Bolivia, Chile, and the Limits of Elitist Diplomacy

By Christian Scheinpflug / Chile Today

Chile’s been the odd one out. As its neighbors struggled for independence, Chilean leaders admired the might of the Empires and how they managed the world top-down. So since the Republic’s beginning, an outward-looking bureaucracy has geared foreign policy toward good terms with major markets. This bureaucracy erected a solid state structure, gluing it together with European-style organization of the armed forces and Catholicism. Thus arose a Latin American mirror image of European imperial powers, guided by a conservative frame and strong sense of hierarchy.

Therefore, diplomacy keeps an elite character in the hands of technocrats. No matter whether a dictator, a left-wing or right-wing coalition has ruled, diplomatic affairs in practice and on the opinion pages of oligarchic-owned publications remain a matter for mainly old white men. Perhaps this arrangement has played out just fine so far. Chile has amicable relations with almost every country in the world. It has avoided sacrificing blood and treasure for the national interest of the US in the Middle East, and has played a key role in regional UN operations. The limits of its obsession with hierarchy and order are, however, less obvious if equally important.

´Diplomatic affairs remain a matter for mainly old white men´

Take Chile’s greatest foreign policy challenge, Bolivia. It’s astonishing how much Bolivia influences domestic debates and external politics, not to mention the budget. That’s partly because Bolivia’s demand to get access to the sea shakes a pillar of the state – if the territorial make up changes, a state changes. Therefore, territorial demands are hard to push but it’s no coincidence that Bolivia gained support from parts of Chile’s haute-volée or other countries in the region as the gray eminences looked on in shock.

A reason for this success lies in populist diplomacy. While Chile’s experts work for the status quo, Bolivian diplomacy works for its disruption and a potential revolution. This approach materializes, for example, in the Book of the Sea, in which Bolivia explains why it has a right to Chilean territory. The book is accessible on a government website and includes an English version for an international audience. Like good propaganda it uses accessible, not legalistic and intimidating language. In a genius PR move, President Morales even handed a copy to the Pope, ensuring the world would know it exists.

Another example of populist diplomacy is the giant flag. In March, Bolivian forces presented a nearly 200km-long flag and pictures of it went viral. More importantly, this event is also easily comprehensible. One need not know the complexities of treaties to see what’s going on. The president even offered the public a role in international politics by inviting citizens to create the flag.

Moreover, Bolivia did its homework on Chile. It knows how to speak to a public that sees corruption and oligarchic influence every day. This enables Bolivia to argue that the territory doesn’t belong to Chile anyway, but to its economic establishment. From this point on, Bolivia could convince the audience that it is an underdog repressed by an imperialist power, drawing on the simplistic imperialist theories of Latin America’s left. Everything considered, quite an impressive achievement.

´Bolivia could convince the audience that it is repressed by an imperialist power´

But instead of respecting the effort, Chile’s establishment knows only disdain, denigrating citizens that don’t align with its reasoning. It really shows that they have not been subject to intellectual challenges, above all from non-specialists. Their contempt only marginally hides their failure to respect Bolivia enough to learn about its grievances, societal dynamics and the power relations that sustain Morales. Elitist diplomacy, therefore, proved weak compared to its populist sibling.

Still, Chile can reverse course – if its elites allow for a progressive alternative. Bolivia has slightly more advanced views on abortion, but as in Chile right now women in both countries have to fall victim to unspeakable violence before they can have autonomy over their bodies. And although transsexual marriage is legal in Bolivia, same-sex marriage remains off the table. The feminist wave rolling currently through Chile, with university occupations and provocative performances in public spaces, draws attention to the dark side of order. Conservative quarters, of course, malign this movement and so remain blind to its upshot: it can create a freer Chile with a broader spectrum of debate and more citizens included.

Such changes would be good for diplomacy, which could claim a real superiority over repressive countries, would enjoy intellectual invigoration and be better equipped to counter demonization. Thus, the key challenge for Chile’s diplomacy now is if its elite, conservative agents can reconcile with society’s liberal flowering. They have no problems to do so in the economic realm, what happens elsewhere remains to be seen.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. You can follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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