A PDF of this post can be downloaded here.
After taking office, then-President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, initiated the development of Chilean foreign strategy. The result was the National Security and Defence Strategy (ENSYD by its Spanish acronym) 2012 – 2024, to be updated every four years with the first revision coming due soon. ENSYD sketches out Chile’s international ambitious and analyses the country’s position within the state of world order. It also is shot through with liberal institutionalist (neoliberal) theory that transposes characteristics of domestic liberal democracy into the inter-state, i.e. international, realm. As such, key words like international law, cooperation, free trade, and individualism as in preserving “social cohesion and the national identity” resonate throughout the Strategy.
The prominence of liberal principles in security and defence coheres with the three overall principles of Chile’s exterior politics established long ago. The website of the Ministry of External Relations lists them as: respect for international law, promotion of democracy, and the responsibility to cooperate. Designing a (neo)liberal foreign policy is understandable, less because of Chile’s export oriented economy but for reasons of repairing its reputation after the Pinochet dictatorship. During those years Chile’s foreign policy took a decisively aggressive and uncooperative stance. High-profile military ‘diplomats’ (including Pinochet himself) waffled on about an international communist conspiracy that attacked Latin America, and therefore not the slightest concession could be made. This foreign policy culminated in state-sponsored international terrorism executed under ‘Operation Condor’ that conducted atrocities at the doorstep of the White House, in France, Italy, and elsewhere. The post-dictatorship governments became anxious to break the resulting isolation and demonstrate that Chile deserves recognition as a good citizen of the international society of free states.
If this approach was justified back then, the country somehow forgot to recalibrate its outlook ever since, partly because the neoliberal gospel further permeated society, creating uncritical decision-makers that mistake signing free trade agreements with foreign policy. Furthermore, the resurgent socialist interpretation of the regional environment as a brotherhood that suffers because of capitalist exploitation. Whenever this neoliberal-socialist narrative reached its limit, crass nationalist affirmation of the nation’s (and military’s) greatness emerged. Therefore, Chilean foreign policy, although tiny steps in the right direction, still lacks a sober analysis of the geopolitical forces that pressure the country.
The consequences of such a lack are playing out vividly in the northern triangle, where Chile, Peru, and Bolivia share borders. Moreover, resurgent Argentine belligerence in the South Atlantic is a real possibility as time and climate change proceed. Even though military clashes remain unlikely as of yet, and Chile enjoys natural advantages, such as a long Pacific cost, with power projection capability beyond Rapa Nui; sovereignty over Cape Horn, enabling it to control the south-west Pacific and stage claims in Antarctica; or the impenetrable Andes mountains to the west, the country finds itself in an increasingly precarious situation. Especially Bolivia’s demand over territory in the Atacama and Peru’s establishing of a province that cuts straight into Chilean territory illustrate this vulnerability. These events all relate to Chile’s staunch belief in international law. Yet, last year the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled against Chile’s inconsistent claim that it has no jurisdiction over Bolivia’s demand to land in the Atacama. Even though the Court at the same time condensed Bolivia’s claims this preliminary ruling shattered Chile’s legal strategy. Still, political circles and the national commentariat did not ascribe this setback to flawed foreign policy, but instead preferred to put their heads in the sand, arguing that Chile is doing just fine. In the end, the blind-spot the neoliberal-socialist discourse creates could very well cost the country a stretch of land and, in any case, has cost it substantial resources as the supposedly weak Bolivia succeeded to impose its preferences on the supposedly stronger Chile.
To avoid more mishaps, Chile must connect the dots and interpret its regional environment not as composed of individual actors but of alliances, or axes. Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina form a geopolitical axis driven by grievances of land loss in the Pacific War of 1879, while Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba form an ideological axis with an interest in weakening Chile’s relative economic success to stem the spread of too much capitalism. Fusing geopolitics and Bolivian national identity, Chile must acknowledge that the north likely remains a troubling area, because the Plurinational Republic defines its existence via access to the sea. No verdict could abolish such feelings.
This means that Peru remains an associate of Bolivia, even more so as it already re-acquired lost territory in 2014 after an ICJ ruling and is as emboldened as ever. In the south, Argentina is sorting out internal trouble, but no matter what how successful this turns out and notwithstanding President Macri’s skillful presenting himself as rational decision-maker, the Falklands issue will come up within his presidency. He already made clear he wanted to sort things out peacefully, thereby blatantly ignoring that the problem has been solved by referendum in 2013, and thus no mandate on part of Britain exists to negotiate the status of the islands – and this is a problem for Chile.
The Falklands are one of two entry points to a chain of islands that allow control over the South Atlantic, the other being Cape Horn. Hence, the closure of one point generates pressure on the other. Although the Falklands remain in Argentina’s spotlight (akin to Bolivia they are an identity issue no national leader can ignore), Argentina’s able military theorists know too well that the price to be gained in the South Atlantic justifies aggression against Chile. Having a say in the South Atlantic with access to the Antarctic and precious natural resources as well as speedy trade routes, would elevate Argentina’s status in the coming multipolar world order, as it could expect much accolades from the various key actors. Argentina’s expected economic recovery will only elevate this process. In this light, Chile’s support for Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, as well as closing its ports to Falkland ships, appears suicidal. Chile must work to retain the status quo in the South Atlantic; a task that admittedly requires diplomatic skill to balance the interests of the geopolitical axis.
When it comes to the ideological axis Chile should pull some levers in Cuba. The current US rapprochement represents a godsend in this respect. Ignoring shrill rhetoric and ideological limitations, any government should strive to build good relations with Cuba for the Caribbean nation holds key influence in the regional fora and exercises quite some control over the current ruling faction in Venezuela. Getting serious about Cuba may indeed involve trade agreements, but also initiatives like reciprocal medical education, in which Cuba supplies the skill and Chile the technology. Chilean influence in Cuba must be handled to achieve a toning down of Venezuela’s Maduro, who periodically encourages Bolivia to move against Chilean ‘imperialism.’ Even though the Maduro administration may soon collapse, the forces it represents won’t, and indeed may strive to build closer relationships with Bolivia’s ruling party, which is not in Chile’s interest.
Colombia and Brazil function as possible sidekicks in the ‘two-axes’ strategy. With both Chile enjoys historically friendly relations, and putting their diplomatic weight together promises Chile to punch above its weight. The necessary compromises for such an arrangement are unlikely to supersede current bilateral agreements. Importantly, such closer cooperation must proceed delicately to avoid giving the impression of encirclement to any of Chile’s neighbours, which would be counterproductive.
A two-axes strategy does not necessarily mean crude balance of power politics. Indeed, showing off military potentially creates a ‘Herzian’ security dilemma, where the defensive and deterrence capabilities of country A take the form of imminent violent aggression in the interpretation of country B. Such as dilemma could set off an arms race that so far only economic weakness has prevented. Yet, especially Peru and Bolivia (Argentina soon) have grown consistently for more than a decade. Peru pushed down poverty from a rate of 55% to 22%, and generated an average GDP of 6% p.a. between 2005 and 2014 with average inflation standing at 2.9%. Likewise Bolivia, which grew on average 4.9% from 2004 until 2014. This expansion reduced poverty from 63% in 2002 to 45% in 2011. The GINI index dropped from 0.60 to 0.49, corresponding to a massive fall in inequality. As such both countries are on track to successfully eliminate poverty while sustaining economic growth. This means that soon resources that currently are going into poverty reduction are soon available for defence spending.
Chile’s relative economic advantage is melting away and soon it will be just one among many prosperous actors in South America. In this future, Chile must take its neighbours seriously at all levels, and via the analytical results a ‘two-axes’ strategy yields it can build policies that relate to the strategic environment as it is – not as it might be.