Strategic Posture Review: Argentina

Strategic Posture Review: Argentina

Argentina is a medium-sized country of 41 million inhabitants and moderate global strategic and economic importance. The country’s foreign policy, defense policy and strategic priorities are driven primarily by the domestic political concerns of the country’s political leaders. In addition, the behavior of Argentine politicians is fundamentally guided by a pragmatic approach toward politics, within which political elites are far more concerned about the accumulation of power and the control of politically valuable financial and material resources than with ideology and specific policy goals. What’s more, the time-horizon of Argentine politicians is very limited, with a short-term perspective most commonly dominating their political calculations and thinking.

As a result, to a far greater degree than with most countries, to understand Argentina’s foreign and defense policies, one must understand the political context within which they are formulated, with particular focus on the extremely pragmatic nature of Argentine politicians and their very short-term time horizons. Having examined these factors, their impact on contemporary Argentine foreign policy and defense policy as well as the country’s principal strategic priorities will become clearer. Finally, to get an idea of whether and how those priorities might change in the future, it is worth taking a look at the 2011 election season, with a particular eye toward the campaign for the presidency.

The Political Context Shaping Policy and Strategic Priorities in Argentina

The overriding concern of retaining power — or obtaining power, if on the outside looking in — makes Argentine politicians extremely pragmatic, with access to financial resources becoming far more important than ideology or public policy preferences. This is not to say that ideology is unimportant in Argentina, simply that when forced to choose between resources — “caja” in Argentine political vernacular — and ideological convictions, an overwhelming majority of Argentine politicians will choose the former.

This pragmatism is especially prominent among Peronists, who have dominated Argentine political life over the past 20 years. Since 1989, a Peronist has occupied the presidency for all but two years — 1999-2001 — and more than two-thirds of the country’s powerful provincial governors have been Peronists. Furthermore, at present in the Argentine Chamber of Deputies, Peronists dominate the largest congressional delegation, which is aligned with the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as well as the third largest, which is anti-Kirchner. They are also present as a distinct minority within the fourth- and fifth-largest delegations, both of which are anti-Kirchner. In all, roughly two-thirds of the current members of the Argentine Chamber of Deputies and Senate have Peronist political DNA. It is worth noting that Peronism is both a political movement, with Peronists active in a host of different parties across the political spectrum, and a political culture — one that places the utmost priority on holding power. That is, being a Peronist means prioritizing being in control of the executive branch — whether president, governor or mayor — at all costs.

A by-product of Peronists’ overarching focus on retaining or obtaining control of national, provincial or municipal territory is their loyalty to power, often inseparable from caja, as opposed to an individual leader or group of leaders. Because personal loyalty among Peronists is ephemeral, they are always ready to jump ship to the next leader and are constantly watching and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. Within Peronist culture, defection and betrayal are not necessarily seen in a negative light, but rather are considered by most Peronists to be natural phenomena as one leader’s power wanes and another’s rises.

At the same time, this culture makes rapprochement among former rivals relatively easy. Indeed, given the constant ebbs and flows of political alliances in Argentina, most rivals were likely allies at some time in the past. In any event, their mutual thirst for resources and power makes for a powerful glue to hold any governing alliance together — as long as those resources are available.

One can see the above-mentioned process in the shifting loyalties of a majority of Peronist politicians over the past 20 years, with the dominant appellation changing according to the president in power. During the 1990s most were loyal Menemistas, after President Carlos Menem, before becoming loyal Duhaldistas, for Eduardo Duhalde, in 2002. They then transformed into loyal Kirchneristas, so named for Néstor Kirchner, president from 2003-2007, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007 and currently holds the office.

Argentine politicians operate with an extremely short time-horizon. For an Argentine politician, “short term” means anything from today to this week; “medium term” means anything from this month to this quarter; and “long term” means until the next biennial election. (Congressional elections are held every two years to partially renew the Chamber and Senate, while presidential elections are held every four years.) In general, and certainly compared to other countries, the political time-horizon of an Argentine politician is decidedly short-term, and that holds even more for a Peronist politician.

Within this context, contracts and formal or informal agreements mean relatively little, and all political actors heavily discount future promises. The extreme short-term focus of Argentine politics results in limited investments with long-term payoffs, a tendency to sacrifice large future gains for small short-term rewards, and a general lack of any long-term national vision for the country. This short-term vision has led to the absence of any medium- or long-term defense strategy as well as any comparable approach to foreign policy. It further results in the country not possessing any strong and enduring strategic priorities separate from the short-term political interests of the sitting president.

The Consequences of Domestic Politics for Foreign and Defense Policy

First and foremost, Argentine foreign policy is best thought of as an extension of domestic policy. This is true to some extent in all nations, but in Argentina it is taken to an extreme, where even basic elements of foreign policy and relations with other countries are conditioned heavily by domestic political factors.

In Argentina, foreign policy is employed by the national government to further domestic political priorities in a variety of different manners. These include utilizing foreign policy to distract the public, or sectors of the public, from domestic problems; to place blame for domestic shortcomings on foreign actors; to appease domestic constituencies via symbolic gestures, in lieu of actual fiscal resources; and to obtain benefits that enhance the government’s power — such as loans, resources, international recognition or the purchase of government-issued securities — from abroad.

The combination of foreign policy being driven by domestic concerns and the short-term focus of political actors results in substantial fluctuations in Argentine foreign and security policies over time. Foreign policy will thus change as domestic conditions evolve, with the potential for dramatic shifts when a new president assumes office. In fact, foreign policy, defense policy and strategic priorities in many respects start from scratch at the beginning of each new presidential administration.

Finally, Argentine politicians, especially Peronists, tend to conduct international relations in the same manner as they conduct politics within Argentina. This behavior is exacerbated by the fact that many Peronist leaders have had a relatively limited exposure to the rest of the world. Consequently, they tend to overlook the fact that not all world leaders and countries view foreign relations through the same lens as they do. For example, some politicians often fail to fully comprehend the negative ramifications for their relations with other countries when they break an agreement, make an insulting statement or betray a confidence in order to obtain short-term gain in the domestic political arena.

As a result, it is common for Argentine leaders, when dealing with other countries, to say one thing and then do another, to break deals and agreements and to make statements in public that contradict those made in private. Further aggravating this gap between how some Peronists conduct foreign policy and how leaders in many other countries do so is an inherent belief among some Argentines that they can always work their way out of problems due to superior cunning — “viveza criolla” — and that the rules governing the behavior of other individuals, and nations, either do not apply to them or else are always malleable and negotiable.

The same pragmatism and short-term vision that condition Argentine foreign policy also impact Argentine defense policy, which is presently employed by Argentine politicians to enhance their short-term domestic political power. As a result, the country lacks anything that one could consider to be a medium- or long-term defense policy, or really any type of coherent defense policy whatsoever. Overall, the Argentine military receives extremely limited budgetary resources, and over the past 20 to 30 years, it has, in the best of times, suffered from benign neglect.

The Foundations of Argentine Strategic Culture

Argentina’s strategic approach at any given time is developed and purveyed by the president and his or her inner circle. Both the military and the Foreign Ministry as institutions are absent from the design and creation of defense and foreign policy. In the best case, their role is simply to implement policy that is handed down from the executive branch, although at times they are bypassed even for that. However, in no case are either career officials, whether military or civilian, in the Ministry of Defense or the armed forces or career officials in the Foreign Ministry allowed to play an active role in the design of key policies in their respective areas.

In the absence of the armed forces, the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Ministry as institutions playing a relevant role in the policy process, Argentina’s strategic priorities are determined by the incumbent president and his or her key confidants. As a result, strategic planning in Argentina is heavily influenced by the political pragmatism and short-term mindset that guide the behavior of the Argentine political elite. That means that during a presidential administration, strategic priorities will change somewhat due to domestic political needs. When a new president takes office, the strategic approach can be expected to shift, at times dramatically.

All the same, it is important to remember that the principal underlying determinants of elite behavior in Argentina remain relatively constant across presidential administrations, and especially Peronist administrations. Foreign and defense policy are hence driven by immediate domestic political needs, with the primordial priority being to retain and augment the degree of presidential power and control over the political system. This is accomplished through dominance over the management and distribution of resources, with pragmatism the overriding precept. In sum, foreign and defense policy in the minds of most Argentine political elites are simply tools to be utilized to further short-term domestic political goals.

Contemporary Argentine Foreign Policy

The principal planks of Argentine foreign policy today respond principally to the above-mentioned domestic and short-term forces, as becomes evident in examining several of the most prominent cases.

Argentine public opinion of the United States and its leaders, in particular former President George W. Bush, has been quite negative over the past decade. The governments of both Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have therefore realized that rhetorical and diplomatic conflict with the United States can be politically beneficial, either in general, for garnering electoral support, or in the pursuit of specific immediate goals, such as distracting public and media attention from politically inconvenient issues. As a consequence, bilateral relations at the highest levels between Argentina and the United States often have been cold or strained during the Kirchner era. Nonetheless, in many more-technical areas of cooperation — such as agriculture, counterterrorism, counternarcotics and the participation of Argentine troops in United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping missions, especially in Haiti — relations between Argentina and the United States have been much better.

Instances of diplomatic conflict between the two countries, however, are numerous. One pivotal incident that cast a pall over U.S.-Argentine relations during the final three years of the Bush administration and into the Obama administration was then-President Néstor Kirchner’s organization of an anti-American “countersummit” concurrent with the November 2005 Organization of American States (OAS) Summit hosted by Argentina in the city of Mar del Plata. In addition to providing the logistics and public support for the Venezuelan-funded event, the Kirchner government’s operatives — and Néstor Kirchner himself — engaged in behavior that was considered to be very disrespectful of Bush and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Most recently, in February 2011, a United States Air Force transport plane that was in Argentina to support a U.S. training mission for Argentine police was raided, with several allegedly undeclared items — including weapons and sophisticated communications equipment – confiscated. The mission was canceled as a result.

Even more popular with the public than the Argentine government occasionally thumbing its nose at the U.S. are statements in support of Argentina’s longstanding claim to the Falkland Islands, which Argentina refers to as the Islas Malvinas, over which Argentina fought an ill-fated war with the United Kingdom in 1982. The Fernández de Kirchner government, however, has no serious plans to modify the status quo in regard to the Falklands. In fact, if anything, this zealous rhetoric only serves to harden the commitment of the islands’ residents to maintain their status as a British Overseas Territory and, as such, part of the British Empire. However, as is the case with conflicts with the United States, the Argentine government will every so often trot out the topic of the Malvinas to score political points or to distract public opinion.

Other current planks of Argentine foreign policy are more focused on fiscal and revenue issues, embedded within a broader goal of enhancing Argentina’s bilateral relationship with key South American nations. One example is the country’s continuing close ties to Venezuela, which has become an increasingly important importer of Argentine agricultural and manufactured goods. A second example is a series of decisions in 2010 and 2011 to dramatically restrict the import of many goods in an attempt to prevent the country’s balance of trade from slipping into the negative, with the additional bonus of bolstering domestic employment. One of the goals of these measures is to limit imports from China, with which Argentina has run a trade deficit since 2008. During the past decade, Argentina dramatically expanded its soy exports to China, which is now the largest importer of Argentine soybean and soy-based products — but also a major source of manufactured goods for Argentina.

A final example is the country’s complex relationship with Brazil, and in particular Argentina’s increasing tendency to accept — more implicitly than explicitly and never officially — Brazil’s status as South America’s natural leader, a position Argentina has claimed in the past. This unofficial acceptance comes in exchange for Brazilian tolerance of a trade relationship in which the playing field, especially in terms of informal tariffs and quotas, is slanted in Argentina’s favor. On this latter point, however, it is not clear if newly inaugurated Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be as tolerant as her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose vision was far more global than Rousseff’s appears to be.

Contemporary Argentine Defense Policy

Defense policy under the Kirchners has principally consisted of harassing and criticizing the armed forces as an institution as well as current and, especially, former members of the military, in order to obtain support from the anti-military segment of the political left and center-left and the socio-economic lower and middle classes at relatively low cost. This harassment is accomplished with speeches, symbolic acts and prosecutions as well as by withholding funds that are thus freed to curry favor with other groups. This dynamic can be seen in the renewed emphasis by the Kirchners, compared to past presidential administrations, on prosecuting military officers for human rights abuses committed during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship; a focus on specific cases of children kidnapped from political prisoners during the dictatorship; the transfer of military installations to anti-military groups in civil society; the suspension or limitation of some international military exercises; and the appointment of left-wing politician Nilda Garré as minister of defense in 2005. (Garré remained in the position until Dec. 15, 2010, when she was promoted to the more powerful post of minister of security.)

Argentina’s current defense policy consists of three principal components. First, publicly humiliate or demoralize the armed forces to the greatest extent possible, in order to gain favor with voters and political elites who still wish to see the military as an institution, including its current members, punished for the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Second, starve the military of funding, especially for equipment and operations, and use the rescued funds for political purposes. Argentina allocates less than 1 percent of its GDP to defense spending, with the overwhelming share of those limited funds devoted to meager salaries for the country’s military personnel. Third, modestly increase the level of domestic arms production, especially of big-ticket items such as naval ships produced or refurbished at state-owned shipyards, as well as radar and aircraft. The assignment of shipbuilding projects to local shipyards and the jobs thereby created are more important than whether or not a ship is eventually built, the timeframe of delivery and the quality of the ship produced. The military leadership knows that any complaints or critiques on their part regarding these three general policies will result in their quick dismissal and perhaps worse — including criminal charges for corruption. As a result, the leaders of the army, navy and air force have for the most part remained silent, even as the state of the military has deteriorated over the past decade.

Today the Argentine military possesses obsolete armaments, a lion’s share of which are in poor or inoperative condition, and only symbolic operational capacity. As previously mentioned, military spending is extremely limited and goes primarily toward the payment of salaries and benefits, with even the limited investment in material, such as for naval ships, intended far more as a device to employ the members of influential domestic labor groups than to modernize the armed forces. In neglecting its armed forces, Argentina contrasts markedly with its neighbors and former military rivals, Brazil and Chile, both of whom devote a much larger share of their GDP to defense and are actively engaged in modernizing the equipment utilized by their armies, navies and air forces.

There exist myriad examples of the deteriorated state of the Argentine military’s operational capacity. One that stands out, however, is related to the air force and the navy’s aviation wing. In both services, the principal fighter and transport aircraft are 30 to 50 years old, with only approximately one-fifth of the planes in operational condition. In the navy, for instance, only two combat aircraft are mission-ready, and even they lack proper armament, such as missiles. Furthermore, the scarce operational aircraft are kept in working order only via increasingly expensive and frequent repairs, which each year consume a larger and larger share of the miniscule defense budget. Meanwhile, due to budgetary restrictions, Argentine air force and naval pilots have seen their already meager number of flight hours reduced by more than half over the past few years. Faced with extremely limited flight hours, low pay and poor morale, pilots have been departing the armed forces for the private sector in significant numbers — 20 per cent of the force over the past three years.

At the same time, it is important to note that, today, Argentina faces no significant military threats, and the probability of conflict with any of its neighbors — or even with the United Kingdom, for that matter — is essentially zero. As a result, the reduced operational capacity of the country’s armed forces has not had an overly adverse impact on national security. The limited defense appropriations have been relevant, however, in four main areas.

First, Argentina has historically maintained one of the largest contingents of permanent research stations in Antarctica. The combination of the loss of its sole icebreaker, Almirante Irízar, to a fire in 2007 and the Argentine air force’s limited number of sometimes unreliable Hercules transport planes has impinged upon the country’s ability to supply its Antarctic bases, forcing it to rely on a rented icebreaker and, at times, rented transport aircraft.

Second, the lack of budgetary resources to support maintenance and operations has limited the capacity of the Argentine navy and coast guard to patrol the nation’s vast exclusive economic zone against the predatory activities of foreign fishing vessels. For instance, the Argentine High Seas Fleet has been reduced to 10 ships, with usually only two or three of them at sea at any one time due to a lack of adequate fuel and related supplies. The country’s submarine fleet now consists of two submarines at essentially permanent anchor in Mar del Plata.

Third, when natural disasters hit, the Argentine armed forces often lack the operational capacity to respond in a timely and effective manner. This is most often the case with responses that demand an aerial response, because only a handful of operational cargo planes are available, but it has also been the case with other disasters where the army’s capacities were similarly constrained.

Fourth, the combination of an air force that is rarely in the air and a radar network that covers only a fraction of the country has left Argentine air space wide open. As a result, traffickers transporting cocaine and other drugs by air from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru are able to operate with considerable freedom in the northern area of the country, where around 14,000 clandestine airstrips exist. Not surprisingly, four-fifths of the drugs that enter Argentina are brought in by air.

In sum, the Argentine armed forces are demoralized, politically emasculated, materially ill-equipped and operationally dysfunctional. The current state of the armed forces can be traced to the absence of a credible strategic threat to Argentine national security, the Fernández de Kirchner administration’s urgent need for budgetary resources to bolster and maintain its political support, and the political benefits that the government derives from attacks on the military as an institution.

Contemporary Argentine Strategic Priorities

Compared to many countries, including neighboring Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, Argentina lacks a set of coherent medium- to long-term strategic priorities. To the extent that the country does possess strategic priorities, they tend to be designed with domestic politics in mind, or else, to a lesser extent, are reflective of the current preferences of the president and key cabinet advisers.

At present, Argentina’s strategic priorities are oriented primarily toward furthering the efforts of Fernández de Kirchner to win re-election in late-2011. As a consequence, the principal strategic goals revolve around utilizing foreign relations to gain popular support, and using trade regulations and diplomatic tools to provide the maximum amount of fiscal resources to the Argentine government as it attempts to maintain economic growth — and thereby public good humor — while at the same time rewarding allied unions, governors, mayors and other political actors with financial resources in order to maintain their valuable support during the crucial campaign season.

The 2011 Elections in Argentina

On Oct. 23, 2011, Argentina will hold the first round of its presidential election, with a runoff election to be held, if necessary, on Nov. 20. Also on Oct. 23, 130 of 257 seats in the country’s Chamber of Deputies and 24 of 72 of its Senate seats will be renewed. Chamber elections will be held in all 23 provinces and the autonomous Federal Capital, while Senate elections will be held in eight provinces. Meanwhile, beginning in March and ending in October, elections will be held in 22 provinces to fill the powerful position of governor. At present, approximately half of these gubernatorial elections are scheduled to take place prior to Oct. 23 and the other half concurrent with the presidential contest.

Today, Argentina is already in the early stages of the 2011 election campaign. Until his unexpected death on Oct. 27, 2010, former President Néstor Kirchner was slated to be the standard-bearer for the Front for Victory (FPV) party in the 2011 presidential election. Following his passing, there were some initial doubts regarding whether Fernández de Kirchner would become the party’s candidate. Now, however, it is a virtual certainty that she will be on the ballot in October.

Much more uncertain, however, is who her opponents will be. Within the anti-Kirchner Peronist faction, Federal Peronism, no candidate has emerged as a clear front-runner, and it appears increasingly possible that instead of presenting its own candidate, who would likely fare poorly in October, this group — or some subset of its membership — will back the candidacy of Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires and leader of the small center-right Federal Proposal (PRO). Though not a Peronist himself, Macri has many Peronist allies, and Peronists would play a very prominent role in an eventual Macri presidential administration.

The third major presidential candidate will emerge from the country’s traditional counterweight to Peronism, the Radical Civic Union (UCR, or Radicals). Among the likely party hopefuls, Ricardo Alfonsín, a national deputy and the son of former Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín, is the favorite to win the party’s April primary.

Only two other parties are expected to cross the vote threshold — 1.5 per cent of the vote in an Aug. 14 nationwide primary — necessary to qualify their presidential candidates for October. They are the Civic Coalition, whose candidate will be national deputy Elisa Carrió, and an alliance anchored by Project South, whose candidate is expected to be national deputy Fernando “Pino” Solanas.

In the 2011 election, the principal challenge for Fernández de Kirchner will be to win at least 40 percent of the first-round vote, which will in all likelihood secure her victory in the first round. Under Argentine electoral law, a candidate may win in the first round either by garnering one ballot more than 45 percent of the vote, or by winning at least 40 percent of the vote while simultaneously finishing 10 percent ahead of the first runner-up. Given a field of four anti-Kirchner candidates, it is virtually impossible for any single opposition candidate to obtain more than 30 percent of the vote. So 40 percent or more of the first-round vote on Oct. 23 would all but guarantee Fernández de Kirchner four more years in office.

As the field of opposition candidates is still undecided, public opinion polls provide only a very rough gauge of projected voter behavior in October. Furthermore, eight months is an eternity in Argentine politics. Nevertheless, available polls indicate that Fernández de Kirchner enjoys a base level of support of approximately one-third of the electorate, but also faces a first-round ceiling located somewhere between 37 percent and 42 percent of the vote. She therefore has her work cut out for her in her drive for re-election. Many observers believe that Fernández de Kirchner would lose a runoff to either Macri or the UCR candidate.

Nevertheless, as of today, Fernández de Kirchner must be considered the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 presidential contest, followed by Macri and then Alfonsín.


When considering Argentine foreign policy, defense policy and strategic priorities it is crucial to keep in consideration the following realities and consequences of the Argentine political system. Argentine politicians operate within a context where their vision is extremely short-term; where political power is highly vertical; where political control and success depends on access to resources (caja); where ideology and policy preferences are almost always trumped by the all powerful caja; and where loyalty is to power and resources, not to an individual leader or a political party.

Strategic priorities and foreign and defense policy in Argentina are largely driven by their utility for domestic politics, in particular the primordial goal of the incumbent president to retain and fortify power and control of the national executive branch. Argentina thus lacks a coherent national foreign or defense policy, with both employed as vehicles to enhance the president’s hold on power in the short term. This domestic primacy remains unchanged, regardless of which individual occupies the presidency.

As a result, if Fernández de Kirchner is not re-elected, we can expect Argentine foreign policy, defense policy and strategic priorities to change — regardless of who actually wins the 2011 presidential election. However, these policy modifications will be far more driven by the domestic political needs of the new president than by any overarching medium- to long-term national strategic goals.

Mark P. Jones is the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, a fellow in Political Science in the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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