Trump, China, and the Americas

Reading through the NYTimes editorial written by Ben Raderstorf in advance of this year’s Summit of the Americas, I’m struck by the daunting (and growing) disadvantage of the US versus its Chinese counterparts, and the incompatibility that can exist between democracies in the developed and developing world.

Trump’s Latin America agenda, with the exception of his ongoing rows against illegal (and legal) immigration from the South and gang violence on US soil borne of Central American gangs, has been non-existent one year into his term. And though Obama’s pro-democracy and trade rhetoric was hardly the Monroe Doctrine, Trump is faced with the growing encroachment of China into the Western Hemisphere, who are seeking to fill the void left by the US as it retreats into nationalism and its continued attention to warfare and nation building in the Middle East. As seen by this useful map compiled by the NYTimes Interpreter blog (titled ‘How China is Challenging American Dominance in Asia’), the Chinese have actively expanded their sphere of influence across the Asian continent, and increasingly are moving westward (through the ambitious One Belt One Road Initiative), and into Africa and Latin America.

While China’s activity in the developing world perpetuates the age-old story of commodity exploitation, they have built much-needed infrastructure in the process, including schools and hospitals, engendering goodwill in the process (though one could cynically see this as an inexpensive step carried out based on lessons learned from previous incursions into the region by colonial powers.) Meanwhile, Trump continues to shill America First rhetoric, rip up painstakingly negotiated regional trade agreements, and alienate our most powerful partners in Latin America through fruitless confrontation and expensive and quixotic tariffs. Through his actions, Trump is not only imperiling US relations and setting longstanding alliances backwards, but also expanding the vacuum for the Chinese to step into our place.

Over the past 10 years, Venezuela has devolved into a failed state due to gross fiscal mismanagement and a concurrent cratering of oil prices. All the while, its leaders have railed against the “imperialist” Yankees, oftentimes resorting to decades-old actions carried out by the United States to combat the westward growth of international communism, while accepting the entreaties and financial support of modern day imperialists, Russia and China. Trump’s return to a defiant and unapologetic American posture to its Southern neighbors only serves Venezuela’s continued rhetoric, at the expense of its starving and increasingly fleeing population. And it’s not just in Venezuela: according to Gallup, and cited in the editorial, Trump’s approval rating across Latin America is a paltry 16% (although its interestingly highest in Venezuela at 37%, reflecting the increasingly right wing stance of its population in the face Chavez and Maduro’s left wing populism), as he seems to reflect everything that’s stereotypically reviled about US and its stance towards Latin America.

And while one must doubt the ability of a single speech or participation in a conference to change the perception of the region, it is increasingly unlikely that any progress will be made due to the continued disarray at the State Department, where the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs remains unfilled. Though that assumes that our President concerns himself with the expertise of the State Department at all, which he’s shown himself to be entirely above to date.

More broadly, I think this speaks to a growing concern in the increasingly bipolar competition for global supremacy being waged between the United States and China, and the additional attention and diplomacy required by democracies seeking diplomacy-based cooperation. Whereas China’s promise of infrastructure investment and financial support is predicated on their 20-/50-/100-year view of the world, and the long term survival of the Communist Party of China, the United States is increasingly operating in highly polarized, 4- or 8-year cycles, whereby the democratically elected successor oftentimes seeks to undo, restore, or repair the actions taken by his predecessor to fulfill political promises or party obligations.

Further, Latin America boasts a panoply of democracies which oftentimes swing wildly between ultra-left and right wing leaders, adding to the powder keg of uncertainty between the US and the region. Looking ahead to the coming Brazilian elections, where a centrist and a right wing cnaidance seem increasingly likely to square off, there is little telling how relations will evolve between the US and its most important ally in Latin America. While one could have predicted a fairly rote, cooperation-rhetoric heavy partnership between Alckmin and Clinton, it’s entirely likely that the centrist Alckmin would take a more defiant, populist stance against Trump. In Bolsonaro, Trump may have found a strong ally and potential partner in his quest to restore security and order to the world.

It’s easy to envision Trump and Bolsonaro, a former military man (Trump loves his generals), partnering on military incursions into drug-producing parts of the region, as well as an increasingly muscular stance towards Venezuela, including the possibility of military action, something that Trump has already publically mulled over to his regional counterparts. Further, one could imagine covert operations taking place in violent parts of Central America as well, reverting the US back to the era of CIA interference in Latin American affairs that has taken decades of goodwill and diplomacy to repair. And while our UN representative seems to be conducting a political campaign for the US Presidency from New York, demonstrating an almost-proud level of ignorance as US Representative (the most baffling quote of the entire article: “National security experts from both parties say that the depth of her knowledge of foreign-policy matters remains relatively shallow — about “one inch deep,” quips one Republican national security specialist.”), she is hardly serving the role of the “conscious” of US foreign policy and discouraging military action in favor of diplomacy, a role capably served by her predecessor.

All the while, China will no doubt continue its expansion into the region, offering seemingly-free and apolitical support, in stark contrast to Trump’s flag waving and gallingly patriotic presence. As I believe we will increasingly see in the coming decades, China’s slow, methodical incursion into the Western Hemisphere will prove to be significantly more consequential than actions taken by the Soviet Comintern. All the while, the US and its allies will continue to play from behind, as it restores (and re-ignites) relations in the region over concurrent election cycles.

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