Choosing Sides: Argentina’s New Chapter with NATO

June 13, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: ArgentinaJavier MileiNATOChinaLatin America

Choosing Sides: Argentina’s New Chapter with NATO

President Javier Milei has turned Argentine foreign policy in a pro-American, pro-NATO direction.

Argentina’s recent decision to purchase F-16 jets from Denmark, its request to join NATO as a “global partner,” and the pressure exerted on the Chinese-run deep space station in the Neuquén province signal a rapid and significant shift in foreign policy under recently-inaugurated President Javier Milei. These initiatives seek to position Argentina as a key regional security ally in the Western Hemisphere, enhancing its status as a dependable partner within the Western alliance for both security and economic reasons. 

While Buenos Aires’ international security commitments with the United States and NATO have fluctuated over the past two decades due to political shifts between center-left and center-right governments, recent years have shown a gradual inclination towards engagement with Washington amid burgeoning great power competition and Buenos Aires’ need to get financial support from the Biden administration. However, in comparison with the previous government, the current administration is fully embracing the “rules-based international order” in which the U.S. leadership is undeniable. Still, this strategy allows Argentina to join a group of like-minded middle powers that is poised to reshape Argentina’s international image and regional politics for the foreseeable future.

Relations between Argentina and NATO have historically been complex, often mirroring the state of ties with Washington. In 1982, Argentina fought a brief war against a founding member of NATO, the United Kingdom, over the possession of the Falkland Islands. It allowed the Soviet Union and Bulgarian global fishing fleets to operate in the South Atlantic following the 1986 fishing agreements with Moscow. However, the 1990s marked a drastic shift in foreign policy under President Carlos Menem’s policy of “automatic alignment.” 

That decade marked a golden era for Argentinan international security initiatives and operations. During Operation Bishop, the Argentine Navy and Air Force participated in Operation Desert Storm, deploying the ARA Almirante Brown destroyer, the ARA Spiro corvette (P-43), and two helicopters. Furthermore, the Armed Forces joined multinational efforts in the Balkans, participating under both the UN framework and NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late 1990s. Following this active military collaboration and U.S. alignment, the Clinton administration designated Argentina a Major Non-NATO Ally in January 1998, granting it benefits such as access to Defense Department surplus equipment, training, and participation in certain NATO activities.

No other Latin American country achieved the same status until Brazil, under President Jair Bolsonaro, received the invitation in 2019 from the Trump administration. After the Menem presidency, Argentina’s political pendulum swung back to left-leaning governments skeptical of greater cooperation with the United States. Argentina missed the opportunity to capitalize on its Major Non-NATO Ally status. Following the 2001–2 economic crisis, the left-wing cycle inaugurated by President Néstor Kirchner in 2003, coupled with Washington’s focus on the War on Terror, saw Argentina shift in a different direction. 

The country progressively reduced its participation in international security operations outside the region and significantly cut its defense budget, undermining its operational capacity for air and naval projection—even affecting maritime control over South Atlantic waters, a key national interest in deterring illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. Argentina’s deficit in military capabilities, alongside a “lost decade” in economic terms, weakened the country’s position vis-à-vis China, particularly as China increased funding and advanced strategic projects and investments in space facilities, critical infrastructure, and emerging technologies.

Milei’s administration marks a new chapter in Argentina’s engagement with NATO, highlighted by its ambitious request to join as a Global Partner. Becoming a NATO Global Partner, much like Colombia, is an official NATO status (as opposed to Major Non-NATO Ally, which confers benefits only from the United States) and will allow Argentina to participate in a wide range of NATO activities in critical areas such as cyber defense, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation, in addition to potentially joining NATO’s military operations if Argentina’s Armed Forces regain their full operational capabilities.

For Argentina, this move strengthens its strategic ties with the United States, diminishes the strategic risk of being perceived as a Chinese proxy in the South Atlantic, and reduces tensions with the United Kingdom over the South Atlantic (while still maintaining its claim of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands), and paves the way for renewed commitments to global security with NATO. In Milei’s calculus, the significant foreign policy shift could also foster greater support for the government’s economic reform agenda. Additionally, strengthened ties with NATO could lead to more robust and modern defense capabilities, enhanced technological collaboration, and improved intelligence sharing, positioning Argentina as a key U.S. ally in a neighborhood featuring concerning levels of Chinese influence. 

From a NATO, and therefore American, perspective, engaging deeply with Argentina will slowly taper China’s influence in the region, particularly in the South Atlantic, where Beijing’s presence grew under previous governments. Strengthening Argentina’s military capabilities would also enhance NATO’s maritime security operations in the South Atlantic, addressing potential security threats in a region of increasing geopolitical importance for access to Antarctica and inter-oceanic transit between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Furthermore, expanding its engagement with Argentina permits NATO to build more diverse global coalitions beyond the critical geopolitical scenarios such as Eastern Europe or the Indo-Pacific realm. 

Argentina’s recent request to join NATO as a Global Partner under President Milei shows a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy, which aims to position Argentina as a key regional security ally in the Western Hemisphere, enhancing its status as a dependable partner within the Western alliance. In a well-worn refrain, countries in Latin America often express their desire to avoid “having to choose sides” in a competition between the United States and China. However, by becoming a NATO Global Partner, Argentina would signal its firm desire to pick its team in a turbulent global context. 

Ariel González Levaggi is Director of the Center for International Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) and a senior associate (non-resident) of the Americas Program at CSIS. Follow him on X: @arielsgl.

Ryan C. Berg is Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Follow him on X: @RyanBergPhD

Image: Lev Radin /

An earlier version of this article misstated that Argentina's president in 2003 was Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The president at that time was her husband Néstor Kirchner. The National Interest apologizes for this error.