Two Chiles of the Same Coin

By Christian Scheinpflug

Despite solid establishment background and uncreative programmes, voters and pundits alike took the runners-up in Chile’s presidential elections last year as serious agents of ‘change.’ This absurdity exposes the elite’s increasing inability to renew itself. It is, however, successfully masking the lack of talent and ideas with empty slogans. As the second ex-president will assume a second mandate, mostly the same crowd will have oscillated between government and private sector for 16 years by 2022. A politics-as-friend&family business model thus further consolidates, even though presidential term limits aimed to minimise such fortification of political power. Hence, in 2017 neo-feudal democracy emerged as the country’s governing model.

The elite entrenchment at the bottom of that model also carries over into already monocultural foreign policy, still dominated by the post-dictatorship generation. This generation may have been uniquely equipped to navigate Chile through the emerging unipolar, US-dominated moment in the 1990s, but times are changing, and so should ideas.

With democracy, many exiles returned from Europe or the US, where they often received proper and free higher education and experienced the miracles of social-democratic capitalism. With Allendeist nostalgia, a belief in capitalist fundamentals and democracy, post-dictatorship diplomats then have crafted a dual image of Chile. On one side, the victim of savage imperialism picking itself up to become a democracy again. On the other, the grown-up, neoliberal model pupil that got burnt after playing with socialist fire. This way any partner could see what they wanted in Chile, which translated into much international goodwill, admiration, and foreign investment.

The 1990s global environment grew during the post-World War II era, when the US championed in the ‘West’ democracy, rule of law and a welfare state to counter Soviet-communism. That strategy paid off, as the US, not the Soviet Union, provided the geopolitical and geo-economic blueprint for European and Latin American aspirations that unfolded in the liberal order. Chile’s foreign policy principles — respect for international law, responsibility to cooperate, advocating democracy and human rights — which ‘must be considered when establishing foreign policy goals’ are a tribute to that order. Unfortunately, they have also nurtured a state of denial.

This showed in 2014 when foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz, explained Chile’s ‘New Foreign Policy’ at a US-based institute. He remarked boldly ‘realpolitik’ — the pursuit of naked national interest — may retain some purpose, but for Chile principles count.

He then highlighted his country’s mature pragmatism and commitment to free trade, while following its principles. Toward the end of his talk, however, Mr Muñoz contradicted himself by articulating the ever-growing crack in Chile’s dual image. He pointed out that pragmatism and responsibility to cooperate oblige the country to seek common ground even if discord on issues such as human rights exists. From his current position this looks academic, but his experience as a former exile should have induced some realism. These differences imply real suffering and related complicity.

This crack in the dual image, or Chile’s conduct of textbook realpolitik, is covered with foreign investment, economic growth, and a belief in technology as driver of progress. But morals aside, the country could have its cake and eat it. The parties at the shopping malls wouldn’t be possible without foreign affairs pragmatism that sustains a few Pinochets in power. But nothing lasts forever.

Although US imperialism raged throughout Latin America, democracy has never been as big a threat to Washington as it is to the coming superpowers, China and Russia. Democracy, particularly in Chile, has threatened the US global interests but not its domestic order. Democracy in the new superpowers, however, would disrupt their internal, rigid ruling arrangements. Thus, they increasingly use ‘sharp power,’ international propaganda to undermine democracy. Sharp power is nothing new; the US has also used it. Still foreign-policy planners should worry, since the current iteration aims to undermine democracy and human rights, Chile’s key principles. It therefore represents a veritable threat to the national interest. Yet, supposed specialists, specifically in the economic international relations department, have been degraded to water carriers for business representatives that actually handle policy-making; a privatised education system promotes Economics or Law, not systemic and strategic thinking about international affairs; society’s authoritarian streak elicits admiration for iron-fist, not democratic leadership, and obliviousness to elite entrenchment ensures careers and kills challenging creativity.

Ideas on how to deal with inevitable superpower bullying and threats are in short supply. Such ideas would be needed because China’s commitment to free trade doesn’t translate into a commitment to the current order, as many analysts belief. Not just the captain is changing, the entire ship does. Thus, sailors must develop and use new tools for navigation. But this also implies some older ones have to go overboard, no matter how useful they were in the past.

Excessive pragmatism dissolves principle and hence degrades credibility. Over time, not only democracies will notice that Chile complies if given a dollar. A globalised Chile won’t be able to escape international criticism, pressure or dilemmas it didn’t face before. So even if its foreign policy follows a three-monkeys approach, the country will still be subject to, part of and pawn in realpolitik. Thus, continuing the current path, the country risks turning into the semi-democratic lapdog of the future authoritarian superpowers.

It’d be a bitter legacy the post-dictatorship generation would leave behind.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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