US Defense Secretary James Mattis began his first trip to South America over the weekend, and will be in Argentina later today and tomorrow to meet with Defense Minister Oscar Aguad to discuss common interests in international security.
This is the first time that a US Defense Secretary has traveled to South America since former Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014, and the first to touch down in Argentina specifically since Donald Rumsfeld’s visit in 2005.
En route to his first stop, Brazil, he told press pool that he will be doing “a lot of listening” throughout his trip to South America. According to a statement released by the Department of Defense, Mattis remarked that the US is “looking to expand partnerships where it’s mutually beneficial.” Mattis added that the nature of the relationship with Latin America as a “neighbor” “doesn’t require” large military formations. He also noted that the US and Latin America “work together across a wide number of issues, and [the] military is simply one of many.”
Mattis stated that the US supports “sovereign decisions by sovereign states” – warning against “inroads by other nations.” Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson also recently traveled to the region, including Argentina. He spoke to Voice of America, stating that the US wants to ensure it is the “security partner of choice” for Latin America. Richardson noted that the US wants to be “that stable, steady, committed team that will be there for one another when the chips are down.”
That’s not to say that the US military has the finest reputation past its southern border. As any light reader of regional history knows, past US administrations intervened both covertly and not-so throughout the 20th century, to support several oppressive regimes in Latin America. Anti-US sentiment still lingers in many corners of the region, but a diplomatic venture by the head of the Pentagon may just be the type of strategy this administration hopes to use to improve the US military’s imagine abroad and strengthen partnerships.
The Bubble spoke with Argentina Project Director Benjamin Gedan for more context on the strategic military US-Argentine relationship. Under the previous Kirchner administrations, Gedan notes that “Argentina actively sought to diminish the US military’s influence in the region, so this government is a breath of fresh air for the Pentagon.” However, Gedan also pointed out that “Argentina’s degraded military capabilities limit its usefulness, including in peacekeeping” and adding that “in the era of budget cuts, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.”
Mattis’ visit comes on the heels of the Macri administration’s controversial plan to reorganize the armed forces, to place a larger focus on issues like drug-trafficking and money laundering, which are in line with the US administration’s concerns for the region.
Despite this administration’s tense relationship with Mexico, and its acrimonious relationship with Venezuela, the White House has declared 2018 the “Year of the Americas” and Trump has indeed sent multiple high-ranking officials to the region. Argentina, for example, has received Vice-President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson throughout their travels in Latin America.
Trump himself cancelled his appearance at the Summit of the Americas in Peru this past April, however at the most recent G20 Finance Ministers meeting, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin confirmed that President Trump will attend the G20 summit at the end of November.
In preparation for the G20, US representatives have traveled to Argentina including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, and Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan.
From Argentina, Defense Secretary Mattis will head to Chile and finish his travels in Colombia with the recently inaugurated President Ivan Duque.