A strong believer in the thinking of political leaders, Francisco de Santibañez claims to have discovered international relations late, which for him was not a disadvantage, quite the contrary.
Opportunities present themselves when you least expect them. Graduated in business economics at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and working abroad, Francisco decided to study a Master’s degree in International Relations at The Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C. where, according to him, he found his true occupation.
A specialist in international relations and Argentine foreign affairs, he currently serves as vice president of El Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales (CARI better known by its acronym). At the same time, he is the author of La Argentina y el mundo: claves para una integración exitosa (2016), La rebelión de las naciones: Crisis del liberalismo y auge del conservadurismo popular (2019) and La Argentina después de la tormenta: Del ocaso perpetuo al desarrollo estratégico (2021).
Passionate about ideas and with years dedicated to their impact on international relations, Francisco de Santibañez reflects on his first steps in literature, how political movements are drastically changing and the role Argentina should play in the international system.
— Have you always had the desire to write? If so, why did you decide to do it?
I like to write, I think that when you write, you think and that’s when ideas come up. Thinking without writing is almost impossible, I would say. It is a job; one learns it as time goes by. I wrote a doctoral thesis -three books- and I realize it is getting easier and easier. It’s not that I have it easy, especially for the last part, which is the most tedious, the editing of the text, the part where you get to see that you are satisfied. It takes me quite a long time, but yes, I have the image that is a kind of sculpture that one polishes and with each revision, each edition, it polishes better. It is a process that takes time, but I would say that the most important thing is that ideas emerge, and you organize your thoughts when you dedicate the time to study and write. So, I think it is fundamental, and it doesn’t have to be a book, it can be a note. I think it is essential for any specialist in any subject, and I think it is superb that students are also encouraged to write beyond university’s guidelines.
— In La rebelión de las naciones, you mention the small gap between conservatism and fascism. Do you think that a State can degenerate into the last concept nowadays?
Yes, it is a dangerous difference because we have a historical background which is Europe at the beginning of the 20th century in which many intellectuals and politicians went from conservatism to the nationalist movement -simile-fascism- rapidly. These are two extremely diverse traditions. Conservatism distrusts the State, stresses the importance of religious institutions, the intermediate institutions of civil society, tends to be realistic in foreign policy. Fascism focuses on the strong man is the State, and he sees the people as a synonym, it is much more expansionist in foreign policy, territorially speaking. It is a modern phenomenon, including postmodernism, and conservatism is not, so there is a big difference. But there is always an author who is significant to study, Carl Schmitt, perhaps the last great political thinker along with Gramsci who made this change. He was a Catholic conservative and ended up being an intellectual of Nazism and this often happens when society feels threatened by internal or external enemies, it is possible that this step can be taken. On the right, in the internal right-wing politics that take place in the West, we have a liberal right which is more withdrawn, and we have popular conservatism with the danger that these more nationalist sectors will also win, and one sees it, one sees it in France, I would also say that it comes more from this school of thought, conservatism does not come from Gaullism, it comes from something different, more associated to what you mentioned. In Northern Europe there is a lot of this too, of this new right-wing postmodernism with very significant differences of what is the conservative tradition. In the end, in my book, I say that the two great dangers are: the loss of the elites, which can be good or bad, but you have to have them; and the other, is that popular conservatism changes and begins to transform into a kind of fascism. In fact, also within the United States there is that tension in the Republican Party that I would say is not so clear today, but we must be aware.
— In your book –La rebelión de las naciones– you also talk about the price Argentina had to pay for remaining neutral during the Second World War. Today, with the conflict between China and the United States, what role does our country have to play?
Yes, it is fundamental, I recommend everyone to read Carlos Escudé’s book on the relationship between Great Britain, the United States and Argentina, and the cost it had for our country, as an explanation of Argentina’s underdevelopment since the 1940s, which also has a lot to do with politics and economic sanctions imposed by the United States at the time, contrary to what happened with Brazil, which the United States did support in the Second World War. Argentina was very close to the British Empire; it benefited a lot from the growth of Great Britain. In fact, in this conflict with the United States, Great Britain supported Argentina, but it was part of the U.S. strategy at that time to weaken Great Britain as well, and that had an effect on our country, but it was clear, I believe, the United States was rising. A problem of the Argentine elite that did not make the decision due to a series of “fortuitous” events, if you will, the three politicians who could have led a more «pro-allied» position died within a short time of each other. Argentina proposed to join the conflict as part of the allies at the time of Ortiz, and at that time the one who did not want to join was the United States. In other words, there was bad luck, but the rise of the United States as a great power from a certain moment was clear, almost no doubts about that (1942-1943), and despite that, Argentina did not decide. Now the overview is much less clear because there is a rising power which is China at a global level and in certain areas it has surpassed the United States, but in our region in particular, the supremacy of the United States in the military and security fields will continue for a long time to come. So, I would say that the decision is not so clear. What I would advise for the time being is to think of a strategy, discuss a strategy, decide (contrary to what was done in World War II) and what we can do now is to develop the institutions and the means to be able to carry out whatever strategy we choose. We need better armed forces, better diplomatic corps, a more efficient State, better fiscal institutions. I believe that this is a priority and there is no doubt that it has to be done, and it is a very difficult decision for the Argentine leadership to make it. For the time being I am confident that this has to be done, the strategy is not entirely clear, there is a whole discussion among specialists in international relations whether we should have a distant strategy or not. If you ask me for some guidelines, I believe that they have to be the defense of multilateralism, not to be trapped by a conflict between two great powers and for that multilateralism is crucial; the relationship with Brazil, perhaps the strategic nightmare for our countries is that the China-US conflict transfers to our region and Argentina takes sides with one, Brazil with the other, and as these two great powers cannot go to a direct conflict because of nuclear weapons, we solve their disputes. So, the relationship with Brazil has become indispensable, and we are not at the best moment of the relationship, which is worrying.
— If at some point Argentina were to think about its long-term foreign policy, should it do so from a realist or liberalist point of view?
Well, I am a realist, clearly, if I have to define myself. They are theoretical approaches that are not perfect, but as a first approach to international relations I come from the realist school, which is a school that tends to work better, to explain the world better in times of conflict because in times of conflict States usually prioritize the defense of their security, the defense of their national interest over ideological or economic issues, and this is what we are seeing in the world, Great Britain leaving the European Union, not because of economic issues but because of other types of issues, Russia putting up with the economic sanctions imposed by the United States because it prioritizes issues related to international security, the conflict between two great powers, which is what realism predicted would happen, contrary to what the liberals said. The liberals said that China was going to adapt to the international system proposed by the United States, that it was going to become a liberal democracy, well, none of that happened. So, in the current context, realism is coming out stronger as a school of thought in international relations, but again, it’s not perfect. Liberalism, constructivism and other schools of thought are very useful and on certain occasions or to analyze certain issues on the agenda they are even more useful than realism, but, in the initial framework of bigger phenomenon I believe that realism is still more useful, and I believe that there is already a consensus that this school of thought cannot be ignored, especially when one sees what is happening today.
«It’s not that we can’t think in the long term because we live in crisis, but that we live in crisis because we don’t think in the long term».Francisco de Santibañez
—Talking a little about the international system, what do you think the scenario will be like in the coming years? Will we find a globalization similar to the recent years, a different globalization or one with a Westphalian system?
I believe that there can be a Westphalian system with globalization, but it is a different kind of globalization. There is a possibility that there could be a kind of division in two of the economic system -of the area of influence between China and the United States- which would have an enormous cost in terms of deficiency of the world economy, unless there is a war, and we reach a forceful extreme, which I do not think will happen. If we are moving towards a globalization -which is not necessarily related to the conflict between the two powers- of greater exchange of information and services, and since 2008 we have already noticed an economic stagnation in the growth of international trade of goods and capital flows. It is another type of globalization, but well, this happens throughout history, it is largely fueled by technology, and if there is greater concern for the States to reduce the risks of external shocks such as the pandemic, such as a war, then yes, the States seek greater autonomy in what they consider to be “strategic industries”. The United States will probably seek closer global value chains and this will benefit Latin America, so as not to depend so much on Asia in case there is a conflict; it is preferable to depend on Mexico or South America. So, there is a changing globalization, but I do not see the end of globalization, except in a very extreme case that leads to the division of the world into two blocks that also involve economic exchange.
— As a closure, we ask: do you have any idea what your next book will be about?
Yes, well, I like Charles De Gaulle -French leader- very much, and I have been thinking about the subject for a long time. Probably the next book will be an in-depth reading of De Gaulle’s thought, more than his career as a leader, and see what lessons one can draw from his thought for two topics: for the foreign policy of a country like Argentina because De Gaulle thought the policy for a middle power, downhill. Many times, the great theorists of international relations come from the United States, which has a different approach because the reality of a great power is different. And on leadership, as I put it in my book, I believe that we are suffering a crisis of leadership of the ruling classes and studying the career but mainly the thinking of great leaders such as De Gaulle can help us find solutions. It can help us to think how to have better ruling classes that partly explain what is happening in Latin America and in the world, the malaise of societies with their leadership is having strong effects, we see it in Chile for example now, but I think this is behind the phenomenon of popular conservatism.
Mauricio Rodríguez (Argentina): International Relations student, Universidad de Congreso, and Editor of Diplomacia Activa.
Translation by Ingrid Selene Fonoy Díaz, Legal and Financial translator, Universidad del Valle de México.