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In Argentina, Obama Is Doing the Right Thing

Walter Russell Mead

President Barack Obama is in Buenos Aires, dancing the tango and meeting with Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri. Macri and Obama promise that the visit marks the beginning of an improvement in a historically embittered relationship. The WSJ:

President Barack Obama and his Argentine counterpart Mauricio Macri marked a turning point in bilateral relations, announcing new trade and economic initiatives as their countries reset relations after years of antipathy.

Both leaders said Mr. Obama’s state visit to Argentina—the first by a U.S. president in nearly two decades—would allow the two countries to strengthen cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, terror and climate change.

Mr. Macri, who took office in December, said his government would play a more active role globally, offering peacekeepers for conflict zones and resettling “a significant number” of refugees, including those displaced by the war in Syria.

“Under President Macri, Argentina is reassuming its traditional leadership role in the region and around the world,” Mr. Obama said in a news conference after the two leaders met privately for about an hour at the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in downtown Buenos Aires. “President Macri has also committed Argentina to help address the Syrian refuge crisis, and I hope that inspires other nations to do the same.”

It’s a good thing that President Obama stopped in Buenos Aires, and a good thing also that Argentina’s new president is working to end the country’s self-imposed isolation. While it would be a mistake to think that Argentina is completely out of the woods—its toxic political culture and the endemic corruption of its political class aren’t the kind of problem that gets solved with one election—there is no doubt that the end of the Kirchner era is good news.

But while Argentina is likely to have some more trouble in years ahead, and Argentine politicians are going to make hay by blaming the U.S. for their own troubles and all the troubles in the world, relations between the U.S. and most of South America really have moved into a new era. In some ways they’ve gone back to an old one.

Before 1940, the U.S. was not heavily engaged with South America below the Caribbean coast. For one thing, the great cities of the southern hemisphere—Rio, Montevideo, Buenos Aires—are actually closer to Europe than to the U.S. by sea. South America as a continent is much farther to the east than North America—all of South America lies to the east of Savannah, Georgia. This means that before air travel, both the economic and political links between the U.S. and the major South American countries were relatively weak.

The U.S. only began to interest itself seriously in this part of the world during World War Two, when the Argentine dictator Juan Peron and to a lesser extent the Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas sympathized with the Axis. The U.S. for the first time in its history saw a potential security threat from South America, and FDR’s diplomats worked hard to keep the South Americans from siding with Hitler.

During the Cold War, Washington worried that communist movements in South America could introduce communism and Soviet influence into the western hemisphere. The example of Cuba intensified this concern, and during the Cold War the U.S. was ready to support, or at least put up with, extremely unsavory military dictatorships if that was what it took to keep the communists out. Plenty of Latin dictators were ready to play to Washington’s fears, and the result was one of the unhappiest chapters in hemispheric relations. President Obama has announced the release of more classified documents relating to the 1970s in Argentina; in the short term those documents will likely feed the anger that many still feel about the terrible deeds of the murderous Argentine junta of that period and Washington’s acquiescence. In the long run, these disclosures will confirm a new era and hopefully help both Argentines and Americans build a better relationship going forward.

With the end of the Cold War, the half century of American meddling in South American politics began to unwind. There might be some potential concerns about what might develop if Chinese influence continues to grow in South America if U.S.-China relations became more confrontational, and there are some concerns about terrorist gangs and drug lords. But the United States no longer has any real motive to interfere in domestic politics in countries like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. And most Americans would agree with President Obama that the best way to treat blowhard Latin populists and anti-American demagogues like Nicaragua’s Ortega and Ecuador’s Correa is with serenity and calm. We may sometimes be affected by the meltdown that ensues from the toxic fallout of leftist political and economic failure, and the developing Venezuelan disaster may have wide effects that we cannot ignore, but it makes no sense for the United States to connive at military coups simply because the voters in a given country fall for the deceptive promises of populist windbags. It is not America’s business to protect Latin voters from themselves.

Many of those around President Obama no doubt see all this in a starry-eyed haze of leftist sentimentalism: that the courageous and visionary President Obama is bravely charting a radical new course in U.S.-Latin relations. In fact, what the President is doing in Argentina is completely in the spirit of the foreign policy establishment. An Eisenhower or a Nixon in office today would be following exactly the same policy approach, although it is hard to imagine Ike doing the tango with quite as much flair. In Argentina, President Obama is doing exactly what American presidents should be doing: building bridges to better relations based on a realistic assessment of the status quo. That he’s doing it with style and flair is a good thing.

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