President Donald J. Trump knows when he is damaging international relationships, and seems to enjoy it. In June, he gleefully burned bridges with Europe over the Paris climate agreement, and he has a fresh spring in his step whenever he goads Mexico. But carelessness and “America First” dogmatism are also damaging diplomatic partnerships that the president has sought to strengthen.
Take Argentina, arguably the most important U.S. ally in Latin America today. Foreign policy professionals at the State Department and National Security Council have convinced Mr. Trump of Argentina’s importance, including the country’s role as a leader of the regional response to the Venezuela crisis. In response, the White House has lavished attention on the Argentines. In April, President Mauricio Macri became the second Latin American leader to visit the Oval Office. “We’re just going to be great friends, better than ever before,” Mr. Trump said at the time. And earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Buenos Aires.
But a series of slights—driven largely by Mr. Trump’s single-minded focus on the balance of trade—has weakened this consequential relationship. Mr. Trump’s trade representative has spurned Argentina’s request to rejoin the Generalized System of Preferences—a system that would have eliminated tariffs on a range of Argentine exports. On August 22, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross accused Argentina of unfairly subsidizing biodiesel production and threatened crushing tariffs. (The administration also launched a global review of aluminum imports that threatened another principal Argentine export.) Following the inauguration, the Agriculture Department twice postponed its decision to discontinue a 16-year ban on Argentine lemons that has long soured [editors: pun intended] the relationship. (The White House relented in May, but the lemons are still barred and Mr. Pence undoubtedly got an earful on the subject when he was in Buenos Aires.)
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has piled on. He has offered full-throated support for Mr. Trump’s deep cuts to foreign assistance, which will likely reduce security assistance and other aid to Argentina, where a third of the population lives in poverty and the government is struggling to combat narcotics trafficking. Stranger still, he spurned his predecessor’s public commitment to hold a high-level, wide-ranging dialogue with the Argentine government.
President Obama had a somewhat different way to be “great friends” with Argentina. Less than three months into Mr. Macri’s presidency, he made a historic trip to Buenos Aires. As a South America director on the National Security Council, I organized that visit in March 2016, the first by a U.S. president in a decade. The then-president understood Argentina was a long-term bet, not the counter party in a real estate transaction. Standing in a gilded hall in the Casa Rosada presidential palace, he declared, “The United States stands ready to work with Argentina through this historic transition in any way that we can.”
That warm embrace was a product of Argentina’s cold shoulder. Before Mr. Macri’s election in late 2015, Argentina’s past two presidents had spent 12 years dismantling Argentina’s economy and courting China, Iran, Russia and Venezuela, oftentimes as a way to spite the United States. In 2011, Argentina seized equipment aboard a U.S. Air Force plane, claiming falsely that it had foiled some U.S. plot. Two years later, the Argentine president suggested that the United States was plotting her assassination. “If something happens to me,” she said, “look to the north.” (No more information was ever provided.)
Following Mr. Macri’s victory, Mr. Obama recognized the value of a market-friendly government that aspired to close ties with the United States. Argentina, South America’s second-biggest economy, is a member of the G-20, a Major Non-NATO ally, an emerging energy powerbroker and a thought leader in a region that seesaws between pro-market policies and radical populism. Mr. Obama also recognized the mess Mr. Macri inherited, and the need for U.S. help to restore economic growth and fight sky-high inflation. After all, the sharks were already circling, as Argentines quickly lost patience with austerity policies and a slow recovery.
For its part, Argentina showed its value from the start. In his first months in office, Mr. Macri reversed Argentina’s tepid approach to the Paris climate agreement, agreed to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees and sharply condemned democratic backsliding in Venezuela well before other governments in the region. Presumably, he was prepared to offer similar backing for Mr. Trump’s priorities.
No matter what, Mr. Trump’s America was going to be less useful to Mr. Macri. Argentines are historically wary of U.S. power, and Mr. Trump is particularly unpopular. Support among Argentines for the U.S. has dropped from 43 percent under Mr. Obama to 35 percent under Mr. Trump. Seventy percent of Argentines consider Mr. Trump to be “dangerous.” In the diplomatic sphere, the embassies in both capitals lack ambassadors. Earlier this month, Mr. Trump further tarnished the U.S. image in the region by recklessly threatening military intervention in Venezuela.
Nonetheless, for now at least, Mr. Macri considers friendship with the United States to be worthwhile. By all accounts, Mr. Trump feels the same. But in its relentless pursuit of a good deal and disregard for international partnerships and foreign aid, the White House is needlessly fraying ties with Buenos Aires. It is not clear whether the Trump administration will realize its mistake in time to play a role in Argentina’s historic, but fragile, reform project.
Benjamin N. Gedan, PhD, is a former South America director on the National Security Council. He is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he serves as a term member. Dr. Gedan is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was responsible for Honduras and Argentina at the U.S. Department of State, and covered Central America and the Caribbean as an international economist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.