From the Fall 2015 Issue “Food Fight“
I spent an afternoon in Lisbon last year with Mário Soares, the longtime leader of Portugal and one of the great proponents of international socialism. In the offices of his foundation, he spends much of his time thinking about the shape of the world, certainly of Europe, which he often views with some despair. Still, he has a vision he holds strong. He would love to a see a union of Portuguese speaking people. When I pointed out that this would comprise at best two substantial nations (Brazil and Portugal), plus a small handful of minor former colonies and territories, he was hardly deterred.
But there are additional impediments. Brazil and Portugal do not speak the same Portuguese. In a pinch, they can make each other understood and can read some newspapers. But when a Brazilian television program is broadcast in Portugal, the editors must dub the characters in Portuguese. The same is true in reverse. Which may cut to the heart of what makes nations contiguous—reliant on others yet able to maintain their own sense of independence, dignity, and distinction.
In Europe today, there are 28 nations, and the European Union recognizes 24 “official and working languages,” though there are regional dialects, like Catalan and Welsh, even lost languages like France’s ancient Languedoc or Breton, that render the linguistic map of Europe all the more byzantine. They are united largely by a common diplomatic language—English, although there is some resistance to that, and a patchwork quality continues. Some countries like Belgium speak two widely disparate tongues (French and Flemish, a Dutch derivative), while Switzerland, though not an actual EU member, has three official languages—French, German, and Italian. The European Commission therefore has a permanent staff of 1,750 linguists and 600 support staff, “bolstered by a further 600 full-time and 3,000 freelance interpreters.” Given the linguistic disparity, it’s a wonder that anything gets done in Brussels, the official eurozone capital. Not surprisingly, this cacophony has given way to any number of jokes—the most widely spread being the five-year plan for a single European language, intelligible everywhere and nowhere.
The Official European Language
The European Commission has announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU, rather than German, which was the other contender. Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had room for improvement and has therefore accepted a five-year phasing in of “Euro-English”.
In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make sivil servants jump for joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of the “k”, Which should klear up some konfusion and allow one key less on keyboards.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”, making words like “fotograf” 20% shorter.
In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent “e” is disgrasful.
By the fourth yer, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”.
During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters. After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and everivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer.
ZE DREM VIL FINALI COM TRU!
In Latin America, virtually everyone (absent Brazil, of course) speaks Spanish, and the languages, if not the people, in each of these countries are all but interchangeable. So in many respects, Latin America should be more easily united than Europe. But it’s not. Neither, for that matter, is Africa, where three main languages that are remnants of the colonial era—English, French, and German—coexist uneasily with as many as 1,500 to 3,000 languages and dialects. Asia, more widely dispersed geographically, scattered across more than 38 million square miles of land and ocean from India to New Zealand (and ignoring millions of more square miles off into the distant South Pacific islands) has a host of different languages ranging from Bahasa Indonesia and Malay with a Latin alphabet to Thai, Lao, and Khmer, each with its own special character set, and the tonal languages of China and Vietnam—though the latter is written in an accented Latin alphabet. Still, despite these linguistic and geographic divergences, large stretches of Asia have managed to achieve degrees of condominium not yet reached by any other region of the world outside of Europe.
LATINS & MR. MONROE
This brings us to the crux of the matter with respect to what makes a nation, but particularly a region—in terms of political, social, economic, or strategic unity or cooperation. And Latin America, by contrast with Europe, which spawned most of these nations during the colonial era, is a particular case in point—how, despite every apparent incentive, it has been able to avoid any substantive unity that would benefit large stretches of its people.
By most standards, Latin America has had everything going for it in terms of potential for unity. It is, for the most part, all located on a single continent, with the exception of some Caribbean islands that are easy sailing, certainly flying distance from the Latin mainland. They have just two dominant languages and a common colonial heritage—all at one time or another having been conquered by, then ruled from the Iberian Peninsula. They have fought few wars with each other in the last century, apart from a handful of relatively minor border skirmishes. The entire continent largely escaped the two world wars that devastated Europe and large stretches of Asia.
Much of this opportunity for isolation and non-interference—that the continent has somehow failed to capitalize on—is due to the statements and at times actions of a big brother that no other region of the world has ever acquired. That’s the United States. For the origins, we must return to the time of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. The context is important. In 1817, Monroe had taken over the presidency from James Madison, who just managed to fend off the British in the War of 1812 that ended two years before Monroe arrived. The British had burned and sacked Washington, and, winding up victorious in Europe after defeating Napoleon and his allies, were looking to extend what was becoming a vast colonial reach. Monroe, however, had no interest in their returning a third time to the Western Hemisphere.
The bulk of the South and Central American colonies of Spain and Portugal were winning their independence from their mother countries, vast global empires having reached the zenith of their power and influence before the British came along. But now, Peru was in the process of peeling off from Spain, a process that would be completed in 1824, and Bolivia in 1825. Venezuela had already shed Spanish rule in 1821, Colombia in 1820, Ecuador in 1822, Argentina in 1816, Paraguay in 1811, and almost all after bloody revolutionary battles. It took Chile a decade and a full-fledged civil war before the last Spanish royalist stronghold collapsed in 1826. Brazil’s armed struggle lasted for two years until finally the last Portuguese soldiers surrendered in March 1824.
Throughout this period, the United States watched nervously as armed rebellion, not to mention Spanish and Portuguese forces, ran rampant across the South American continent. Fearful the British might seize the opportunity to move into the vacuum, Monroe finally decided to act, choosing his words in his State of the Union Address most carefully. “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” Monroe warned Congress and the world. Big words from a country that had itself managed to win its own independence from Britain barely 40 years earlier.
The Monroe Doctrine was never codified in either law or treaty and was invoked only rarely. Still, it proved its usefulness at several critical junctures in the nearly two centuries that followed, notably when John F. Kennedy went toe-to-toe with the Soviet Union after the Kremlin sought to implant offensive missiles in Cuba, the island nation barely 240 miles from the U.S. mainland. Kennedy, of course, couched the issue more directly as a Soviet-American confrontation in a Cold War context. But, in fact, it was very much the Old World trespassing quite directly on the New World, just as Monroe sought to prevent more than a century before.
The Monroe Doctrine effectively left the South and Central American regions in an ideal position to evolve and thrive with little political or military interference from most of the world, and under the strategic umbrella of the world’s most powerful and largely disinterested nation—the United States. Few American presidents paid much attention to Latin America. Part of the reason is that no other major powers were especially interested in any of this continent, though Spain and Portugal still kept fraternal ties with their former colonies. As soon as a canal was carved across Central America at its thinnest point in Panama, and shipping could avoid the long, arduous journey around either the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa or the Cape Horn at the tip of South America, then the Western Hemisphere south of the United States became irrelevant in global terms. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union—and their covert services—were going toe-to-toe across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the only attention that communism paid to Latin America was when Fidel Castro took over in Cuba, and the Kremlin sought a stronghold just south of the Florida Keys. Nikita Khrushchev saw this as potentially a first wedge into the Western Hemisphere, but these aspirations fizzled and died—particularly in the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis when Kennedy forced the Russians to blink, costing the Kremlin any hope of pitching itself as a viable, or especially reliable, strategic partner. Certainly there were other isolated cases of Russian support—for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during their battle with American-backed Contras—but never in the existential fashion in which the Kremlin backed Cuba and Fidel Castro for so long.
For decades, Cuba remained the only consistently leftist country in Latin America. But eventually, that would change. In 1999, Hugo Chavez, assumed the presidency of Venezuela—one of the two Western Hemisphere member nations of OPEC. Chavez was also the first determinedly leftist president of any major Latin American nation. But in the ensuing decades, Chavez would be joined by like-minded socialist presidents in Bolivia’s Evo Morales (2006); Brazil’s Lula da Silva (2003) followed by Dilma Rousseff (2011), head of Brazil’s Workers Party; Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner (2003) followed by his wife Cristina (2007); Chile’s Michelle Bachelet (2006); and Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez (2005). Latin America was moving ever more rapidly toward the left, which would seem to provide again an incentive to move toward some social, political, or at least economic unity. But most of these socialist leaders were far more concerned with bringing prosperity, especially jobs, to nations where in many cases, even today a decade or more into the socialist experiment, unemployment still hovers above 6 percent in each of these nations, and above 7 percent in Bolivia and Uruguay. But far more telling are the income numbers. Brazil’s per capital GDP was barely $16,000 last year, compared with $27,804 for its one-time colonial master Portugal, considered one of Europe’s genuinely sick men. In the Spanish-speaking world, per capita income ranged from Bolivia at $6,221 to Chile at $23,200—again far below the $33,711 figure in Spain, where national unemployment still hovers above 25 percent, rising to 50 percent or more among the nation’s frustrated youth. Yet, unlike Europe, no Latin country was able to transcend its own issues and to understand that it could best assume its place on the world stage by joining together in much more than a token fashion.
Still, that was not for lack of trying. The most fully-realized purely Latin American version of a community was launched in 1985 as a bilateral agreement between Brazil and Argentina. It even proposed the creation of a common currency to be known as the gaucho—14 years ahead of the creation of a common currency, the euro, in Europe. The gaucho never went anywhere. Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela eventually united, however, forming the Mercosur, a sub-regional bloc. A parallel Andean Community of Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru were eventually admitted as “associate members.” Over the years, various countries—Chile, Venezuela, Paraguay—drifted in and out of membership, but the bloc never achieved any of the coherence of the European Unity that was marching steadily toward an integration that somehow eluded the entire Western Hemisphere.
The reach and purpose of Mercosur remained on intra-pact trade—rising from $10 billion in 1991 to $88 billion in 2010, with Brazil and Argentina alone accounting for nearly half that total. Moreover, trade within Mercosur amounted to barely 16 percent of the Mercosur member nations’ total trade volume, exceeded by their external trade with the EU (20 percent), China (14 percent), and the United States (11 percent). The fragmentation and relatively small scale of Mercosur’s operations suggested its fundamental weakness—the inability of its member nations to transcend local differences and combine to produce a truly effective global player. As an example of the scale involved, the EU’s total external trade in 2013 totaled €3.4 trillion ($4.4 trillion), compared with its total trade with Mercosur of €110 billion ($143 billion). “Free trade agreements offer opportunities to accelerate economic growth, but do not guarantee it,” says Daniel Lederman, deputy chief economist for Latin America & Caribbean at the World Bank.
In part, for this reason and for a host of other domestic political concerns, most Latin American countries remain in bitter competition for the few helping hands that are out there. As a result, each has sought trading partners far from a home territory that seems continuously problematic. With so many fellow Latin nations in equally deep economic distress, some have been forced to turn to foreign partners far from South America and with few scruples about how to exploit this weakness.
Such has been the case with Ecuador, which has found a willing partner in China—though the partnership has hardly proved to be even-handed. Chinese state-owned banks have already invested or loaned at least $11 billion to Ecuadorean projects. In return, this smallest Latin American member of OPEC has been forced to pledge 90 percent of its oil output to China. And Ecuador is not alone in Latin America as a Chinese target. Shortly after Prime Minister Li Keqiang landed in Chile on May 24, he observed, “The current industrial cooperation between China and Latin America arrives at the right moment. China has equipment manufacturing capacity and integrated technology with competitive prices, while Latin America has the demand for infrastructure expansion and industrial upgrading.” During his visit, the two countries signed a free trade agreement, hardly a surprising development since Chile is already supplying 30 percent of all China’s copper imports—an essential item for the nation’s real estate boom. China is Chile’s largest trading partner, surpassing the United States and the EU, and second only to Brazil as China’s top trading partner in Latin America.
It’s equally clear that neither China nor Europe has been especially anxious to encourage any combination in Latin America that would give it any more muscle in negotiating trade agreements, loans, or development projects. The EU took nearly five years to negotiate its first Framework Cooperation Agreement with Mercosur in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2010 that talks began on a trade pact that would cover goods and services. Nine rounds of discussions ensued in a desultory fashion through 2012 without any conclusion. “Until now, rounds have focused on the part of the agreement related to rules, and the two regions are still working on the preparation of their market access offers. No date has been set yet for the exchange of market access offers,” the European Commission observed in the latest statement on the state of the talks.
Part of the reluctance of Latin America to become more closely tied to Europe or the United States is suspicion over their motives, especially given historically harsh treatment by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which are seen to be dominated by the United States and, to a lesser extent, the major European financial nations. Ecuador has been especially anxious to sever ties with the United States, especially after the arrival of its socialist president Rafael Correa in 2006. Correa’s father was imprisoned in the United States for drug smuggling and later committed suicide, for which his son still blames the American government. In 2008, Correa called most of his country’s debt immoral and illegitimate and stopped payments on it, sending the nation into default.
Desperately short of cash, Correa turned to China. When oil prices began to plummet, however, China was in a position to make ever more demands—ever more onerous terms, ever deeper penetration into the nation’s heartland and infrastructure as an increasingly large employer—with little regard for the safety or well-being of those it employs.
And then there is the question of China’s own economic travails. As prices on mainland Chinese stock exchanges collapsed, the government was forced to step in, buying with its own funds large quantities of securities that had been bid up by high-flying margin players who’d swapped the roulette tables for the trading pits. If this system collapses or develops deep faults, China may be forced to dedicate increasing amounts of its reserves to bailing out investors who are little more than high-stakes gamblers. China’s hard currency reserves of $3.8 trillion have long been cited as a reason it will continue to be a reliable development partner for Latin America and beyond. But that resolve is already being tested on several major projects—most notably a major Ecuadorian oil refinery in which the government has invested $1 billion to prepare the ground, but is still awaiting another $7 billion from Chinese banks to build what has been budgeted as a $10 billion project.
AND THEN THERE’S AFRICA
Africa has found itself in a similar position. Here, too, is a deeply fragmented and divided continent, unable to unite in any sort of viable trade or development pact. The umbrella organization for Africa is the African Union, a successor to the Organization of African Unity, and consisting of 53 member states—every nation on the African continent except for Morocco, while the Central African Republic has been suspended since the outbreak of armed conflict there. But it is scarcely on par in any fashion with the EU, though it certainly has aspirations. On paper, for instance, there’s an African Central Bank based in Abuja, Nigeria; an African Monetary Fund based in Yaoundé, Cameroon; and an African Investment Bank based in Tripoli, Libya, which is now the capital of an all but failed state. The goal of this triumvirate is the creation of a common African currency, the afro, to unite what are today 42 different currencies. As a legacy of the colonial era, there are two multi-national currencies—the Western and Central CFA franc. Still, the GDP of each of these two sets of countries, respectively eight and six nations, is in the vicinity of $145 billion, or roughly a third the size of Nigeria and a quarter the size of South Africa.
But trade is only a portion of the economic relationship between most African nations. Africa shares many of the same challenges as Latin America with respect to forming a unified front in negotiating with the outside world. Most African nations have vastly divergent domestic priorities, a host of different political systems ranging from cacophonous democracies or outright anarchy to despotism, and varying levels of development and natural resources.
The most vulnerable, and there are many, have lately become prey to China. Chinese trade in Africa has exploded from barely $1 billion in 1980 to some $200 billion today. Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali fulfill nearly a quarter of China’s cotton requirements. A third of China’s oil imports come from Africa, largely from Angola. Unable, or unwilling, to unite in any common front, however, has all too often allowed China to tie the host nation to terms or projects that are effectively confiscatory. As Peter Bosshard, interim executive director of International Rivers, pointed out in his article “China Dams the World,” in World Policy Journal, “as part of China’s ‘going out’ strategy, trade with Africa has increased roughly 20-fold in the last ten years.” That was six years ago. The pace has only accelerated since, in each case serving China’s strategic and developmental interests. Since, as Bosshard continued, these dams, often detrimental to the environment and water flow in many of these countries, “also provide the energy infrastructure for larger resource extraction projects, which again serve China’s strategic interests.” And he added that Chinese companies “have also used ruthless tactics as they drill for oil and gas, prospect for minerals, and cut down forests.” Indeed, there have been outright hostilities in such African nations as Botswana, Ghana, Zambia, and Sudan.
ASIA: A CAUTIONARY TALE?
Certainly many of these problems faced by Latin America and Africa should prove to be a cautionary tale for the vast populations of Asia. As diverse and disunited as the nations of these other two still developing continents, their differences pale in comparison with Asia. Yet for decades, largely under the pressure of the United States, they have managed to conclude any number of continent-wide agreements—from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (or SEATO), a mutual defense pact patterned on the Western alliance NATO; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); the Asia Development Bank; and the Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA). But none have proved to be more than window-dressing when it comes to addressing central issues of the region or beyond. Tariff concessions have never been extended beyond a handful of nations and a minority of their major products.
The result of all these relatively weak-kneed organizations has been a region dominated by its largest member, China. Excluded from most of these American-backed efforts at regional combination, China has done its best to rope as many as possible into one agreement or another that could challenge the world’s dominant trading nation—the United States. Most recently, China has created—and largely funded—the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and linked up with Russia and four of the Eurasian ‘Stans to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, inviting India and Pakistan to join as well.
Meanwhile, the United States has put its muscle behind a bizarre animal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a hybrid that includes Chile, Peru, and Mexico, as well as seven Asian nations, the United States, and Canada—all nominally with Pacific seacoasts, but little else in common. Excluded, not surprisingly, are China and Russia (each with Pacific coastlines), India and Pakistan (nominally Asian), not to mention the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea, all of which have expressed interest but not participated in the negotiations. Not surprisingly, with such diverse economies as Japan and Brunei, Vietnam and Australia, talks have dragged on interminably through 19 rounds (until they decided to stop counting rounds in 2013) and 22 ministerial or negotiating sessions in Washington, Bali, Mexico City, Santiago, Salt Lake City, Singapore, Ottawa, Hanoi, Sydney, Honolulu, National Harbor, Maryland, and Guam. But so far, there has been no agreement and no real assurance that such a pact will get through the United States Congress, let alone all of the ratification hurdles in each of the other negotiating nations.
The goal of course is to move toward some document that will outpace anything agreed upon in Latin America or Africa and that could help keep at bay the rapacious appetites of China. It would, if concluded as designed by the United States, enable Asia outside of China to stand on its own, with the United States of course profiting handsomely. It would be a little like having a Latin American community without Brazil and with big brother in North America looking over everyone’s shoulder. With China excluded, of course, it is free to go very much its own way. Clearly, the goal of a Trans-Pacific grouping is to build a muscular trade group capable of withstanding assaults from a host of other players and competitors—from multi-national groupings like the EU to single behemoths like China or even its AIIB.
Devoted readers will know by now that Coda subscribes very much to a laissez-faire philosophy of diplomacy. This is certainly true on a regional level—whether in terms of union for political, diplomatic, or security motives, to promote trade and development, or simply to provide enough combined leverage to negotiate at a global level on a more equitable basis in any of a host of different forums or venues.
Nevertheless, real, substantive unity in each of these regions could help every individual nation prosper as well—far more than acting in a single self-interested fashion. In such a scenario, each risks becoming easy prey for larger, more powerful players like China, many of which do not subscribe to our laissez-faire concept of sovereignty or partnership—making easy money from disunity, disorganization, or greed.
Sadly, most countries seem unable or unwilling to surrender the minimum levels of sovereignty to allow such combinations to succeed. Even today, more than two decades after the conclusion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, there are those who believe the United States surrendered too much and got too little in return—that it was the beginning of the end of America’s manufacturing dominance of the world, or certainly North America.
As is the case of any agreement between two or more nations, each party must be prepared to surrender something—be it a modicum of sovereignty, regulation, oversight, or control—actions that only multiply by orders of magnitude as the number of nations involved increases. But the experience in those areas of the world that have been able to see more clearly the common advantages, should suggest to others that the time has come. Combinations—regional, trans-national groupings for security, commerce, tariff reductions, regulatory uniformity—are vital in today’s ever more complex and competitive world where bigger has been proven to be better. The world of the individual nation state that is able to build an unbreachable wall and an impassable moat, then raise the drawbridge to survive and prosper on its own, has all but disappeared.
The future is unity and comity, not hubris and individualism. When this paradigm is broken, only chaos and penury can result.
David A. Andelman is the editor and publisher of World Policy Journal.
[Cartoon courtesy of Damien Glez]