There is a long tradition of great powers dividing the Earth between them, and they’re at it again. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), based on an earlier papal decree, drew a line that separated the New World claims of Portugal from those of Spain. When projected across the Pacific, on the other side of the globe, it left Spain with a slightly smaller “half,” but this did not stop the Spanish king from crossing the line to colonize the Philippines. The Berlin Congress (1885) established rules that allowed European powers to carve up Africa without treading on each other’s toes, and the boundaries that they set continue to cause conflict among the native peoples whose interests were ignored at the time. In the Western Hemisphere, the rise of the United States produced the Monroe Doctrine, which sternly warned Old World states not to extend their colonial system into the Americas. Any such attempt would be viewed as a danger to “our peace and safety.”
The 20th century, of course, was a prime time for the ‘rise and fall’ of great powers, the most conspicuous victim being the British Empire, whose military reach exceeded its grasp even as World War II got underway. Although the United Nations pretended to exercise a moderating influence over international hostility after 1945, the two post-war superpowers pushed their military and economic hegemony as far as their resources would carry them. (Where was the Pope when we needed an arbiter?) And now pundits busy themselves predicting the exact moment when the “American Century” will give way to the “Chinese.”
So, when Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo denounced the elected leader of Venezuela as a dictator, it looked the Colossus of the North trying to reestablish its cred on the Latin American ‘street’. Back in 1902, the US was on the eve of securing a slice of Panama to complete its canal project. Teddy Roosevelt felt entitled to intervene when outsiders tried to exert pressure on Venezuela’s ruler, who owed a lot of money to European creditors. He even pronounced a ‘corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine, opening the way for Marines to exercise an “international police power” in Santo Domingo, Honduras, and Haiti. Although this corollary was repealed in the 1930s, by the other Roosevelt, that hasn’t stopped the US from monitoring its backyard. Don’t forget the Cold War sequel, with its support for dictators so long as they opposed Communist insurgents. In the saga of US relations with our Southern neighbors, all this is familiar: the fears about “our peace and safety,” the invocation of democracy, the resort to armed force.
There is much to deplore about this new adventure. The sheer bombast is breath-taking–Pompeo : “No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.” Soon afterward, National Security Adviser Bolton inaugurated a new form of minatory diplomacy, coyly hinting via his legal pad that 5,000 US troops in next-door Colombia would be sufficient to destabilize the government of Nicolas Maduro. (Meanwhile, the post of US ambassador to Colombia remains vacant. Who will be there to greet our troops?) But much as I would like to complain, I have to confess that the Trump administration might almost have stumbled into a useful policy, because in the newest round of global turf-battles, Venezuela is about more than Latin America.
The interloper to be concerned about in the current situation, from the US perspective, is not Russia or Cuba, with its record of assistance to fellow “socialist” Maduro, but rather China. Unless present trends change dramatically in the coming decades, the PRC is set to become not only the world’s largest economy but also a new global empire. The tools at its disposal are frightening, all the more so because they mimic the methods employed successfully by earlier imperialists. All nations are interested in acquiring Chinese technology, and China has become a formidable competitor in helping them to exploit natural resources and build basic infrastructure. Just as China has invested in Australian mining and Congolese minerals, it is interested in creating reliable access to strategic resources around the world. Supplying China comes with a price, whether in economic volatility or dependence on Chinese demand. Leaving aside network giant Huawei’s involvement in providing 5G services in many parts of the world–a move that poses direct security risks for the US–copious Chinese investment in these countries follows a well-worn path. If the beneficiaries do not actually fall into crippling loan debt vis-a-vis China, they will be subject to increasing influence from Beijing in so far as the PRC economy is directed from the top.
One of the tactics the Trump administration is trying against Maduro is a program of sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports, possibly a complete embargo. Venezuela possesses the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and the US is still the largest purchaser of Venezuelan crude. But China is third in the market for this oil, and, allthough it buys only about half as much as the US, it also has a considerable stake in loans to the country. In fact, it is helping to rebuild Venezuela’s oil industry. Consider a scenario in which China decides to gamble on the viability of Maduro’s regime, providing financial incentives in exchange for a guaranteed supply of petroleum products. Or consider the opposite: Guaido’s movement succeeds in unseating Maduro, but the country’s battered economy cannot be revived without massive infusions of outside money. China is poised to provide them.
Recently the US has responded vigorously to “aggressive” Chinese conduct in its own Pacific neighborhood. The “emergence” of the Spratly Islands where once there was only a coral reef prompted US flyovers and naval demonstrations designed to reassure our allies in the region. Imagine if China were doing the same thing in our backyard, which (one might argue) is a reasonable tit-for-tat. But never mind the specter of the Cuban Missile Crisis familiar to all Boomers, China doesn’t need to project military power. Instead it seems content to buy influence everywhere that the US is not already well entrenched. An interesting example would be Egypt, which had its own semi-democratic revolution a few years ago and is now, because the Army never joined “the people,” a one-party autocracy. But here is the difference. Although Egyptian leaders would love to get Chinese investment, the US has a tremendous headstart and won’t be overtaken soon. Much closer to home, how are things in Venezuela?
So, US foreign policy in the second quarter of the 21st century may well be faced with intersecting challenges from China in the realms of energy, cyber-security, and cultural “soft power.” The President himself seems bent on ignoring all these issues, all the while huffing and puffing about America First. By contrast, his Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, seems to recognize the danger. (He dropped out of the Republican primaries early enough to avoid getting tagged with a moniker and eventually landed a Cabinet job.) But instead of embarking on a pointless rant that likens Trump to numerous world leaders with ‘fascist’ tendencies, it might be worth highlighting the factor that makes him unique. Come what may, he won’t be here in 2025. Let’s just hope the US will be better equipped to slow our descent to #2.