Fair. Balanced. American.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

China, the US, Africa, and a window of opportunity Part II

(Part I is here.)

One huge advantage the U.S. could have over China is in what Joseph Nye has called soft power. More specifically, in the subset he calls cultural power. During the Bush years, that power turned into a negative. And indeed, many parts of the world were beginning to search for any new world power that could act as a counterforce against the United States. If that power were China, many countries (other than Russia, India and Japan) would have been OK with that.

But the US didn't turn 20 degrees. Obama represents a full-fledged 180. He won't be our president forever, but as long as the Secret Service does its job against the Republican Party's gun-toting fringe, we'll have him through 2012, maybe even 2016. That's an opportunity to rebrand in a big way.

China can help us by continuing a foreign economic policy that is exceedingly recognizable throughout developing countries. Their old European masters had only two interests in them: the strategic or military uses of their lands, and the cheap labor they could use to extract the natives' natural resources. Increasingly, throughout Africa and even parts of Latin America including future power Brazil, the Chinese are repeating the old pattern. It is unattractive, to say the least.

That's why the New York Times piece on Guinea is so interesting:

The president’s name, freshly painted, appears above a barbershop, a grocery, a school, even tire stores here, as well as the cabaret in Boulbinet. In a leading bookstore downtown, a full-scale poster of Obama looks out from behind a closed door, a visual echo of the sentiments of those who go in to discuss politics.

The implications of this new American authority in an unfamiliar spot received a tryout last week, when the Obama administration sent a senior diplomat here to condemn the massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians protesting Guinea’s military government in September. They seem clear: America punches above its weight, in a part of the world that it has hitherto left to the French. The United States, with few practical sticks to beat the junta, nonetheless has a moral authority in the streets that the big-dog French do not match.

But there is another competitor for influence here, the Chinese, who are seen as supporting the junta, particularly after the junta said it had recently reached an agreement with a Chinese company that could provide it with up to $7 billion in infrastructure. The quid pro quo was not specified, but China is known to be interested in the country’s bauxite and other minerals.
China has not yet confirmed the deal, but analysts said it was a potential boost to the junta and a setback to China’s push to be seen as a responsible competitor for natural resources.

“What happened in Guinea was extreme in terms of its violence and cruelty,” said Princeton N. Lyman, a former American diplomat in Africa who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, so China could become “something of a target in a way they haven’t been for some time.” [...]

“We don’t accept it anymore,” said Sow Ba├»lo, a Guinean actor and intellectual with a wide following. “That’s why we went to the stadium.”

In that context, the tough American stance against the government, as enunciated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, carried a special weight.

“After the declaration of Hillary Clinton, the people regained confidence in themselves,” said Mamadi Kaba, president of the Guinean branch of the African Assembly for Human Rights. “It was a very powerful symbol. People understood that they had not been abandoned.”

There were indications that the junta itself understood the potency of the American position. [...]

Similarly, when Mrs. Clinton said the next day that she was “appalled” by the “vile violation of the rights of the people” in Guinea, Captain Camara had nothing to say, publicly at least. But when Mr. Kouchner called for an international intervention force, the captain angrily said, “Guinea is not a subprefecture, is not a neighborhood in France.”

The differing reactions were not lost on local observers. Mamadou Mouctar Diallo, an opposition leader, said Captain Camara “dared to defy France, but he didn’t dare defy the U.S.”

“America is a power that counts,” Mr. Diallo said. “You can’t turn your back on them.”

Yes, we are a power that counts. Especially when we do the right thing. And we become even more powerful if we can turn China into the country the resource-rich developing world despises the most. And make no mistake about it, Al Qaeda is just a blip. The biggest long term threat to the United States is a muscular Chinese economic and military empire. And empires become much stronger when they have friends.

Conservatives and even most conservative elites in our country are neither well traveled nor culturally educated. So it's hard for them to comprehend the existence of power that doesn't come out of the barrel of a gun, much less its uses. Obama-Clinton are a soft power double whammy. The longer they have a chance to be the face of an idealistic United States that isn't trying to use the developing world (even though in the end, of course, we are: our goal is to decrease China's relative power), the more we have a chance at fighting our way through a 21st century where we will be at best, only the second most powerful nation in the world.

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