Argentine President Carlos Menem is changing foreign policy as forcefully as he pushed a nearly bankrupt state-run economy toward free enterprise.
The traditional pillars of Argentina’s approach to the world used to be neutrality in foreign conflicts and a “third position” between capitalism and communism.
Since taking office 15 months ago, however, Menem has presented his country as a trustworthy friend of the United States and Britain. He sent two warships to the Persian Gulf in September to help enforce the U.N. embargo on Iraq.
Menem says his objective is to make sure Argentina “is not passed by the train of history.”
He feels that world relationships are shifting with the end of the Cold War and that Argentina cannot afford to repeat its past roles: sitting on the sidelines in both world wars and tying itself to the nonaligned movement.
Sometimes, as in his economic program, Menem upsets his countrymen by acting with little apparent concern for public opinion or the advice of his Peronist party.
Many were surprised when he resumed diplomatic relations with Britain in February without settling the ownership of the Falkland Islands. Argentina invaded the South Atlantic archipelago in 1982, and Britain won the 74-day war that followed.
Former President Raul Alfonsin calls ties with the United States “a subordinate relationship,” and many Argentines agree. After Menem sent warships to the gulf, historian Felix Luna compared him to “a boy who behaves well enough in school, but on top of that gives an apple to the teacher.”
The president ignores that kind of criticism. Noting the changes in Eastern Europe, he says Argentina must change its focus.
“Capitalism . . . has triumphed the world over,” Menem said recently.
There is a clear contrast in how Menem and his predecessor see Argentina’s place in the world.
During Alfonsin’s term in 1983-89, his government severed relations with South Africa because of apartheid, approved trade credits to Cuba and refused to declare an end to hostilities with Britain years after the Falklands war.
Alfonsin campaigned for international nuclear disarmament and his foreign minister, Dante Caputo, said Cuba should be allowed back into the Organization of American States.
Both referred to Argentina as an independent developing nation. They stressed its differences with the United States and Europe as much as the common interests.
Menem says: “I don’t want to belong to the Third World. Argentina has to be in the First World, which is the only world that should exist.”
He welcomes foreign investors, urges traders to buy Argentine grain and has asked bankers to renegotiate a foreign debt of $66 billion, third-highest in the developing world behind Brazil and Mexico.
When Menem put dozens of public companies worth billions of dollars up for sale, he asked who would buy them if foreigners did not.
Alfonsin denounced the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 and its support of anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. Last December, Menem said little about the U.S. invasion of Panama.
Menem’s predecessor discounted U.S. worries about a rocket booster and potential missile called the Condor 2, which Argentina was said to be developing with sales to Iraq in mind. Menem canceled the program.
Carlos Escude, a foreign policy analyst at the Di Tella Institute, described Menem’s policies as “a shift toward a less naive realism.”