Guest Introduction: Chile’s Role in the World

Independence and the Rule of Law

by | Apr 22, 2004

How can the foreign policy of a small nation have a credible impact on global politics?

Chile’s February 2003 refusal to support the war in Iraq in the United Nations Security Council surprised many and irritated quite a few. How was it possible that a small country preparing itself to sign a free trade agreement with the United States, a measure to which it had aspired for almost a decade, was taking the risk of nay-saying in a matter so important to the world’s leading power? What national interest could justify saying no to the United States about a topic apparently so far off from regional interests? The debate briefly shook up Chileans, but the necessity to examine this question seemed to lose relevance with the signing of the trade agreement a few months later.

Today I find it imperative to take up this theme once again. Chile cannot remain indifferent to the precarious situation in the Latin American region. It must excavate the foundations of its international projection. Only in this way can it act in a consistent manner.

The only solid bases for Chile’s foreign policy are those tied to the country’s very identity, what Montesquieu referred to as “the spirit of the nation.” The genius of Chile has historically resided in its institutions. From the Republic’s founding, the talent of its political elite has been to persist in making state institutions function well to become capable of self-regulation and of self-correction in the framework of a political order that has been embued with legitimacy. This predisposition has led the country to develop political democracy for more than a century, as well as to defend and restore democracy when it has been trampled.

Likewise, this passion for rules and institutional forms has permitted a successful open economy to function since the restoration of democracy. It has allowed for a market that has produced high growth rates without inducing corruption and without creating a social abyss among its inhabitants as has happened in other developing countries. This success is not simply a matter of adhesion to a certain economic model, as some have readily asserted, but also a reflection of Chile’s insistence on institutionality.

In the light of these constant Chilean characteristics, our foreign policy has no other basis than to regulate our insertion into the international system and to contribute at the same time to the collective creation of norms that govern political and economic globalization. Has it not been our institutional-not just commercial-determination that has pushed us to sign these free trade agreements that we have successfully negotiated with all of Latin America, the European Union, the United States and South Korea?

A country with a small population like ours desires a world with stable and recognized rules in which collective action, subject to majority consensus, takes precedence over unilateral action. For the same reasons, in the difficult moments we experienced a year ago, could Chile refuse to recognize the authority of the United Nations and international law? Could Chile evade its deliberative and decisive role in the Security Council in which we were elected members? The answer is clearly no. The grounds for this answer leads us to a paradox: the refusal to lend support to the war with Iraq and the signing of the free trade agreement with the United States constitute two sides of the same coin, a manifestation of a policy in favor of a more normative international order made up of rules respected by all. That both decisions could be reconciled with each other is undoubtedly positive because it confirmed the value of a policy based on principles.

I believe that it is important to value this policy, as we begin this new turbulent phase in the history of our region. Chile belongs to Latin America, not just culturally and politically, but because we share some unresolved problems of underdevelopment such as poverty and shameful income distribution. However, after a decade and a half of sustained development in which the country has combined democratic recuperation, the strengthening of institutions, economic growth and visible social progress in the reduction of poverty, we ought to be capable of a greater contribution.

What are the principle courses of action? Chile should deepen its associations with its neighbors, particularly with MERCOSUR, to spur with imagination and audacity new proposals for the physical and economic integration of our countries in a framework that also includes civil society actors. I believe that Chile should also contribute to assuring that the states in the region assume more collective responsibility in the realm of democratic stability, security and standardization of international trade. The risk of the decomposition of the state and national disintegration in some of the region’s countries can be prevented by collective regional action sooner rather than later. One cannot refrain from perceiving that the present signals in the face of the recent crises in Haiti and Bolivia indicate the opposite tendency. However, it is more and more evident that it is unacceptable for Latin American countries to evade their responsibilities in the face of crisis in their own region.

If indeed the road toward regional co-responsibility is a long one, Chile today can count on the consistency of its own history to help move that agenda forward.

Spring 2004Volume III, Number 3

Juan Gabriel Valdés was the Chilean Foreign Minister 1999-2000. He is presently Chile’s Ambassador to Argentina. From 2000-2003, he was Chile’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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