Argentina and Brazil: New Allies and Illiberal Weeds in America’s Backyard
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In a time when they would like to see a region united against terrorist and authoritarian infiltration, the United States is getting mixed messages from Latin American leaders. 

On the one hand, Argentina’s new president Javier Milei is taking a pro-Western stance, declaring his “unwavering commitment” to Israel, applying for NATO’s Global Partnership plan, and inviting the U.S. South Command to build a joint naval base on Argentine soil, amongst a number of other security cooperation initiatives officialized just this last month.

A very different story is taking place north of the Iguazú Falls. Brazil’s president Inácio “Lula” da Silva has deepened ties with the anti-Western bloc BRICS, while openly aiding and abetting rogue dictatorships like VenezuelaCuba and Iran. These are deliberate efforts to undermine the international liberal order and the hemispheric leadership of the U.S. 

Some commentators attribute this ambivalence to the contrast between both presidents. Lula comes from an established left-wing party, while Milei is a right-wing outsider. Lula’s anti-American flirtations are perceived as part of Brazil’s traditional skepticism toward the U.S. and a show of pragmatism in the quest for Brazil’s strategic autonomy. On the contrary, Milei’s pro-American turn is interpreted as an amateurish abandonment of Argentina’s own tradition of non-alignment, driven by ideology rather than rational calculation.

Geopolitical divergence between Argentina and Brazil did not originate with their current presidents. Milei’s contender for the presidency, Sergio Massa, was staunchly pro-American, while Lula’s archnemesis, former president Jair Bolsonaro, was also friendly to anti-American powers. This tension is deeply rooted in the institutional culture of both nations, regardless of political colors.

The two first diverged after World War 2, as both nations, led by their nationalist militaries, had different strategies to resist the ascendancy of the U.S. Brazil tried to limit its dependency while still cultivating friendly relations to the West, which was richly rewarded. Meanwhile Argentina openly defied U.S. hegemony, sharing nuclear technology with enemy regimes and committing gross violations of international and humanitarian law that damaged its reputation, eventually launching the Falklands War against a NATO ally.

In the end, the Brazilian dictatorship transitioned orderly to a democracy under “military tutelage,” firmly established as a reliable Western partner and a moderator in regional conflicts. By contrast, the Argentine military was left weak and forced to give up power to an elected civilian government. Her serial violations of international norms rendered Argentina a virtual protectorate of her larger neighbor.

But this balance is breaking down, and the roles are now flipped. In the emerging multipolarity, Brazil’s age-old ambitions for sole regional leadership have been awakened. Brazilian elites never stopped seeing themselves as heirs to an empire, and the domestic power of anti-democratic corporations was never qualmed

Conversely, Argentina’s failed ultranationalist experience humbled her. The military was brought decidedly under civilian control, and the values of human rights and democracy have been deeply ingrained in her people’s identity ever since. Even under left-populist governments, Argentina never questioned its Western alignment or the legitimacy of the international system. But her weak position left her at the mercy of Brazil’s anti-Western dictates.

One such dictate was for Argentina not to pursue dollarization in 2002, which would mean decoupling from the Brazilian economy and opting for an unmediated relationship with the U.S. Non-coincidentally, dollarization is one of Milei’s flagship policies. Indeed, Milei is breaking one tradition, that of Argentina’s willing subordination to its gigantic neighbor, to uphold another, more important one, his nation’s commitment to liberal democracy.

This divide has consequences for regional and global security. A clear microcosm is the fight against Hezbollah, who have a vital financial and recruitment center in the Tri-Border Area between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. On March 14th, CIA director William Burns traveled to Brasilia, to request cooperation against the terrorist organization. Burns is familiar with the illiberal through-line running in both sides of Brazilian politics as he had to personally intervene to prevent a military coup in 2022. He should also be aware of how Lula’s government has aided Hezbollah in the past. Burns spoke to the acting minister of foreign affairs in a very discreet and inconsequential meeting.

Three days later, Burns arrived in Buenos Aires, probably expecting similar non-results, but there he was pompously received by top cabinet officials who shared his concerns. Argentina is cracking down against Iranian proxies, denouncing Hezbollah’s actions at home and throughout the continent while taking a stance against rogue states who threaten regional stability. It’s no surprise that more cooperation projects have been announced since then. The U.S. has clearly identified its newest ally.

But the U.S. foreign policy establishment should not mistake Brazil and Argentina drifting apart as something temporary that could solve itself with the next electoral cycle, nor as a merely diplomatic kerfuffle without tangible repercussions. There’s a systemic undercurrent that will continue to undermine peace in the region and feed into the illegal economies in which global terrorism thrives. This can only be solved by curbing the destabilizing anti-Western sentiment endogenous to the region. 

To secure peace and democracy in South America, the U.S. and its allies should have Brazil incur the cost of defying international norms, while materially supporting Argentina’s efforts to course-correct and match the power asymmetries, restoring a regional equilibrium.

Eloy Vera is a freelance journalist and law student from Argentina. He’s currently a member of Young Voices’ Contributor Program and an alumnus of Students for Liberty and the Cato Institute.