U.S.-Argentine Relations Can Survive Trump’s Tariff Threat

Since Alberto Fernández’s election, the U.S. president hadn’t antagonized the incoming leftist administration—until the announcement of new tariffs on steel and aluminum this week.

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández
Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernández flashes a "V"—for victory—and an "L"—for Brazilian former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—in Buenos Aires on Nov. 9. ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP via Getty Images

Incoming Argentine President Alberto Fernández might seem like an irresistible target for U.S. President Donald Trump. A leftist who this year ran against Trump’s “friend for many years,” Argentine President Mauricio Macri, Fernández mourned Trump’s 2016 election at the time, saying U.S. voters had “opted for a return to the worst reactionary politics.” Yet Trump was uncharacteristically silent throughout Argentina’s presidential campaign this fall, even as Fernández pummeled Macri for recklessly indebting Argentina’s crisis-prone government. Last month, after Fernández’s decisive victory in October, Trump congratulated the president-elect in a call, and a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of “shared democratic values and priorities.”

That cautious posture had left open the possibility that Fernández’s election might not reignite the mutual mistrust of the last Peronist era, during the governments of Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, from 2003 to 2015, when Argentina drew close to China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela and clashed bitterly with the United States. (During the tenure of Alberto Fernández’s running mate this election, Fernández de Kirchner, customs officials once seized equipment on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, and she later implied that if anything happened to her, the culprit would be found “to the north” and said that she might be imprisoned if she visited New York.)

That does not mean there will be an entirely clean slate when Fernández takes office next week. On Dec. 2, Trump unexpectedly announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Argentina and Brazil. These duties would risk harming Argentina’s steel and aluminum industries amid an already brutal recession. Last year, Trump threatened similar action, but Macri’s negotiators ultimately talked him out of imposing tariffs. This time around, Argentina’s government will have little leverage in Washington. After all, Trump also targeted Brazil despite his admiration for its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the tropics.”

It is not clear if Trump will choose to go through with the tariffs—and restrictions on his authority might ultimately tie his hands. But even if Trump punishes Argentina’s steel and aluminum producers, the recently rebuilt relationship might survive. Unlike Brazil, Argentina’s steel and aluminum industries are relatively small, and their shipments to the United States account for less than 1 percent of Argentina’s total exports.

Even if Trump punishes Argentina’s steel and aluminum producers, the recently rebuilt relationship might survive.

Meanwhile, Fernández’s relatively moderate advisors, such as Sergio Massa, Argentina’s incoming lower house speaker, insist he will avoid conflict with Washington. They say he recognizes Argentina’s need for U.S. support at the International Monetary Fund, where Argentina hopes to renegotiate its $57 billion bailout—the largest in IMF history. He also hopes to entice U.S. oil companies to invest in Vaca Muerta, Argentina’s colossal shale oil and gas region, to help Argentina overcome its costly energy deficit. A drastic shift toward the left in its foreign policy would isolate Argentina within the region as well, with conservatives currently in control of neighboring Bolivia, Brazil and Chile, and coming to power in neighboring Uruguay following its Nov. 24 election.

Importantly, many sources of historic tension with the United States from the Fernández de Kirchner period are no longer in play. Like the Peronists, Trump has adopted a nationalist and trade-skeptic view during his presidency. Moreover, resentment toward the United States over its abandonment of Argentina during its 2001 economic collapse has softened over the years.

U.S. diplomats have been skillfully courting Fernández for months. In November, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina met with Fernández, and U.S. diplomats in Buenos Aires and Washington have been huddling with Fernández’s advisors. Their outreach is designed to pull him away from Fernández de Kirchner’s orbit, and to prevent any anti-American outburst by Fernández in response to a potential provocation from the White House. In a hopeful sign for them, Fernández did not react to the steel and aluminum tariffs, though his transition team made contact with aggrieved exporters.

Of course, that careful choreography could be undone by a single Trump tweet. The relationship will likely survive the steel and aluminum dust-up, but Fernández would not turn the other cheek should Trump launch a personal attack. The Argentine left is deeply suspicious of the United States, and many members of Fernández’s coalition already dislike Trump.

Trump has previously criticized U.S. allies, such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Indeed, his forbearance on Argentina is likely a result of a lack of interest. He has traveled only once to Latin America while president—a hurried trip to Buenos Aires for a G-20 summit.

In fact, the United States has a history of counterproductive forays into Argentine politics. In the 1940s, for instance, U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden’s distaste for Juan Perón buoyed Perón’s candidacy, as his allies beseeched voters to choose between “Braden or Perón.” Later Peronist leaders also clashed with Washington. When U.S. President George W. Bush traveled to Mar del Plata for a summit in 2005, Néstor Kirchner welcomed Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, famous for his anti-American rhetoric, to the seaside city, even as Chávez hosted a counter-summit to rail against the United States and its free trade agenda. Kirchner’s chief of staff at the time? Alberto Fernández.

These days, it’s Fernández’s various forays into foreign policy that may make a diplomatic clash with the United States more likely. On election night, he flashed a “free Lula” gesture, championing former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and antagonizing Lula’s rival, Bolsonaro. After Fernández described the Brazilian leader as “racist, misogynist, and violent,” Bolsonaro labeled Fernández a “leftist bandit.” Their shared rejection of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs is not enough to paper over their differences, creating another source of potential tension with the White house.

Fernández has also gone to bat for Bolivia’s former leader Evo Morales and sharply criticized the United States for celebrating Morales’s ouster. Though Fernández’s embrace of Morales sparked fears among foreign investors and U.S. diplomats of a sharp change in Argentina foreign policy, he has doubled down, saying he would have offered asylum to the former president and harshly criticizing Argentina’s noncommittal response to the political crisis across the border.

Breaking with tradition, Fernández’s first postelection overseas trip was not to Brazil, but rather a visit to fellow leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City. Fernández was promoting a new regional body, the Grupo de Puebla, as a counterweight to Latin America’s conservative governments. Its approach to the Venezuela crisis—Trump’s top Latin America priority—is sure to disappoint the U.S. president, who has favored sanctions over dialogue.

Though Fernández’s statements may seem reckless, resisting U.S. influence is often good politics in Argentina, where the U.S. government is held in low regard. Trump in particular is unpopular; 78 percent of Argentines have no confidence in his handling of world affairs, according to Pew Research Center polling. The steel and aluminum tariffs have no doubt deepened mistrust of Trump in Argentina, especially among Fernández supporters, who hold the U.S. president in especially low regard.

It’s Fernández’s various forays into foreign policy that may make a diplomatic clash with the United States more likely.

Still, Fernández is not spoiling for a fight. In a conciliatory gesture, his likely foreign minister, Felipe Solá, recently announced plans to remain in the Lima Group, despite widespread speculation Argentina would abandon the regional body in response to its hard line on the Venezuela crisis. Fernández’s likely ambassador to Washington, Jorge Argüello, held the same position under Fernández de Kircher, but U.S. diplomats remember him as a conciliatory figure.

For his part, so far at least, Trump has held fire. In fact, after the Trump-Fernández call, Fernández said the U.S. president had promised support at the IMF. During Fernández’s Mexico trip, he met with Trump’s top Latin America advisor, Mauricio Claver-Carone. Fernández has not announced a U.S. visit, but in October, his envoy Guillermo Nielsen held cordial meetings at the State Department. Now, Fernández’s mild response to the threatened tariffs—even as Argentina’s economy shrinks 3 percent this year—is demonstrating anew the next government’s preference to avoid drama with Trump.

Should Trump keep pulling his punches, there is still a chance the U.S. relationship with Argentina, only recently rebuilt after 12 years of antagonism, could yet survive the return of Peronism.

Benjamin N. Gedan, a former South America director on the National Security Council, is deputy director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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