By David Jessop
Later this year, we will know whether president Donald Trump has won a second term in office or if his fellow septuagenarian, Joe Biden, has ended the most disruptive US presidency in living memory.
The opinion polls presently show that former vice president Biden is increasing his lead in swing states among significant groups of voters. They indicate, in part, the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests and the failure of leading Republican figures to understand that just by wishing it gone, they cannot turn back the tide of a virus. They also show a country deeply divided by race and ethnicity, education, gender, age, and religion. By saying relatively little and allowing Trump to constantly condemn himself with undecided voters, Biden is steadily gaining ground, but that may not be enough to get him over the line.
Whether one approves of Trump or not, some of the economic and foreign policy decisions that lie behind what he says will likely live on with or without him, especially in the Americas.
Setting aside his sometimes unpredictable pronouncements and tweets, it is not difficult to see that behind his overall ‘America First’, US-centric thrust is the need to reorganise the US economy and international relationships to ensure the US remains powerful in a much-changed world. This is not least because as he and his possible successor know, as president Barack Obama did before, China’s rise requires Washington to manage change in such a way that the relative global decline in US global economic influence does not damage its citizens’ prosperity.
Although president Trump, as John Bolton suggests in his recent book, wraps this up as being all about himself as the embodiment of a superpower, future lower key ‘Captain Americas’ will also have no option other than to pursue many aspects of the same strategy.
Since 2000 a radically different world economic and political order has emerged.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has begun to eclipse the US, a country of 331 million. It is gradually expanding its global economic reach and influence while rapidly developing its technological and military capacity. At the same time, other alternative centres of economic power are consolidating in the Middle East, Australasia and South East Asia, Russia, and in Europe, sweeping away the alliances and certainties that existed in the second half of the twentieth country.
While it may take another decade for the new shape of international relations to emerge – think France as a non-aligned nation, the US, Canada, the UK and Australia as the new global western alliance, and the EU as being German centric and in a trade alliance with Russia – whoever wins the US election will continue to decouple from Europe and other previous partners, placing greater emphasis on consolidating US economic and political influence in its own neighbourhood, the Americas.
How it does this will be important as it can choose to take the people and countries of the region with it or seek to impose its thinking.
The recent decision by the US administration to nominate Mauricio Claver-Carone, the controversial senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, for the post of president of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will be an interesting test. The proposal breaks with precedent as Claver-Carone, a Cuban American, would be the first person from outside Latin America to lead the Bank. One of the White House’s foremost critics of China’s role in the hemisphere, he is also an architect of its policy of tightening sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela and isolating both.
Speaking recently to the Spanish News agency, EFE, about the hemisphere and the IDB he observed that this was a moment for US leadership. In an indication of his thinking about the countries he may – if elected – work with, he said that he saw democracy, protecting human rights and the free market as common values in the hemisphere while making clear that “opposing the dictatorships in Venezuela and Cuba” was in his view “a matter of democratic principle”.
About China, he said, “we want to realign the supply chains that we saw decades ago, that went from east to west to a north to south axis as a part of the region’s security pillars … We will seek to help create the necessary incentives to strengthen inter-American relations”.
It is all too easy to see Claver-Carone‘s proposed appointment only in ideological terms and to ignore the broader strategic thrust behind it.
It confirms that the US believes it needs to have a multilaterally financeable sphere of influence that is it’s own. The evidence for this can be seen in president Trump’s comments to the UN General Assembly in 2018 in which he reasserted the Monroe Doctrine as “ the formal policy of our country” and rejected “the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere”; the hemispheric policy statements made by his Cabinet members; the attention now paid to the development of the role of the Organisation of American States; and the recent decision to invoke, so far in name only, the security requirements of the Rio Treaty.
The direction of travel is clear. The objective in the hemisphere is to secure the US position against all who offer an alternative south-centric view of the Americas and the US.
Although the optics and the language of any Biden administration would be very different – he has already indicated that he, like president Obama, would see the renewal of détente with Cuba as the means to garnering greater US influence in Latin America, the Caribbean and the world – the overall objective would likely be the same.
Biden has yet to spell out his view on China’s role in Latin America and the Caribbean, but he is unlikely to ignore his party’s broader geopolitical concerns, China’s investment-led influence in the Americas, or the way in which its bilateral trade with Latin America and the Caribbean has grown from US$12 billion to US$278 billion in the seventeen years up to 2017.
For the independent-minded Caribbean, this suggests a long-term dilemma: how best to respond to the increasingly divergent hemispheric positions of the US, China, the EU27, the UK, Russia and the thinking of its neighbours without siding with one party or another?