The Times is a new daily news venture edited by Ray Hartley, who consistently provides some of the best commentary on where South Africa is headed. They asked me to do a three-part series on the changing global power balance and its implications. This is part three, in which I explain why regimes that are militantly at odds with the U.S. — think Chavez in Venezuela, or even the Islamic Republic of Iran — are able to routinely defy Washington because they have something to offer that Washington needs. (Oil, in the case of Venezuela, and in Tehran’s case, the prospect of stability in Iraq). And what that tells us is that for a host of more powerful and less ideologically committed regimes in the developing world — from Turkey to Brazil, Indonesia to South Africa — there is an unprecedented opportunity to advance their own interest by refraining from aligning themselves with any single bloc, but instead cutting deals with various power centers.
It seems rather odd, by today’s standards, that the United States once cared enough to (at least covertly) seek to shape political outcomes in Australia or East Timor. Even more bizarre, and horrific, the idea that it would sacrifice 50,000 of its own fighting men and kill more than a million Vietnamese in a war whose strategic rationale was based around such strategic objectives as preventing the Soviet Union from having access a deep-water port in the Pacific. The Soviets got Cam Ranh Bay, and it didn’t make any difference to the global strategic equation. And the Vietnamese Communist Party regime is today counted
by Washington as a friend and a good trade and investment opportunity. The Cold War, however, had cast the world in binary terms. “Non-alignment,” as far as Washington was concerned (and Moscow, too) was simply a euphemism for siding with the Soviet camp, and no corner of the planet was exempt from the superpower contest.
Despite its ideological patina, the contest between Washington and Moscow set little store by the domestic political arrangements of potential allies. India, the world’s largest democracy, was closer to the Soviet Union, while generations of Pakistani military dictators have been coddled by Washington. Henry Kissinger forged an anti-Soviet alliance against Moscow with communist China, and in the Reagan years the U.S. even supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia because the government that ousted it — and put an end to the killing fields — had been installed by Soviet-aligned Vietnam. Vicious thugs and
kleptocrats all over the world were sustained by their alliance with either Washington or Moscow.
Even the apartheid regime in South Africa could count on the support of the Reagan Administration, because Pretoria was a reliable ally against the Soviets — even willing to commit its own forces in support of U.S. covert action to prevent the Soviet-aligned MPLA from taking power in Angola. The ANC, in Washington’s view, was little more than a cat’s paw for Moscow.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall changed everything, of course; that much quickly became clear in South Africa. The apartheid regime got the message that it could no longer count on U.S. support, and the regime began negotiating with the ANC, suddenly deemed kosher by Washington. The ANC took power in a post-Cold War moment, where abiding by the “Washington Consensus” on free markets and social spending was the only game in
town for a government needing to attract foreign investment to fuel an economic development program.
But the very spread of unbridled capitalism, so vigorously promoted by Washington and enabled by the end of the Cold War, has also brought on a decline in U.S. strategic influence. China’s breakneck-speed growth, for example, has breathed new vigor into commodity markets that had seemed to be dying a slow death at the end of the 1980s.
Industrialization requires energy, metals, timber, fibers, minerals, new food supplies to growing cities, and more. Suddenly commodity exporters found their struggling
export economies of Africa and Latin America, buoyed by new customers with boundless appetites. Had oil remained at around $20 a barrel, Russia would be the same basket
case it was during the Yeltsin era; Venezuela would be nothing like the regional power player in Latin America, while Iran’s regime would collapse at home; and U.S. banks would not be helped through their credit crisis by massive injection of investment from the sovereign funds of the Gulf states.
The principle factor pushing up oil prices up over the past five years has been the demand generated by expanding industrialization, and growth in industrial output has both fueled not only by the spendthrift habits of American consumers, but also by the growing consumer demand generated by economic growth in those industrializing countries where the middle class is rapidly expanding. As global stock markets have teetered in recent weeks, the buzzword in financial capitals has been “decoupling” — the idea that the worst consequences of the U.S. recession, which would traditionally have taken the whole
capitalist world down with it, may be offset by the growing strength of domestic markets in China, India and other “emerging” countries.
The reordering of the global economic picture over the past decade has opened opportunities for countries of the south, both economic and political, which simply didn’t exist previously.
Today, editorialists in the U.S. sniff that African governments are being given too many opportunities to buck Western tutelage on good governance (and on limiting social spending) because China is offering massive loans and investments without the conditions typically attached by Western lenders.
This expanding sense of economic possibility — as well as the declining ability of the West to impose its writ through the application of military force that has been so visible in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Lebanon — has also changed the geopolitical game. When the U.S. demanded support for its position on Iraq at the United Nations Security Council, it made clear to Chile, for example, that a coveted trade deal was at stake if the Chileans refused to back Washington. Same thing with Mexico’s coveted immigration law changes in the U.S. To no avail. Longtime allies defied the U.S. and got away with it, signaling the onset of a geopolitical era in which the nations of the south face unprecedented economic and political choice. It’s no longer a case of choosing between the U.S. or some rival power
bloc. Why not both?
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez may dedicate himself to challenging Washington’s influence everywhere he finds it in Latin America, but he also sells the U.S. almost two thirds of the oil he exports to finance his revolution. Today, the smart mid-level emerging country has growing relations not only with the U.S. but also with China, Russia, the European Union and some of the oil states of the Middle East, as well as with Brazil, India,
Turkey and a host of similarly placed nations. Open for business with all, beholden to none.
There was a moment at the end of the Cold War when it seemed that unbridled U.S. hegemony would define the next era. But that moment has passed. “Non-alignment,” or rather multiple alignments, have become the norm in a world without superpower blocs.