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On foreign policy, Argentina’s Milei leans neocon, not libertarian

On foreign policy, Argentina’s Milei leans neocon, not libertarian

Newly elected president is a staunch supporter of Ukraine and once dubbed China 'an assassin.'

Analysis | Latin America

The shock election of a self-proclaimed “libertarian liberal," the chainsaw-wielding eccentric Javier Milei as Argentina’s president has attracted a flurry of attention globally.

Most of it was focused on the radicalism of Milei’s economic proposals to cure Argentina’s chronic ills — chief among them an annual inflation at the rate of 143% and the poverty that has engulfed over 40% of Argentines, and all that with an outstanding debt of $43 billion owed to the International Monetary Fund.

Milei’s remedies include liquidating Argentina’s central bank, dropping the national currency — the peso — in favor of the U.S. dollar, privatizing state assets and slashing public expenditures, including subsidies for the most vulnerable individuals and communities. The chainsaw that he adopted as his icon during the election campaign symbolized his intention to demolish the state, which, according to Milei, is at the root of Argentina’s relative decline in the 20th and 21st centuries.

While some libertarians, notably in the U.S., welcomed his election as the latest and best chance to advance their long-cherished beliefs and a future inspiration for the U.S., their enthusiasm may be misplaced. Milei’s main focus may be on the economy, but, as president, he’ll also have to steer Argentina’s foreign policy.

This is not an area in which he has displayed much interest or knowledge to date, but someone like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a standard bearer of libertarianism in the U.S., would hardly recognize himself in the positions embraced by Milei. In fact, Milei’s foreign policy views, to the extent they exist, are far closer to neoconservative than libertarian. His views would easily find home in hawkish Washington D.C. think tanks and parts of the mainstream of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

This is not to be underestimated, as Argentina is a member of the G-20, the third largest economy in Latin America, and has recently been invited to join BRICS, a grouping that comprises China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Milei’s foreign policy views, as expressed repeatedly during the election campaign, are starkly Manichean — they divide the world into democracies and “communist autocracies.” Counter-intuitively for a self-proclaimed champion of free trade, he promised to sever ties with two of Argentina’s main trade partners — China and Brazil (combined, both account for around 25% of the total of Argentinian exports) — on the grounds that both are ruled by “communists.” China was an object of particular scorn, with Milei dubbing the country at one point “an assassin."

Milei is a staunch supporter of Ukraine, in contrast to a more moderate position espoused by the outgoing center-left Peronist administration which, while condemning Russia’s aggression of Ukraine, was also reluctant to sever ties with Moscow, which grew closer during the pandemic when Argentina acquired Russian vaccines, with results generally deemed acceptable.

Perhaps on no issue Milei’s neoconservative credentials are more on display than in his fervid embrace of Israel. While Argentina, under different governments, has generally enjoyed good relations with Israel, those were traditionally balanced by Buenos Aires’ engagement with Arab countries and, at times, even Iran. That balancing act did not prevent Argentina from declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization for its alleged role in the notorious 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Milei’s defeated opponent, Sergio Massa, promised to similarly add Palestinian Hamas to Argentina’s terrorist list if he had been elected. Milei, however, wants to go much further. He declared that his first international trips as president-elect will be to Israel and the U.S. He also promised to move Argentina’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a one-sided reorientation would represent a major break in Argentina’s traditional foreign policy consensus.

Milei is also opposed, on ideological grounds, to Argentina joining the BRICS, despite the invitation issued by the existing members, reportedly the result of heavy lobbying by Brazil on Buenos Aires’ behalf. While the prospect of joining the group that represents more than 40% of the world’s population and 31% of global GDP (and also a destiny of some 30% of total Argentine exports) is seen as an opportunity by many Argentine businesspeople and politicians, for Milei BRICS represents little more than a dictators’ club.

The president-elect is also remarkably skeptical about Mercosur, a South American trade bloc which includes, besides Argentina, also Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. Milei dismissed it as merely a “low-quality customs union that distorts commerce.” Such a position raises fresh questions about the prospects for a long-delayed trade deal between Mercosur and the European Union.

There is always a chance that the realities of governing (among them, the fact that his party holds relatively few seats in the National Congress) would temper some of the most radical ideas Milei spouted during an election campaign. After all, the former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, with whom Milei professes a mutual admiration also started as a fierce critic of China, only to significantly soften his position while in office.

But during the presidential debate, Milei displayed a worrying ignorance of how international relations work. While no longer calling for a complete severance of ties with China and Brazil, he insisted that any such interaction should be left entirely to the private sector, apparently oblivious to the fact that it is governments that negotiate international trade frameworks and agreements, including tariffs, phyto-sanitary rules, and other measures.

That is especially true in the case of China, where the weight of the public sector in the country’s external economic activity is preponderant. Currently, alongside many smaller projects, China is involved in building two hydroelectric dams in Argentina which, when completed, would cover the daily electricity consumption of 1.5 million Argentine households, cut oil and gas import expenses, and even allow to export electricity to the neighboring countries. Milei’s simplistic vision of economic relations as mere exchanges between private actors sows doubts about the future of these projects.

Worse, their cancellation would risk seriously undermining Argentina’s credibility with international partners, even from ideologically more “compatible” countries.

The likely appointment of Diana Mondino, an economist, as the future minister of foreign affairs, has so far failed to assuage concerns about Milei’s policies. As evidenced in a pre-election debate organized by the Argentine Council on Foreign Relations, Mondino, who has spent her entire professional life in private sector, seems to share her future boss’ ideological view of international relations, as well as a penchant for hyperbole. A few days before the elections, she likened Milei’s possible victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall 34 years ago, as if the modern-day Argentina were in any way comparable to Soviet-backed communist dictatorships.

It is obviously too early to tell how the Milei presidency will unfold, but based on his rhetoric it may be a bumpy road ahead for foreign policy in Argentina.

Credit: Mídia NINJA / Creative Commons9m

Argentinian President-Elect Javier Milei

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