by Emmet Hollingshead
Further south than any other landmass save Antarctica, just off the tip of the American continents, lie three islands: Picton, Nueva, and Lennox. Virtually undisturbed by human footprints, these islands set the southern boundary of the maritime region known as the Beagle Channel and were the basis of what was nearly the largest-scale military invasion in modern Latin American history.
Operation Sovereignty was an Argentine military plan to wrest control of these islands from Chile, but had well-known contingency plans which included the full-scale invasion and occupation of Chile by the Argentine junta. Less than a week before Christmas 1978, and after being turned back once by bad weather, Argentine naval vessels were in the finals stages of preparation for the invasion. It was a mere six hours before the scheduled landing when Pope John Paul II, fearing the worst, messaged the Chilean and Argentine governments to say that he was sending his personal emissary to each capital in the hopes that a peace deal could be reached.
Both governments agreed to talks, and six and half years later the Argentine National Congress approved the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Chile, resolving the border of the Beagle Channel. Argentina had once again turned to an age-old practice in settling its regional disputes: a neutral third party negotiator.
To many U.S. citizens, such a move is bewildering. Not only to back down in a situation in of military superiority, but to outsource its arbitration? Inconceivable. In U.S. political thought even the doves would be skeptical, which is to say nothing of the current contingent of would-be political philosophers who are currently calling the shots at the highest levels of government and use “globalist” as a four-letter word. The U.S. does not turn to outside parties, does not look to their authority in they way that a truly international system requires.
We the people are an insular bunch.
Clearly, advocates of liberal internationalism have failed to persuade the U.S. public of the value of international cooperation and institutions. A fervent and isolationist nationalism has gripped a section of the country, and no amount of technocratic argument seems to be able to stop it. Rather than rehash comparative advantages or the moral value of human rights law, I’d like to propose a new path: international cooperation as patriotic. It is patriotic because is the best choice for our economy and our military and our people, but also because it is a reaffirmation of a national identity with a global soul. Here, we turn back to Argentina. If we can understand how Argentina, a country born of an international character similar to the U.S., fosters an international-leaning patriotism, maybe we can learn a bit about our own national identity as well and why patriotism doesn’t have to be us against the world.
As they did in the Beagle Channel dispute, Argentina often resolved international incidents by turning to another foreign power which wielded both hefty geopolitical weight and was neutral in the conflict. Great Britain and the United States have provided this power-broker role in instances such as the Puna de Atacama litigation or previous disputes over the southern islands in 1902. Juan Carlos Puig, a former Argentine Foreign Minister, wrote in an article for the Revista Argentina de Relaciones Internacionales in 1975 that Great Britain’s influence over Argentine foreign policy “has an almost axiomatic character”.
Argentina has long been a student of triangular international relations, playing the relationships between regional rivals and global superpowers.
Still, as a largely Catholic nation located in a largely Catholic continent, Argentina has always given a great amount of political authority to the Pope. Especially now that an Argentine occupies that highest of offices, the Pope’s words and blessings mean a great deal to Argentine leaders. While Great Britain and the U.S. have enjoyed their positions as powerful states, they came to occupy those positions through strength of force. It is only the Pope who holds his office by divine right. It is no coincidence that when Great Britain originally arbitrated the Beagle Channel dispute, the subsequent ruling was rejected by Argentina, who would later only recognize the Pope as a legitimate mediator.
Argentina’s relationship with international powers extends into the domestic sphere, too. The 1853 Constitution was modelled closely on the U.S. Constitution, and as a result, U.S. court decisions “have had a strong influence” on Argentine interpretation of their own Constitution. Additionally, since the Argentine court system was modelled on existing French, Italian, and German courts, those countries’ legal decisions have also provided a backdrop for court decisions in Argentina. Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand of the Library of Congress writes that such a model “is a way of strengthening the conviction in the selected interpretation offered by the domestic law.” Argentine judges still make their own decisions, but they acknowledge that many other countries have faced similar situations, and that the corresponding legal decisions deserve recognition. This is a prudent approach to governing in the modern era of increased connectivity and cooperation, and confirms the egalitarian respect which international laws must be built on.
The nation is very proud of their active involvement in international institutions, with Luis Maria de Pablo Pardo, another former Argentine Foreign Minister, writing in a chapter of La política exterior argentina y sus protagonistas, 1880-1995 that “The Argentine Republic is an integral part of of both regional and global international organizations.” Argentina has consistently been one of the largest providers of UN Peacekeeping troops, and ranks fourth in the number of military experts provided. In fact, the Argentine Army’s self-stated vision includes being “integrated with the Armed Forces… of the region,” suggesting that the armed forces see high value in collective and cooperative self-defense. And not only has Argentina tended to take on outsized roles in existing organizations like the G20, UN, or WTO, they were instrumental in forming MERCOSUR, South America’s largest customs union and leading organization for economic cooperation.
In Kathryn Sikkink’s words, Argentina has gone “From Pariah State to Global Protagonist” in international human rights law since the fall of their last military dictatorship in 1983. While much of this work has been domestic, a great deal of it has had international impacts as well. In addition to pursuing important cases in Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Argentina has pioneered “truth trials,” which are official legal investigations and proceedings conducted despite the presence of amnesty laws. (Amnesty laws prevent human rights crimes perpetrators from facing punishment for their actions in order to ensure smooth transitions away from human rights violating governments.) Argentina’s truth trials have set a global precedent that even though victims and their family members may not be able to see justice done, they at least have a right to the truth. Additionally, Argentine human rights organizations and the Argentine government have pursued cases and set major precedents in international human rights courts, and continue to push for a strengthening of the International Criminal Court.
From Argentina’s history, we see a pattern emerge which forms a national character based on respect for the state’s peers and a place within the international community.
Argentina has had its fair share of isolationism, as it did alongside the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, but its is a history of a primarily international outlook. And as with any history, there are lessons to be learned.
First, this international stance is a recognition that in order for one’s country and one’s fellow citizens to succeed in this life, you have to get involved. Argentina’s active involvement in international organizations helps their own citizens, not just the citizens of the world. We have to realize that being an involved member of the international community is ultimately a patriotic choice because if we want to look out for our fellow citizens, if we want to keep them safe from harm and give them opportunities to put food on the table, our best option by far is to work with the world around us. When advocates of liberal internationalism turn to these lines of reasoning, we have to stress that this is not just what is best for the world, but what is best for our country as well.
Second, international cooperation is the projection of a historically internationalist identity. The preamble to the Argentine Constitution declares that the state seeks a better life for “all men in the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil,” thus encouraging immigration and striving for an international character. It is an extension of that character to play a major role in international organizations. In the very same way, the United States is a country of immigrants and of an internationalist past, with a history and tradition that should propel us toward our neighbors, not drive us inward.
Today’s right-wing populists ignore this part of our identity even though it runs to the very core of who we are as a nation.
There are flaws with the international order as it stands. Yet engaging with the system is still a superior option to denying its potential. As we continue through the seemingly never-ending debate over isolationism, we would do well to remember that the post-war international governance structure has produced the richest and safest epoch in human history. We would do better to remember that things as far ranging as immigration, southern hospitality, and pioneering leadership are anti-isolationist principles embedded in the American character without which we cannot be ourselves.
Emmet Hollingshead is a International Studies and Political Science major from Macalester College. He is on the soccer team, a founding member of Macalester Quakers, and is studying abroad in Buenos Aires in Spring 2017.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.