Trump shrug

Image source: RenewAmerica

“New world order” is a phrase mostly associated with the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when America and the Soviet Union decided to put their differences aside and cooperate rather than constantly menace each other. Together, the 2 superpowers were supposed to police the globe, punishing wrongdoers and promoting open societies and peaceful international relations. When the USSR collapsed, it was America alone who ended up playing this role, facing almost no resistance in its quest to shape the world in its own image and promote its own ideals.

We are once again living through a seismic shift in the world order like the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the most part, American “hyperpower” lent predictability to international affairs. No other country can seriously challenge the US, so none really try to. The benefits of free trade, open borders, democracy, human rights and peaceful diplomacy are obvious, so no one really worked against them. America was reduced to playing a police role, punishing countries like Iraq and Yugoslavia that transgressed international norms, mediating international disputes like the Arab-Israeli conflict to keep them from erupting, and ignoring problems like Rwanda or Zaïre that “didn’t matter.”

There are other contenders for seismic shifts in the world order since then. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 gave America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the West) a new sense of purpose. Terrorism moved from the back burner to the front of the agenda, and counterterrorism efforts have dominated American foreign policy ever since. The Iraq War seemed to presage a new era of American imperialism, but as time passes it seems less and less like it started a real trend. The global economic collapse in 2008 seriously discredited capitalism and empowered China and other emerging markets over a floundering West, but the world has slowly recovered from that chaotic time.

But now, America is challenging the very underpinnings of the world order. So much of international relations is shaped by America, whether other countries like it or not (and many of them are accustomed to it and take it for granted). It bankrolls giant organizations like the UN and the World Bank. Its military protects Europe, East Asia, and (to some extent) West Asia. The dollar is the international reserve currency. Its economy is the global powerhouse, both through its huge domestic market and its role in trade. Its political system is a model, conscious or otherwise, and its values are exported both through overt evangelists and more subtle messages in its pop culture.

Yet it seems that America is now losing interest in this. Military intervention leads to prolonged war and occupation, and Americans have been tired of it for a decade already. The military and financial contribution to NATO, the Western alliance, is no longer seen as worth it. Deep cuts to the federal government and bureaucracy have reverberations in its diplomacy, as the foreign service is suddenly understaffed, underfunded and mismanaged. Protectionism is back with a vengeance, no longer just an alternative economic theory or something to fall back on to score quick political points but the outright credo of the country. America now takes a realistic approach to foreign relations, no longer judging countries by their domestic situation but evaluating them in terms of straight-up strategic value. International commitments like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade pact linking America with East Asia, Oceania and Latin America) and Paris Agreement (a climate change accord) have been discarded.

Some foreigners are freaking out about this, since America is the guarantor of global stability. Without that underlying guarantee, international relations enter a more unpredictable phase, where rising powers are more likely to challenge the status quo and bring about a different world order. Since the American-led world order has mostly worked out well — who doesn’t like peace, prosperity and freedom? — there is discomfort and uncertainty about what could replace it. The ongoing rise of China, in particular, is thought to indicate a new emphasis on nationalism and narrow-minded economic interests over democracy promotion or human rights. Russia is outright challenging the American-led order, and even though many of them have been reluctant to stand up to it before, European countries have been aghast at how unwilling America now is to confront Russian transgressions. Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, lamented that America’s new disregard for human rights would bring the world “to the verge of darkness.”

Other foreigners are shrugging the whole thing off or even smugly rejoicing. Any superpower is resented, and China in particular sees America as hogging the spotlight and getting in the way of its own influence. Free trade in particular is an issue with wide global appeal (especially among the business elite), and China has deftly positioned itself as the new champion of globalization. The TPP is now being resurrected by the original member countries, led by Japan, without American involvement. Others look to Germany and its stodgy but level-headed chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the new “Leader of the Free World” (China being too suspicious to trust).

So how much is all this for real? It’s far too soon to say, but it seems fair to underline how much all of these recent developments rest on 1 man: Donald Trump. Although observers have predicted America’s decline for a while now, the idea that it would suddenly give up on “leading the Free World” and lose interest in upholding international alliances would’ve seemed strange only 2 years ago. Within America, and especially its foreign policy establishment, resistance to Trump’s agenda is severe. Although Trump has certainly started a movement and has many devoted followers at home, foreign policy always takes a back seat in American politics, and it’s unclear how much shrugging off global commitments is part of Trump’s appeal. There are certainly elements of Trump’s team that back his hostility to allies and disregard for international commitments (Steve Bannon being foremost), but even among his administration there are personalities pushing for a more traditional foreign policy approach (like James Mattis, the secretary of defense, and Rex Tillerson, secretary of state). Given how chaotic Trump’s time in office has been so far, it’s fair to ask how durable his policies will be. Earlier this year editorials often asked whether Trump’s election heralded a new wave of right-wing populism across the West, but after centrist, pro-EU candidates won the elections in France and the Netherlands, these concerns have diminished.

There’s also the small problem that despite America’s eclipse, no other countries really want to step up to the plate. Britain is a more obviously declining power consumed with its controversial decision last year to exit the EU. Germany has been reluctant to shoulder the burdens of power since 1945 and is a shadow of its former self militarily. Japan, similarly, has a declining population and a tradition of pacifism and consensus. Russia may be reasserting itself and has pretensions of re-forming an alternative power center, but lacks the allies and international clout and reach it once had. China is the most obvious candidate, with its growing roster of clients all over the world, hegemonic status in East Asia, massive population, and assertive military posture…. but it remains inwardly focused and unwilling to engage in messy interventions in far-flung countries.

Ian Bremmer, an American political risk consultant, calls this state of affairs “G-Zero,” since no country really wants to take the lead and dominate the world. Having decried imperialism for so long, most countries can’t exactly assume the mantle of empire themselves. Economic growth remains the imperative for most countries, and that means pursuing narrow self-interest, not monitoring international agreements or intervening in faraway disputes of no immediate concern. Countries like Germany or Brazil have mostly narrow, regional focuses. International cooperation is hard, messy, tiresome and protracted. Military intervention, as America well knows, is bloody, expensive, frustrating and also protracted.

Thus, despite Trump’s antics, it seems most likely that America will continue to uphold global order for the time being. 1 erratic president can’t bring down a durable, popular international system all by himself. America remains the hub of world power. But Trump’s election, and later, his actions, have delivered an unmistakable jolt to the world. They have shown that all that talk about American decline was on to something. They have shown just how much other countries rely on America to get things moving. And they have shown that Americans aren’t necessarily fond of playing the role of global policemen, and that 1 successful agitator can push them away from embracing the role.



Lula Tanzania

Lula visits Tanzania in 2010. Image source: AFP/Getty Images

The bond between the countries of North America (Canada and the USA) and Europe is one of the world’s strongest and most consequential. Historically, culturally, and linguistically, North Americans are intimately bound with their European kin. Since the beginning of European settlement there, North Americans have flocked to Europe on travel, study or work, and there is a continual fascination with the other side of the ocean. Through the institutional architecture of NATO, North America and Europe (which is most of what is called “the West”) generally move in lockstep on diplomatic issues.

This post, though, is not about that relationship. Instead, it’s about another key transatlantic bond, but one that’s been continually ignored: the one between Brazil and Africa.

Brazil and Africa have very strong ties. Start with geography: South America and Africa used to be one landmass, as evidenced by how far east Brazil bulges and the huge indent along Africa’s coast (the Gulf of Guinea). The sea between Natal (in Brazil) and Liberia (in West Africa) is still the narrowest part of the Atlantic except for the northernmost part where Greenland fills in the gap. There is a murky tradition in West Africa of the medieval Empire of Mali voyaging across the sea to trade with the opposite coast and maybe colonize it.


Gondwana, the super-continent also including modern India, Australia and Antarctica, broke apart in the age of the dinosaurs. Image source: U.S. Geological Survey

But as usual, it was Europe who bound the 2 regions together for good. Portugal sailed around Africa’s coast in the 1400s on its way to the riches of Asia, seeding it with trading posts along the way. Eventually an explorer found the part of Brazil that bulges out. Like its Spanish cohorts, Portugal vanquished the native Brazilians and seized the coastline for itself. Brazil turned out to be a rich and bountiful prize, loaded with lumber, gold and diamonds. Portugal needed lots of labor to work its colony, and the native peoples were dying out from imported diseases. And the Portuguese themselves didn’t want to do it.

… So they turned to Africa, where thousands and thousands of people were being captured and brought in chains across the ocean to work the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. The Caribbean may have been the main destination, but Brazil was the biggest single colony: over the 300+ years of the transatlantic slave trade, around 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil, or around 38.5% of the total. They stripped Atlantic Brazil of its jungles, mined its minerals, hacked its sugar, and later plucked its coffee. Any kind of manual labor, from unloading ships to housekeeping, became the province of black slaves. And because slaveowners were rarely hesitant about raping their property, Brazil grew into a mixed-race society united by the Portuguese language. (Not all of this traffic was one-way, by the way; Brazilian slaves could buy their freedom, and some of them returned to Africa afterwards, where they brought valuable technical skills and commercial expertise to an area mostly cut off from international trends.)

Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888, but it left a permanent mark on the country. Most obviously, it gave it a permanent black underclass and a social hierarchy that closely paralleled skin color. But the African influence on Brazil was profound. For example, feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, is a black bean stew strongly influenced by Portuguese tastes (it uses linguiça sausage) but incorporating weird cuts of meat like pork tails and feet, which were the scraps given to slaves. Brazil’s national music, the samba, is directly descended from African styles and was pioneered in the early 1900s by black musicians. African beliefs inspired a uniquely Brazilian religion, Candomblé, which worships personal deities and has its own rituals. The northeastern part of Brazil — the part that bulges out towards Africa — is predominantly black and has the strongest African cultural influences.

Despite this, Brazil’s elite snubbed Africa and links with it after abolition. In thrall to the racist ideology pervasive among whites in the early 1900s, they instead tried to whiten Brazil’s demographics by encouraging immigration from Europe and further race-mixing in the belief that future generations would be lighter-skinned than the current mix(the branqueamento policy). The first part of this policy succeeded, and Brazil now has large populations from Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Black people, however, never really went away.

By the 1960s, overt racist ideology was dying away, and African colonies were gaining independence. Brazil’s presidents began paying more attention to Africa and forging alliances with the new countries. But concerted outreach to Africa remained lacking for many decades; Brazilian dictators prioritized the relationships with Portugal and South Africa, that is, an intransigent colonial power and a racist regime. The dictators also embraced a generally conservative world outlook, which didn’t appeal to Africans, who prefer more revolutionary, left-wing stances.

These days, Brazil is experiencing a renaissance in its connections with Africa. It began under President “Lula” da Silva, who took a genuine interest in the continent. During his 8 years in office, he visited Africa 28 times, taking in 21 different countries there, and doubled Brazil’s embassies there from 18 to 37. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, carried on the momentum, albeit to a lesser extent.

As usual, the core of Brazil’s diplomacy with Africa is investment and technical cooperation. African countries are rich in minerals and oil, and Brazil has the mining companies to exploit them. Brazil also has a bevy of construction firms ready to build up African infrastructure — Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez, OAS, Camargo Corrêa — and well-educated engineers and scientists with the expertise to research new drugs, crop varieties, and other things of benefit to Africans. On the other hand, trade plays a growing role in the relationship; it’s shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $26 billion in 2012, and Brazilian companies now use Africa as a market for their (cheaper) consumer goods. Brazilian telenovelas (soap operas), with their rags-to-riches stories and melodrama, are popular in Africa.

Brazilian TV is most popular in Angola and Mozambique, which are Brazil’s main partners in Africa. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they were also Portugal’s main colonies in Africa (the other ones being Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe). Many Afro-Brazilians originally came from these lands, especially Angola. They are also struggling to rebuild from devastating civil wars and need sustained infrastructure investments. But Brazil is moving on to other countries that don’t speak Portuguese and importing Nigerian oil (which is better suited to Brazil’s refining processes), building roads in Kenya, and selling cluster bombs to Zimbabwe.

Brazil is far from alone in supporting African development, and it lags behind the West and China in the scope of its involvement, but it has several key advantages. For one, there’s its shared history and a certain sense of familiarity with African culture, but more importantly, it’s a tropical country. Its agricultural specialists figured out how to grow crops like cassava, soybeans, and cotton in the cerrado (Brazil’s parched savannah), so its techniques are relevant for other tropical countries searching for ways to grow new crops, create more farmland and increase their yields.

Brazil also represents sort of a development success story. It has long festered in poverty and underdevelopment, and its chronic hyperinflation made it depend on IMF bailouts to keep afloat. It is now a member of the BRICs, the most powerful and important emerging economies, and until recently had money to throw around overseas. It still has a huge, struggling underclass, but its welfare program, the Bolsa Família, has been a roaring success, lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty since its inauguration in 2003 at a cost of only .05% of GDP. Proud of its achievement, Brazil has held seminars on the program and other welfare initiatives for Africans grappling with much worse poverty and invites delegations over to see conditions for themselves.

Politically, Brazil isn’t the stern conservative oligarchy it once was. The ruling party, the Worker’s Party, is leftist and preaches Third World solidarity. For all of its close links with the West, Brazil still feels a lot of bitterness toward it as a result of being ignored, dismissed, and indebted for much of its history. It sees the “global South” as having a common bond: resistance to Northern oppression and a struggle to survive in a Northern-run economic system. And as by far the largest and most important country in the Southern Hemisphere, Brazil is in a natural position to lead — and increasingly knows it.

This is most likely the main reason for Brazil’s increased attention to its eastern neighbors. Consumer markets and natural resources are great, but other markets are much more lucrative and Brazil has plenty of resources of its own. Sentimental and cultural ties are also important and give Brazil an edge over some of its rivals, but it’s hard to tell how much this is the result of Lula’s personal feelings and whether it will endure after the Worker’s Party is swept out of office. But politically, Brazil needs Africa. It has ambitions to be a Great Power someday, and Latin America won’t be enough of a sphere of influence. Africa remains the most struggling part of the world and the area in most dire need of sustained investment and development, and it lacks a hegemonic power that could feasibly be a rival for Brazil, so it will remain the continent Brazil must win over if it wants to demonstrate Third World solidarity and maybe even a seat on the UN’s Security Council (the important part) someday.

So far, Brazil is doing well. The West remains tainted or at least a little suspect in African eyes; even if well-intentioned, Westerners rarely face the same crippling institutional problems and hurdles to development that Africans do. China and India are rising powers with development cred, but they are also seen as distant foreigners motivated primarily by self-interest and sometimes rapacious in their greed. Brazil actually hires Africans, builds urban housing for the poor, consults with locals, and trains them to manage their own enterprises. Most of the resources it extracts still flow out of Africa, and Brazilian companies are still corrupt and destructive like other Third World firms, but all in all Africans trust Brazilians more.

Back in Brazil, African heritage is becoming more and more widely accepted and celebrated. Capoeira, the dance form invented by slaves that doubled as martial training, is now considered Brazil’s most unique contribution to martial arts. Salvador’s heavily African-influenced Carnival celebrations rival Rio de Janeiro’s bigger, more famous ones. Black Brazilian artists and musicians incorporate more and more African influences into their work. Yet Brazil’s elite continues to value European culture over African, and the vast majority of blacks remain poor manual laborers. Whether Brazilian business will get more interested in Africa if more blacks go into the business class remains an open question.

Brazil continues to face enormous and daunting problems. The legacy of its slaveholding past has not gone away, and racism remains a fact of life there. It is also grappling with an economic slowdown that is forcing businesses and the government to cut back on all fronts; it may even have to seek funds from the IMF once again. (Africa is suffering from a similar slowdown, mostly caused by falling demand for commodities.) Many of Brazil’s biggest companies have been tarnished by a corruption scandal focusing on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. But depressions don’t last forever, and Brazil remains a development success story and a natural leader for the Southern Hemisphere. Continued Brazilian engagement in sub-Saharan Africa should bring benefits to both sides.

One more for the road.



Image source: The New Arab


Around the world, from the dingiest village to the most bustling city, from the poorest African countries to the most well-off European principalities, one word strikes disgust and condescension into everyone’s hearts: tourists. Admittedly, in poorer areas that disgust is typically overwhelmed by greed for the potential wealth they bring, but it’s there all the same.

It’s easy to see why. Tourists have a reputation for bad behavior, for being obnoxious and inconsiderate, as if they were at some sort of playground instead of a place where people actually live. Residents of big, busy cities like New York hate tourists because they don’t know where they’re going and take up way too space on the sidewalk and in the subway stations and don’t know local customs like standing on this side of the escalator.

Certain nationalities have their own stereotypes and their own varieties of bad behavior. Americans are loud, boastful, arrogant, ignorant despite being arrogant, and picky. (The whole imperialism thing doesn’t help.) French are even more rude and arrogant but add a twist of condescension, expecting everyone to speak their language and disdaining foreigners, even on foreign turf. Japanese are obsessed with taking photos, travel exclusively in groups, and can’t speak any foreign languages. Chinese, the new major tourist sector, apparently combine all these stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, rude, incomprehensible, ignorant, picky, and photo-obsessed. They also travel exclusively in groups and represent an imperialist country. They add the stigma of being fierce hagglers.

Tourists can be shockingly disrespectful of the places they visit. They climb on ancient monuments and sometimes try to appropriate parts of them as souvenirs. They laugh and joke around in holy sites. They take flash photos during performances. They refuse to learn even a few words of the local language (and when they do, they butcher it). They talk constantly about how great their country is and how bad yours is. The most egregious examples go all-out and break the law, either out of ignorance or a feeling that laws don’t apply on vacation. Young tourists are party animals who somehow never have enough money yet splash out on alcohol and drugs and sex and noisy techno dance parties.

Tourists can distort economies and cultures. As areas become more and more touristed, local businesses bend over for the tourist hordes, altering their products and services to cater to their tastes. Ancient performance arts are translated to English and simplified for the benefit of short attention spans. “Exotic” stereotypes are perpetuated and exaggerated because it’s what tourists expect. Outdated and impractical tools are favored over stuff that might actually help locals. Distinctive cuisine gets watered down and tweaked so foreigners will actually eat it. In certain cases even the narrative at historical sites gets altered so that tourists from certain countries won’t get offended by it.

Despite the Chinese and Japanese tourists, the majority of tourists internationally are white, which has led anthropologists to argue that tourism is a second form of colonialism. Tourists expect locals to serve them and do whatever it takes to put their minds at ease because they’re on vacation. Resort areas in places like the Caribbean have a permanent leisure class waited on by a permanent servant class. Deeply ingrained habits of deference to whites are perpetuated: in his autobiography Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama relates how a black waiter in a restaurant in Kenya was desultory when he and his sister came in, but rushed to serve a (picky, whiny) white tourist family.

Despite all the trouble locals can go to to make them feel at home, a lot of tourists are unappreciative and complain about their experiences. They realize that foreign countries aren’t exactly like where they came from. They complain about the humidity, the language barrier, the food, the touts, the long distances and boring bus rides, the monotonous succession of churches and temples and museums. Some of them (usually the kids) would rather lounge in air-conditioned hotel rooms and use their smartphones or handheld games or TVs. They have only a hazy idea of where they are and often limited interest in what they’re visiting. Sometimes they realize they don’t care about their destination in the middle of the trip.

These are all valid points, and it should be easy to see why people groan when they see a crowd of approaching tourists or hear about their impending onslaught. But I still think tourism has more benefits than drawbacks, and locals should be more considerate and understanding in tourist areas.

The main advantage to tourism, quite simply, is greater understanding. Yes, some tourists just barricade themselves in their hotels or resorts or cruise ships all vacation long, but most of them will go back home with a greater perspective on the world and their destination in particular. They will have met new people, experienced a new culture, and seen emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually enriching sights. Even if they stay within their own country or cultural sphere of influence, their horizons, knowledge, and perspective will have deepened. The experience of “culture shock” can be unsettling at first, but it usually makes for interesting stories later.

For the locals, tourism almost always delivers an economic windfall. Some places depend on tourist revenue and have people trained to show tourists around and cater to their needs. Only the proudest and snootiest businessmen would turn back tourist money. Yes, tourists’ tastes can be different from locals’, but that’s how market demands work. Without tourist interest, many traditional handicrafts and artistic techniques would be on life support. People who whine all the time about “authenticity” need to remember how culture works — it’s an evolving process shaped by different influences and tastes. Sometimes syncretism and creativity can lead to interesting new art forms or new contexts for old styles.

I sometimes get a whiff of xenophobia behind some complaints about tourists. Yes, the national stereotypes I wrote above have truth to them. But obnoxiousness and disrespect aren’t limited to certain nationalities. A lot of tourism comes from domestic sources — that is, tourists aren’t necessarily foreigners. As anyone who’s been on or around a school trip knows, it’s not just foreigners who can be rowdy or rude.

Also, I’d like to point something out — how many of you have gone on a trip before? Tourism is almost universal among people with decent incomes, to some extent; don’t be a hypocrite and complain about tourists in your own city but indulge in it elsewhere.

That being said, it’s true that the worst kinds of tourism don’t really help cultural understanding or intellectual advancement. While I get that some people just want to relax and take long naps on a sunny beach, I prefer tourism with a more active component. Do what you can to learn more about the place you’re visiting. Learn some of the language. Visit a history museum. (Even if it’s not entirely accurate, you’ll at least see how that place sees its own history.) Try to interact with some locals. Step outside of your comfort zone a bit — who knows, you might actually like it.

I personally enjoy going off the beaten track a bit. In many places it becomes predictable where tourists will go. Famous places and big cities are no-brainers. Places mentioned frequently in ads, on TV, or through word-of-mouth are probably big tourist destinations. If you’ve heard of it, chances are others have too. While there’s usually a good reason why certain places are popular — beautiful scenery, lots of stuff to do, a hospitable culture — sticking to the well-trod tourist route limits your horizons and increase the likelihood that you’ll be hanging out with other tourists and locals used to them. Try going somewhere unusual sometimes. It can be amazing how different countries can be if you visit someplace that’s not listed in the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guidebooks (or even has a brief listing).

Above all, show some respect and consideration for the place you’re visiting. Learn the local customs before you go, and try to pick up local behavior when you’re there. Remember that people live there too. Party if you want, but don’t trash the town for no reason. Do what you can to minimize your carbon footprint and waste. Avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and there’s a greater chance locals will stop living up to theirs.

It’s hard to deny that tourism has its drawbacks. Sometimes tourism inevitably leaves you with a superficial understanding of your destination. (You can’t do much about that in North Korea.) Very fragile environments like Antarctica are hard to visit without straining the ecosystem. The touts that spring up in tourist destinations are a pain. You will never gain the kind of appreciation or understanding as a tourist that you would as a resident who deals with day-to-day issues. Although they can give you valuable perspective, save hassles, deal with language barriers, and offer unique and amazing experiences, group tours can also offer watered-down narratives and isolate tourists from interaction with locals, which I see as a crucial part of the experience (for good or ill!).

But travel is still a great thing, and with booming air travel, the spread of the Internet and new services like Couchsurfing and AirBnB, it’s easier and more tempting than ever before. As countries like Mexico, Turkey, Nigeria and India rise on the world stage, more and more tourists will head from the non-white world to the white world, reversing some old stereotypes and relationships. And at the end of the day, no matter how many books you read or movies you watch, you’ll never really get a feel for a foreign country unless you go for yourself. (That goes for this blog too — take my observations with a grain of salt because chances are I haven’t been to the place I’m describing!)