Chilean Foreign Policy: Shattered and Resurrected

Sebastián Piñera’s ambition has always trumped his ability. That was okay previously. But the social crisis rendered personal and institutional shortcomings unsustainable, so re-founding the Republic must also include Teatinos 180 and Chilean foreign policy.

Most right-wing politicians in the region have to thank Nicolás Maduro for winning them elections or defeating initiatives they opposed like the Colombian peace accords. Red scare tactics function well with voters and don’t require answers to questions of power, economics, and environmental collapse.

Among the worst offenders counts Team Piñera. During the 2017 election they painted his opponent Alejandro Guillier – an establishment left-winger who cautioned against women’s rights and worships ‘the model’ – as a socialist simpleton who’d slaughter the golden calf. And since that tactic turned out popular, it became policy.

Chilean Foreign Policy In Principle

That was most apparent on February 20, when the president tweeted that one of the noblest of Chile’s foreign policy principles relates to the commitment and defense of liberty, human rights, and democracy, which “must not recognize borders.” And in Cúcuta, Piñera would fight for these principles by making sure aid would cross from Colombia into Venezuela.

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The trip was a disaster. It was also cynical because the tweet about transcending borders came only weeks after the government rejected the UN migration pact because it would weaken Chile’s borders.

Yet, for anyone who cares, the principles Piñera mentioned have always been absurd. They hail from a time when liberal-capitalist states dominated world order and utopians dreamed of the end of history. A commitment to liberty also counted as a commitment to so-called free-market capitalism. And by riding that wave, post-dictatorship Chile gained political goodwill and investors’ trust. But if liberty and human rights counted, Chile would not lure China or take Argentina’s side undermining democracy in the Falklands.


While previous administrations – including Piñera’s first one – managed these contradictions, the president in his second term felt emboldened to use foreign policy for personal gain and to justify foreign intervention. This, he thought, would raise his international profile to a level similar to his frenemy’s Michelle Bachelet, especially during a time when Donald Trump focused on Venezuela to distract from one of his crimes.

But the October uprising shattered Piñera’s dreams. Reports from the UN human rights commission, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International described how state agents mistreated citizens. For example, the UN report, found evidence of human rights violations that “from October 18” included “excessive and unnecessary force that caused deaths and injuries, torture and maltreatment, sexual violence and arbitrary detention.” When such horrors were reported from Venezuela, Chilean officials quickly took an indignant posture, apparently ignorant about the rot in their own state.

But now that Latin America’s wunderkind turned out as dirty as its authoritarian neighbors, pretence won’t work.

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Resurrecting Foreign Policy

That must include an overhaul of foreign policy. This isn’t an elitist demand. Information flows in and out of the country seamlessly. Healthcare, education, pastime, work all involve cross-border exchanges of material or immaterial knowledge. And these flows depend on treaties, i.e, international politics.

Also, the social uprising made worldwide news while international organizations documented the atrocities committed. Chileans living abroad, often together with locals, joined the protests in their respective countries. International affairs are human affairs and so foreign policy can’t just be the business of diplomats, scholars and politicians.

Neglecting foreign policy in a new Constitution would leave a democratic gap in society.

Foreign policy in the new Republic should therefore be public policy. This would make it at least difficult for individuals to exploit it for personal ambition or use it to sell wine. (Yes, that’s true).

Focusing on a public aspect would also help counter intellectual incest. Almost all decision-makers are alumni of the same universities, meaning they received training from the same professors who were trained be the same professors and so on. Most have studied law or commerce and received an education that, apart from acquiring connections, favors ‘employability,’ a euphemism for solving problems governments and corporations encounter. But even proper international relations courses focus less on the world and more on the world economy or international law which nobody would enforce.

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This resulting group think among individuals who think they belong to an elite kills the creativity necessary for  statecraft and which mostly springs for intellectual adversity. Feminists, Mapuche and unions should not just get a voice in the current bogus citizen input mechanism, but gain influence in policy-making, including the proposal and drafting stages.

Had Mapuche a say on export policy, for example, La Araucanía would not be devastated by the logging industry. Those who count themselves among the current foreign policy elite would have to show how smart they really are and deal with the challenges voices from eclectic backgrounds would mount. It would create better policies, improved negotiation tactics, and strengthen Chilean foreign policy because it wouldn’t be so hypocritical anymore.

Values must also matter. Currently, they are political tools and can be manipulated by a powerful individual. So,  when engaging with other countries, Chile should also weave into the relations human rights questions and express its concern, even before China. If Chilean diplomacy is as good as its representatives think, they will find ways to further democracy and liberty, even for those that languish in China’s concentration camps. This approach could trigger more public debate about foreign policy and show that Chile isn’t an international sucker who shuts up when somebody promises a free trade deal. And more needs to be done, of course.

Good riddance to the old Republic, hopefully the new one won’t repeat the same mistakes.

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