Finding an Alliance: Rethinking Argentine-United States Cold War Relations

Article excerpt

In Argentina, the end of the Cold War coincided with Carlos Menem's election to the presidency. A charismatic leader, Menem brilliantly integrated disparate and often conflicting strands of the Peronist movement into his politics. He campaigned against the post-dictatorship Radical Party government of President Raul Alfonsin, in disarray over its inability to slow economic decline and hyperinflation. Menem's presidential run featured traditional Peronist calls for a strong union movement in defense of national industry, an end to the foreign debt burden, and oblique criticisms of international capital. His victory and early assumption of office in late 1989 made foreign and domestic business leaders nervous. Nevertheless, in the most stunning about face in twentieth century Argentine politics, within eighteen months Menem had reinvented himself and his party. In the late 1980s the Reagan and Bush administrations had placed a new policy emphasis on the free movement of goods and capital in and out of stable democratic polities in the Americas. Following similar shifts in Brazil and Mexico, Menem aligned his economic and foreign policies with those of Washington.

Menem's shift not only redefined Peronism but set in place sharp policy shifts that dovetailed with post-Cold War initiatives in Washington. So radical were the reversals in Argentine foreign relations that through the latter half of 1990 that the Foreign Ministry sponsored a series of high level private meetings in different locations to explain the shift to incredulous senior diplomats. At home, the government changed the law to pave the way for the privatization of government businesses and industries that had defined so-called state capitalism for more than a generation. Menem broke the political power of organized labor and cleared restrictions on foreign investment and capitalization. In the international sphere, political scientist and special adviser to the foreign minister Carlos Escude led planning for and the execution of Argentina's withdrawal from the non-aligned movement after twenty years of membership. For the first time ever, Argentines and Americans can be said to have "fought side by side" with the sending of an Argentine warship to the Persian Gulf in support of American forces during the Gulf War. After more than two decades of charting a nuclear non-proliferation policy at odds with Washington's, the Argentine government reversed itself overnight accepting the premise for the first time that there could be no hypothetical, theoretical, or practical distinction between belligerent and non-belligerent nuclear testing. In the early 1990s, after decades of opposing U.S.-led, Organization of American States (OAS)-sponsored interventions in the Americas, Argentina joined the failed international effort to help bring democracy to Haiti. (1)

During the 1990s, the unprecedented success of U.S. policy in Argentina and the alignment of Argentine foreign policy with U.S. goals stand in contrast to more ambiguous and sometimes hostile bilateral relations for much of the twentieth century. Moreover, Argentine and non-Argentine commentators have highlighted this divide; before 1989, the two countries were antagonists, more often than not. After, they were allies. Without wishing to diminish the importance of Argentina's post-Cold War policy shift, this paper will argue that it is inaccurate to imagine US-Argentine relations before 1990 as a polar opposite to what followed. There were hostile episodes in bilateral ties. Argentine democrats lamented Washington's friendships with the Argentine military. There was ongoing conflict on a variety of trade issues, including the problem of beef and foot-and-mouth disease. The two countries clashed repeatedly on the problem of international lending and finance policy. Despite these very real points of contention, Cold War relations between the two countries were strong, consistent, framed by extensive cultural ties, and oriented around common economic objectives and Cold War security. …