Geopolitical Provocations for 2019
IN FOCUS, 11 Feb 2019
22 Jan 2019 – The following opinions are their own summary. Their combined lesson is: the old order is crumbling and there is no new order –only a series of paradoxical and self-defeating reactions without clear strategies. It is time to think out of the box.
It is common for people to start every month of January with one or more “New Year’s Resolutions.” I start with a bunch of statements that are meant to shock a little and then restart our ideas and actions –a bit like a cardiac defibrillator. The geopolitical propositions that follow are not predictions, nor are they the result of research, nor even working hypotheses. They are just provocations designed to trigger thought, discussion, and a call for other proposals. If only half of them are reasonable and resonate with the readers, then what should follow is a series of equally provocative answers to the existential question “What is to be Done?”
A new cold war?
There is an undeniable escalation of rivalry between China and the United States. Under the fitful leadership of the Trump administration, the US has opened hostilities. Despite the American provocations, wrapped as usual in a claim of pretended victimization, China seems demure. Since it takes two to tango, and China refuses to oblige, a symmetrical Cold War will not take place.
US aggression is based on the wrong assumption that an arms race with China will lead to a collapse similar to the collapse of the former Soviet Union. In fact, the reverse is true. China’s modern rearmament is not meant to attain parity with the enormous military might of the United States, but to establish a credible regional deterrence in its own vicinity, such as to deny the US access to its periphery. It is focused and quite reasonable. In short, China’s strategy is resolutely (and formidably) asymmetric. On the other hand, the modernization of the American nuclear strike capacity, and the great increase in naval forces, may well lead the US to neglect more important and ultimately more strategic investments in R&D, infrastructure, and internal social reform, so in the end, the economic and social bases of American power are diminished. Americans build a border wall; the Chinese build fast trains. In a general arms race cold-war style, the US risks being hoisted with its own petard.
The Trump Effect.
Mr. Trump has accelerated American decline in two ways: he has torn the veil of American liberal values and hence weakened its “soft power,” and he has proclaimed American superiority at a time when the US is losing dominance and should be managing it in a more “Machiavellian” way. The US will claim “wins” here and there, just as if it was winning a round or two of poker. But the Chinese are masters of another game, go, at the end of which they may emerge dominant.
China’s Strategic Weaknesses and Assets.
If and when the Chinese commit strategic errors, it will be on account of path dependency. Chinese expansion urbi et orbi, but primarily in Central Asia and Africa, is based on very concrete interests and not on “civilizing” attempts, as the Western model. This different model is as old as Chinese civilization, and is based on an imperialism of tribute. That makes it rigid and brittle. Moreover, the Chinese do not understand the American theatrical style in asserting dominance. Hence, they do not initially respond to provocations –until they lose face, at which point they may respond in a massive way. There is a limit to strategic patience when you have a bull in a china shop (pun intended).
The ultimate success of China depends on its ability to steadily build new real alliances, and on its ability to devise financial arrangements that bypass dollar dominance and American financial institutions.
There is more. In a period when many countries are concerned about the flow of immigrants and refugees, few have noticed a powerful strategic asset of China: its extensive and formidable diaspora, already ensconced in significant ways throughout the planet.
The trade war.
This “war” on the other hand, is in full course. On the surface it is a (relatively contained) tit-for-tat tariff war. There are four logical outcomes of the new mercantilist American approach, and the (so far measured and moderate Chinese) riposte, to wit: a win/lose outcome favorable to China; a win/lose outcome favorable to the United States, a stalemate, or a lose/lose outcome for both –and other traders as well. It is a disruption, but it is also a distraction. Perusing the many arguments and opinions on the subject, my conclusion is: the sequence will be, first a stalemate, then an advantage for China, and finally the increasing “autarkic” isolation of the United States.
Alliances and Dependencies.
The post-WWI international order is over. The post-Cold War American supremacy is also over. What seems to be taking their place is (a) an American bellicose retrenchment, (b) an aggressive reassertion of Russian power, so far confined to its “near abroad” and incursions into the Middle East, (c) the nationalist fragmentation of Europe and the possible end of the European Union, (d) an aggressive assertion of regional hard power by China, (e) a significant emergence of direct capital investments by China with an ambitious developmental outreach beyond its borders and its immediate periphery, leading to new development in Africa and Central Asia, and (f) the formation of new and promising alliances along the Pacific rim. The withdrawal of the United States from Europe and the Middle East, while timely, is being poorly executed and so far has amounted to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The American attack on multilateralism is both clumsy and counter-productive. It is unnecessary, hence a strategic mistake.
Europe post Brexit.
Brexit does not matter to the world despite the disproportionate attention it has received. The time has long past when developments in the United Kingdon had important repercussions in other corners of the planet. In the end, Brexit will go down in history as a self-inflicted wound by a secondary power. British resilience is legendary, so the kingdom will survive the current folly, but probably in tatters. It is a little sad. The English remember with pride that they survived the Blitzkrieg –but they forget that nobody voted for the Blitz.
On the other hand, the Europe that the UK is leaving is far from healthy. The mobilization of those who fear being left behind under globalization has resulted in a series of nationalist governments that seek to regain past national sovereignties in the face of momentous geopolitical transformations. But an international of nationalists is a counterproductive oxymoron.
The Fate of Europe.
If Europe has still a role to play in the world of the 21st century it is through unity and a collective will. A Europe of separate nationalist countries, on the other hand, is ripe for a takeover by outside powers. There is an old poetic warning, from the Argentine national poem Martin Fierro: “Los hermanos sean unidos porque ésa es la ley primera –tengan unión verdadera en cualquier tiempo que sea, porque, si entre ellos pelean, los devoran los de ajuera.” Its English equivalent runs like this: “We must hang together or we will all hang separately.” In its most benign form, such fragmentation will amount to a collection of more or less frozen societies, like different rooms in a museum.
Europe will be good as a tourist destination and bad for the world. Look at a Venice brochure and you will see an image of the future of Europe. The European population dilemma is the following: the intolerable (too many migrants) impedes the indispensible (selective immigration). In other words, to be historically viable, ageing societies need immigrants. But the massive influx or threat of uncontrolled immigration and refugees makes them close themselves like a clam. The result is stasis: the refusal to make history. If lucky, Europeans will have a compromise solution. Instead of dynamic inhabitants, and with no migrants allowed, they will welcome visitors, and those inside will make a living catering to them. There will be diversity (nationalisms) in a Disneyland of hospitality sites. The Americans have a reduced scale model of the European future: the villages of Sturbridge and Williamsburg.
On Latin America.
The current wave of pro-US right-wing regimes in Latin America will reinforce –unfortunately– the region’s geo-strategic irrelevance. The rightist wave in South America may have crested with the election of a surrealist government in the largest country. It behooves us to follow and compare the development of events in Mexico and Brazil. It is possible that the never-well-functioning Mercosur will be replaced by different bilateral arrangements especially between Brazil and Argentina, and that new trade blocks centered on the Pacific will grow and prosper. The folkloric neo-fascist aspects of the new Brazilian regime are contradictory and unsustainable, although we cannot exclude some positive though unwanted side-effects. What follows is a metaphorical sequence of events at the ideological and geo-political level.
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.
Ponder the following statements, from the twentieth century, from the twenty first, and all the way back to Biblical times.
1935: German anthem: “Deutschland Deutschland uber Alles” (Germany, Germany above all, above all in the world.)
1945: Allied statement: “The capitulation of Germany should be recorded in a single document of unconditional surrender.” The thousand-year Reich lasted twelve.
Irvin Berlin: “God Bless America.”
Donald J. Trump: “America First.”
Jair Bolsonaro: “Brasil acima de tudo e Deus acima de todos”
(Brazil above everything and God above all). But…
The Second Commandment states: “ Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” So…
The conclusion comes from Macunaima, (Brazilian novel by Pedro de Andrade): “Everyone for himself and God against all.”
In theological terms: they may believe in God but God does not believe in them.
In other (secular) words: faith and fairy tales are poor substitutes for good governance and rational management. The rightist wave does not have a bright future.
Brazil and Argentina like to think of themselves as the countries of the future. At the present rate and with the present policies, they will always be countries of the future, as predicted in 1964 by Charles De Gaulle.
The US, Russia, and the Middle East.
The United States under Trump has decided to exit the quagmire of their own creation. Russia will fill the ensuing vacuum of power. The question is: will it fare better or has it received a poisoned gift?
Is Trump Right on Anything?
On a several geo-strategic issues, the declarations of president Trump seem to be spot on, notably: the weakness if not the irrelevance of NATO, and the need to leave the Middle East. The problem with his correct assessments is this: a broken clock marks the exact time twice a day.
Who Shall Prevail?
The ultimate success of world powers in the big world game depends on the capacity to avoid geo-strategic distraction. It is by no means guaranteed, but the Asians possess the necessary strategic patience.
Opinion Sur is a non-governmental, nonprofit group from Argentina dedicated to promoting sustainable economic and social growth in developing countries. Opinion Sur creates original ideas and strategic action plans to share with policy makers, entrepreneurs, academics, NGOs, and the public through advisory services, and a series of products: two monthly online publications – Opinion Sur and Opinion Sur Joven. Through Opinion Sur Journal, a free and non-partisan online publication, it circulates ideas that contribute to the sustainable development of countries in the Southern Hemisphere. This publication, which is also available in Portuguese and Spanish, focuses on three complimentary areas: Development; Geopolitics; and Transformations. Currently, there are more than 70,000 subscribers spanning across the five continents. More…
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