a founding member, because, according to government spokesmen in Buenos Aires, it no longer corresponded to current national interests. The former foreign policy which, according to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had created "exotic links", had separated Argentina from the countries with which it shared historical, cultural, political and geographic affinities.

This process of change has made inroads not only into foreign and security policy, but into the economy and finances as well. President Menem and his powerful Minister of Finance and former Foreign Minister, Domingo Cavallo, adopted an ambitious programme of privatization, affecting the major public companies, including defence industries. At the same time, they inaugurated a plan for monetary convertibility, linking the peso to the US dollar. The results of this shock treatment did not take long to materialize. The hyper-inflation of the previous years (in 1989, the last year of Raul Alfonsin's presidency, a world record was set with an annual rate of 26,000 per cent) was brought under control to a modest nine per cent annual rate, unemployment was cut from 14 per cent to six per cent over the past two years, and the public debt has been reduced spectacularly. Obviously, certain sectors of society paid a heavy price for these radical reforms, and last November, President Menem was confronted with the first general strike of his presidency, a strike organized by the same powerful Peronist unions which had supported his candidacy.

The new international perspective

The current foreign policy of Argentina is based on a new perception of the country's geostrategic and security interests. Support for the collective security system of the United Nations; strengthening of regional security machinery; recognition of the need for a "hemispheric" response system; buttressing regional agreements for economic integration, such as MERCOSUR (1); agreements for economic and political cooperation with neighbouring countries - all of these constitute the foundations of this policy.

It is in the context of this new international perspective that the process of rapprochement to the North Atlantic Alliance, currently being pursued by Argentina, should be viewed.

On 29 September 1992, the Argentine Foreign Minister, Guido di Tella, visited NATO Headquarters where he briefed the Secretary General and NATO Ambassadors on Argentina's security and nuclear non-proliferation policy. The Minister first referred briefly to the foreign policy of the past where, he stated, "Our misguided imperturbability induced Argentina to adopt a foreign policy that was universalist in theory but isolationist in practice." He then announced that Argentina had halted missile systems development (in particular the "Condor II" programme) since Argentina was no longer interested in strategic activities in space.

Mr. di Tella considered that the system of collective security advocated by the United Nations was inadequate, especially in certain areas, such as the South Atlantic, where there is no organization or system for collective security or defence. Despite the efforts of Argentina and its neighbours - Brazil and Chile in particular - to adopt confidence-building measures and measures to promote transparency in the fields of security, the situation is characterized by certain deficiencies.

The Minister also spoke of the relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom, now fully normalized after the rupture that followed the Falklands War. Economic and commercial links between the two countries have recently been substantially restored and, in future, the renewal of bilateral cooperation will contribute to defusing a dangerous source of tension in the South Atlantic. Mr. di Tella asserted, nevertheless, that, "The dispute over the sovereignty of the Falklands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands continues and Argentina will maintain its claim to these territories. Even so, the two governments desire to develop their economic, commercial and political relations. Argentina and the United Kingdom have traditionally maintained a special, mutually beneficial, relationship. It was at the time when Argentina was closely linked to the United Kingdom that it experienced its greatest prosperity. The political and economic rebirth of my country should create a new, equally prosperous, era."

Mr. di Tella added that, "In the interest of augmenting South Atlantic stability, Argentina favours a multinational dialogue, to study the possible establishment of cooperative machinery for that expanse of ocean: the South Atlantic is one of the few regions of the world that has no specific agreement on security, nor any other agreement for that matter." The Minister went on to say that, "Because NATO has, during the post-war period, been a fundamental pillar of the Western world and because it is an effective tool and a major factor for stability in the world, Argentina wishes to intensify its links with the Alliance."

He added that Argentina is interested in achieving a form of dialogue and consultation with NATO, and the Chief of Staff of the Argentine Armed Forces, Admiral Jorge Ferrer, has formulated concrete proposals for cooperation to this end, such as authorizing the participation of an Argentine warship in exercises by NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic. Mr. di Tella pointed out that two Alliance partners (the United States and Canada) also made up part of the "Americas" and that they were members of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together all the countries of the North and South American continents and of the Caribbean.

A relationship with NATO

In an interview in Buenos Aires with Professor Julio Cirino, Admiral Ferrer expanded upon the proposal presented by Mr. di Tella in Brussels. Admiral Ferrer explained that Argentina is seeking "a professional and technical relationship" with NATO, in a context of joint operations with Alliance naval units. During the intervention in the Gulf, Argentina joined the multinational coalition which was made up primarily of NATO member countries. It obviously took several days to acquire proficiency in the necessary coordination and joint operating procedures but, since there was no significant naval threat at the time, the delay was acceptable. In a different situation in the future, the same course of action might not, however, be feasible.

Admiral Ferrer contends that, because any eventual world action against troublemaking countries or groups would have to enjoy a high degree of legitimacy - proportional to the number of participating countries - any interoperability with NATO would augment that legitimacy in the event of action by the world community to neutralize a crisis or to defend the highest values of mankind - liberty, peace, justice and prosperity.

A security body for the South Atlantic

Another of Argentina's political and geostrategic priorities, according to the Admiral, is the establishment of a security body for the South Atlantic. The Argentine military chief is persuaded that, after the failure of projects like SATO (South Atlantic Treaty Organization) and of other equally ambitious projects, the South Atlantic Maritime Area (SAMA) Agreement - of which Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina are signatories - could be used to this end. It would be necessary to reinforce and expand the agreement and make it multi-continental so that certain African countries with an interest, such as South Africa and Nigeria, could participate in it. "Out-of-area" countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy, could also be invited to participate. The aims of the new organization would be to secure maritime communication routes, to protect the environment and ecosystem, to ensure compliance with international legal norms for the exploitation of maritime resources, as well as to promote research.

Admiral Ferrer's proposal does, of course, have its limitations since a reactivated SAMA would be limited to maritime issues. The two major South American countries, Argentina and Brazil, like South Africa, still have significant ambitions, even if they have not yet spelled them out in a proposed association for security purposes. Now, however, the conditions for effectively pursuing such a plan have come together, especially given the excellent state of relations between Argentina and South Africa. During a lengthy interview with this author at Quinta Olivos, President Menem's official residence on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the President pointed out that, "Neither the Western world, nor NATO, can ignore what is happening in the South Atlantic."

"We are fully aware", he continued, "that there is no such thing as observer status in NATO and that by the simple logic of geography, we shall never be able to become a member of a North Atlantic organization. We should like, however, to institute a system of ongoing cooperation and consultation with NATO. It is in our common interests. The Atlantic is an indivisible expanse; its security is equally indivisible."

(1) MERCOSUR : Commen Market of the South composed of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.