In Focus

Obama, Trump and America's Transition

FrancisKornegayOn the 11th of December 2016 a key WTO provision on China’s accession expired, leaving open whether other countries will regard China as a ‘market economy’ in considering whether to impose anti-dumping measures on its imports. Park this for a moment as its implications will emerge more clearly after reviewing prospects in US-Russian relations based on US President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy and national security appointments.

All combined, these relate to and culminate in presidential campaign controversies regarding Trump and his team’s economic links with Russia. They unfolded amid Moscow’s cyber-information warfare via Wikileaks against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. This prompts one to revisit literary lion Gore Vidal’s observation made as far back as 1988 in America’s main left-wing publication, The Nation, regarding future Soviet-American relations.

In satirically framing US-Soviet prospects through the prism of Japan’s economic ascendancy, Vidal ventured: “Above all, I see our economic survival inextricably bound up with that of our neighbor in the Northern Hemisphere, the Soviet Union. Some sort of alliance must be made between us so that together we will be able to compete with Japan and in due course, China. As the two klutzes of the north, each unable to build a car anyone wants to drive, we deserve each other. In a speech at Gorbachev’s antinuclear forum in Moscow, I quoted a Japanese minister of trade who said that Japan would still be number-one in the next century. Then, tactlessly he said that the United States will be Japan’s farm and Western Europe its boutique. A Russian got up and asked, ‘What did he say about us?’ I said that they were not mentioned but, if they did not get their act together, they will end up as ski instructors...” (italics added)

Fast forward almost three decades, “due course” has arrived. China has eclipsed the second coming of Japan’s ‘greater east Asian co-prosperity sphere’ amid a new chapter looming in relations between Vidal’s “klutzes of the north.” Efforts at US-Russian accommodation during and after the cold war, including during President Barack Obama’s first term, have been many. Yet, the extent of the widely reported, analysed and critiqued ties between Trump and Vladimir Putin are unprecedented. They are of a magnitude suggestive of Vidal’s ‘condominium’ imagined in his “United States of Amnesia” Nations reflection. Add to that Putin’s desperation to have US-led western sanctions removed and the threat of a Clinton presidency as incentive for cyber intervention in the US election combined with his and Trump’s shared energy interests and the makings of a shift from an Obama-Xi Jinping tacit Sino-American ‘G2’ to a more than tacit Putin-Trump US-Russian alliance carries a compelling logic hard to ignore.

It is ignored at peril. For how else to read Trump’s nomination of ExxonMobile magnate Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State following his choice of another Putin admirer as National Security advisor, controversial retired general Michael Flynn? Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, as Trump’s Secretary of Energy is a proponent of wind power but may also do Big Oil’s bidding in what could shape up as a Trump-Putin energy condominium in mounting a comeback bid for a hydrocarbon push-back against the new global climate-energy regime spear-headed by Obama and Xi’s historic Paris Accord.

It seems a safe bet that, post-Obama, his and Jinping’s Paris handiwork will ultimately endure. It is with baited breath that we await Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearings where he will have to navigate grilling on Exxon’s court-challenged cover-up of its own climate change findings that went against its anti-climate propaganda. However, the collateral implications of a hydrocarbon-driven northern ‘Klutz’ alliance between Trump and Putin amid the post-George W. Bush transition in US foreign policy begun under Obama begs extensive pondering in discerning the future over the next four-to-eight years.

For the US, in its domestic politics and foreign relations has embarked on a protracted transition. It is one that commenced with Obama’s historic 2008 election followed on by what promises to be Trump’s reactionary counter-reformation. This will be attempted under the aegis of a cabinet reflecting ascendance of an oligarchic plutocracy on the backs of an embittered white working class feeling left behind by the new urban-based American majority-minority demographic – in a world where, globally, the white Euro-American north is shrinking amid the global economy’s shift from west to east, north to south.

In as much as the emergence of BRICS has been something of a ‘poster child’ of this new global order in formation, what might the coming together of an alliance of oligarchs under Putin-Trump portend in a fast changing strategic landscape? For here is where the American foreign policy transition begun by Obama promises to enter an era of instability under Trump starting with his anti-multilateral trade bias coloured by his antipathy toward China. His telephone call to Taipei was not a mistake but possibly a harbinger of hostile things to come. Under the heading of collateral damage, BRICS could turn out as a casualty of a Putin-Trump klutzy alliance; not that such an alliance is a forgone conclusion given many within both Democratic as well as Republican parties who are definitely not on board a Washington-Moscow hook-up where Putin is concerned. Nevertheless, just the attempt that may be forthcoming in this regard could spell trouble for BRICS. Why?

This is where the expiry of the WTO provision concerning China’s ‘market economy’ status enters the equation. This development could serve as pretext for how Trump may attempt hostile economic moves against Beijing while cozying up economically with Moscow. Trump’s appointment of anti-China trade hawk Peter Navarro to head up a new National Trade Council may signal such prospects. Other of Trump’s anti-China hawks include incoming Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross and looming trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer. This line-up prompted Xuan Loc Doan, writing recently in Asia Times Online to pose the question: “Does China Now Regret Snubbing Obama?” This should disabuse a South African narrative seeking to recreate a cold war that no longer exists that has gained currency: that the US and the West are out to destroy BRICS and destabilize South Africa for having joined BRICS. Bull Feathers!

There is no BRICS threat perception in Washington or other western capitols where BRICS is viewed dismissively, if at all, not to mention anyone losing sleep over ‘the beloved country’s’ bandwagoning with Russia and China in BRICS. The real threat to BRICS lies in how the US-China-Russia triangle gravitates. Trump is capable of manipulating a rapprochement with the Kremlin and anti-Beijing animus to an effect that undermines the ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ between China and Russia. This would weaken intra-BRICS cohesion since Sino-Russian agency essentially drives BRICS as also is the case with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Hence, Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative as a regional integrationist restoration of the old USSR to strengthen Russia’s strategic autonomy amid China’s growing ‘Silk Route’ hegemony via the Central Asian One Belt, One Road initiative.
In Moscow’s strategic calculus, rapprochement with a fellow klutz across the Bering Straits is preferable to playing second fiddle to a China once its underling in the communist movement until the Sino-Soviet falling out. Trump’s intended shift in trade strategy will form part of his anti-China gambit in tandem with closer US-Russian ties.

In strategic terms, such a realignment would represent a retreat from the multilateral trade strategy Obama was trying to entrench. This had the potential of re-centring the west-to-east global economic shift into a reinforcing of America as the world’s geo-economic hub coupled with normalizing relations with Cuba. An end to the economic embargo against Cuba would reopen prospects for western hemispheric trade integration, complementing trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic regimes. Trump’s protectionist bilateralism brings an end to such prospects. Where does Africa fit into these equations? Essentially nowhere which, in the coming Trump era may be the best of all possible outcomes. Africa, after all, is not a battleground of controversy in the politics of US foreign policy.

Meanwhile, it behoves South Africa, to parley its role in BRICS into a continental and regional integration strategy starting with an accession initiative toward political integration in the Southern African Customs Union. Otherwise, over the demographic long-term South Africa’s role in Africa will shrink to the status of a Mauritius or Singapore amid mega-states like Nigeria and Ethiopia. Integration strategy should be pursued in tandem with constructing a global South cooperation architecture within a revived IBSA as a hedge against loss of BRICS momentum.

This could prioritize a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’ ring-fencing of African continental sovereignty interacting with building pan-African constituencies for Africa to reshape Africa policies in the West, especially the US. Whereas Obama leveraged his Asia-Pacific background into his ‘Asia Pivot,’ he subcontracted his African identity to Europe, the default tendency in US-Africa policy. This will not change under Trump, while Germany prepares to launch its version of a Marshall Plan for Africa in 2017 as it assumes chair of the G20. This represents a challenge to South Africa’s BRICS role in Africa – assuming we know what that is? In other words, The Donald is a distraction a decolonizing Africa can ill afford. Trump is about to enter America into a klutz moment with Putin that has nothing to do with Africa.

Mr. Francis Kornegay is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views are his own unless otherwise stated. This article is a longer version of the article which first appeared in the Sunday Independent under the title ‘Trump, Putin – klutzes of the north’.

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