Chile vs. Bolivia: These are the real stakes at The Hague

Chilean-Bolivian relations will reach a milestone on October 1, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issues its verdict on Bolivia’s maritime demand. But the stakes are much higher. The countries will face far-reaching consequences.

Both Bachelet-Piñera administrations that governed Chile since 2006 pursued the issue within a frame of “talks yes, concessions no”. Within that frame, Chile offered “an enclave without sovereignty” on top of the still prevalent arrangement that grants Bolivia privileged access to Chile’s Pacific coast ports. But Bolivia insists on sovereign, not privileged access because the sea forms part of national identity; without it national identity remains incomplete. This image was forged and promoted by the nation’s founders. They understood that landlocked Bolivia would always have to cross foreign territory to move troops in case of war. Sea access would ease troop movements. Contrary to taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as in old-left mythology, ceding territory would therefore fundamentally change the regional balance of power. Surprisingly, Chile’s foreign policy establishment has never made that case.

Bolivia’s Game

In Bolivia, President Morales was the first leader who understood how to use the popular demand as a foundation for political power. Sticking it to Chile galvanized his voters and opponents alike. Thus, the verdict represents the endpoint of the legal matter as much as a power cycle for Morales, which brings, however, new problems. If the court rules in Bolivia’s favor, Morales stands firm and will certainly succeed in prolonging his presidency beyond the term limit. But he will also have to advance difficult talks. In that scenario, relations won’t improve for a long time, mainly because pressure on Morales grows. Worse for Chile, Argentina could watch and learn how to push its claims on the Falklands, with destabilizing consequences for Chile’s interests in the southern sea.

The demand is a gold mine for political fortune seekers. So if the court rules against Bolivia, Morales would step up rhetoric against Chile to calm internal competition and tighten his grip. In the best case, a contender defeats Morales and focuses on building amicable relations with Chile. But that would go against Bolivia’s self-image and invite allegations of violating the constitution. A dictator could ignore all that, but also create another Venezuela – right at Chile’s doorstep.

Bolivia, Chile, and the Limits of Elitist Diplomacy

High Stakes

President Piñera won’t come under similar pressure as Morales, but the verdict will have heavy impacts regardless.

In Chile, a culture of complacency grew on a belief in Chilean exceptionalism. This view received a boost right after the dictatorship when the country strove to transform its global image from being the bloody appendix of US capital to a model participant in the ostensibly triumphant liberal world order. This move reflects in Chile’s foreign policy principles, which include respect for international law and the supremacy of the state.

In a dog-eat-dog world, the insistence on these principles, and playing by the rules small countries had little say in creating, nonetheless provided some protection and tools against foreign intervention. It was also easily sold as the sovereign will of the state.

Nevertheless, both pillars often are opposite poles. And the 2014 ICJ ruling in favor of Peru provides a precedent. Peru got the 28,000km2 that Chile insisted were its sovereign territory, showing how wobbly that concept is. Santiago accepted the verdict without murmur, celebrating the respect for international law. But that also obscured an ugly truth: Chile didn’t lose territory, but violated Peru’s sovereignty.

If the court rules unfavorably, this truth will emerge again and more forcefully regarding Bolivia. Moreover, the area Bolivia claims forms part of the national myth that Chile heroically won the Pacific War. Hence, commentators and authorities urge citizens to “wait calmly for the sentence, with the conviction that Chile’s sovereignty is not at risk” since “our sovereign territory is protected and will not be part of any negotiation.” But they know the verdict is not about sovereignty, it just states that Chile respected or not the 1904 border treaty. Commentators pound on sovereignty because they are in denial about the contradictions in the country’s foreign policy principles.

In light of Chile’s constant boasting of respect for international law and negotiation, an unfavorable ruling would damage the country’s credibility. It could enter talks over territory it claimed will never be part of negotiations or it could reject the ruling. None of these options looks great.

Were it to refuse talks, the principle of respect for international law would collapse once and for all. Expecting such an outcome, some commentators advocate Chile should leave the Bogotá Pact in which regional actors vow to resolve disputes through the ICJ and not the military. But leaving into the global wilderness, Chile would have less protection and its many trade partners, most of them much more powerful, would take note. This wouldn’t prevent any deals, but raise their price. Trade partners would seek to insure against any possible U-Turns of a Chile that threw regional influence away when faced with inconvenient results. Other actors would take advantage of a Chile that couldn’t easily access legal institutions anymore.

Negotiating with Bolivia into all eternity, on the other hand, would be expensive and erode trust, because the potential loss of territory would always loom large.

Regardless of Chile having done right or wrong, the ICJ will not fix relations between both countries. They will throw heavier punches in the future.

Chile, Bolivia fasten seat belts on final stretch toward ICJ ruling

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