Breaking bad. And good news the maverick way
27 June 2017 15:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Scott Firsing

The World of America, according to BRICS

  • Scott Firsing
    DM-Firsing-bad-b-and-w-job.jpg
    Scott Firsing

    Dr Scott Firsing, an American and permanent resident of South Africa is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa where he previously served as a Senior Lecturer and Head of the International Studies Department.
    He is also a current research fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue based at UNISA.

    Scott's other current appointments include Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria and Director of Public Engagement at the Aerospace Leadership Academy. The founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Bradlow Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

America, its relations with the BRICS and other countries such as Cuba and Iran have been under the spotlight in recent weeks. These key events include the Summit of the Americas, China’s launch of their new Infrastructure Bank and a South African delegation talking chicken and trade in Washington. What face of the BRICS will the new American president likely encounter?

As the 2016 United States (US) presidential race heats up, it looks as though foreign policy will take up much more of the limelight than usual.

Republicans have heavily criticised President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party over recent foreign policy decisions. From improving relations with Cuba and the spread of violent Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Africa to the nuclear ‘deal’ with Iran and Russia’s antics in Ukraine, Republicans have been quick to oppose actions taken by the US president.

This is worrisome to many Americans because like Rocky Balboa in his fight against the Russian Ivan Drago in the classic movie Rocky IV, the US is taking a beating, with some of the bad news coming from the BRICS countries. However, like the (character of) the Italian Stallion from Philadelphia, the US is trying to bounce back. Recent diplomatic rows with countries such as Brazil are no secret and Obama is working to repair bilateral relations with the strategically important countries before he gets out of his office chair and leaves the Oval Office for good.

US-Brazilian relations were recently discussed at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, albeit overshadowed by the media who, for the most part, were focusing on US-Cuba and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s problems back home, where thousands of protestors have taken to the streets demanding change due to corruption scandals and a tumbling Brazilian economy.

Rousseff joined Obama and the presidents of Panama and Mexico for a meeting last week on Friday. It was subsequently announced that Rousseff plans to travel to Washington on 30 June for an official state visit. She had originally been scheduled to visit Washington in October 2013, but cancelled her trip due to anger over the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on her personal communications.

Brazil, seen as one of the traditional US allies, along with Australia, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, the Philippines, South Korea and Ukraine, are among the group that recently joined forces with Beijing in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite Washington's warnings. This is being viewed as a huge slap in the face for the Americans.

China has also established a strong foothold in typically American dominated Latin America. “After a decade of enhanced relations, the China-Latin American relationship has matured, and policies and practices have become more sophisticated and nuanced,” according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. Sino-Brazilian trade itself has expanded aggressively between 1999 and 2011 and in 2009, China surpassed the US as Brazil’s largest trade partner.

Perceived as more complex that US-Brazilian relations and a much larger trade relationship, roughly 20 times larger, US-Sino relations is one of ups and downs and a lot of question marks. The two countries have conflicting interests in ideology, trade and economics. They have different political systems, development paths, and values. This is combined with other external factors at play such as US-Japanese and Philippine relations and Chinese worry over improved US-Vietnam ties, with the two countries recently conducting joint military drills. There are a host of issues where the US and China are co-dependent, but are often seen as not speaking to one another.

Communication between the two is more common nowadays with Washington looking to make headway on areas like maritime disputes, climate change, cyber-security and military contacts during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first scheduled visit to the US in September this year. Having two state visits in less than a year – Obama visited China in November 2014 – does help ensure that US-China relations stay relatively cordial for the time being.

America has also created further momentum in US-Indo ties, building on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in 2014 and Obama’s visit to India in January of this year, making Obama the first sitting American president to visit India twice while in office. The two countries had a number of issues on the back-burner for several years now, including an Indian perception of the US neglecting India for Pakistan and China and a general mistrust of Washington due to their history of non-alignment, as well as some serious diplomatic rows, such as the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York in December 2013. The current relatively positive status of US-Indian relations was described as “unthinkable” just a few short months ago.

Almost the exact opposite can be said of US-Russian relations. It is safe to say there is no love lost between the two countries; think Putin’s sanctuary to Edward Snowden, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and numerous other real and perceived slights. Moscow has been working alongside Washington and Beijing on the Iran nuclear negotiations via the P5 +1. However, Russia’s announcement of plans this week to supply Iran with a sophisticated air defence missile system prompted an urgent phone call from secretary of state John Kerry to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

To summarise, the state of relations between Washington and Moscow are broken and are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Again, the exact opposite can be said of Russia and China, whose partnership has been growing for decades. Public diplomacy with all its rhetoric is alive and well. They know each other, and Moscow supports a great power relationship between the two with a Beijing-dominated system in Asia rather than an American. And, unlike the US-Sino relations, Moscow and Beijing share a similar system with Putin and Xi as the extremely powerful leaders at the helm. Moreover, the two reportedly share a good personal relationship, and are both likely to remain in power for a very long time (until 2022 for Xi; until 2024 for Putin).

Then we have the last BRICS member, South Africa, with trade and industry minister Rob Davies currently in the US arguing for the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). If you live in South Africa and read the news, I don’t need to explain what this is. You know its importance.

AGOA will expire in the coming months and both sides are trying to reach an agreement on the future of the trade relationship, which will obviously affect the political relationship as well.

The latest spat has been labelled the ‘chicken war’. It is similar to the 1995 ‘chicken wars’ in South Africa, when the then US House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the late Donald Payne, then chairman of Congressional Black Caucus, protested the South African government's sudden change in tariffs for chicken parts. The day after a shipment of chicken left from Florida, South Africa closed a tariff loophole that previously allowed lower import duties on such chicken products. The US Seaboard Farms Corporation vociferously complained. The American frozen chicken parts were still stranded in Cape Town when Payne arrived in South Africa and raised the issue with government officials.

Payne was quoted in the South African media stating the dispute was unfortunate and causing “unnecessary anguish” at a time when the US and South Africa were developing closer ties. Pretoria appeared to have stuck to their stance and behind their change in tariffs as spokesman for industry minister Trevor Manuel saying that a one-time exemption, which had been requested, was neither possible under existing trade agreements, nor desirable.

Fast forward 20 years and the two countries are still arguing over chicken. US chicken producers have been pressing the White House on the issue, and US congressmen are considering dropping South Africa from AGOA for this and other reasons. For the past 15 years, South Africa has been taxing poultry imports from the US.

Davies, the main member at the South African negotiation table, is in Washington this week for the US-South Africa TIFA Council meeting and to try to work through the chicken war problem. He is travelling with a private sector delegation from Business Unity South Africa for informal networking to discuss trade and investment policies in South Africa. Perhaps a coincidence, but another well-known South African diplomat, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, is also in Washington to discuss trade and development policies with counterparts at the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the US government.

Republicans and US foreign policy

While Dr Davies and Dlamini-Zuma talk trade in Washington, the US media has begun its almost non-stop 20-month coverage of the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections.

Debates have started, such as the rightful bashing of domestic items, like a rising government budget and increased national debt. The Democrats do have an advantage in that Hillary Clinton is already perceived as their party’s ‘chosen’ candidate. She can start raking in the hundreds of millions of dollars and begin to work on her vision for America, both internally and externally, which people are waiting to hear. At the same time, nearly a dozen Republican hopefuls look to battle it out to earn their rightful spot as their party’s candidate. It looks to be a long, gruelling fight, let alone the eventual fight against the infamous ‘Hillary’.

Another edge the Democrats have is the current status of the American economy. The unemployment rate has fallen from 10% in 2009 to 5.5%. Tough to argue with this, and therefore the Republicans need to elaborate on the true quality of these new jobs, the depressed wages, and the high number of people who have dropped out of the labour force.

Nevertheless, despite Obama’s recent attempts to improve relations with some of the BRICS countries, particularly India and Brazil, foreign policy is where the Democrats and Hillary are open to attack.

There are the specifics, like Clinton’s state department email saga, where she used her own private server and email as Secretary of State and then deleted everything, and the debacle in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador was killed. With the latter, the real questions Republicans need to ask is: what is happening in Libya now and what is America doing about it? What happened to Obama’s hopeful policy in Yemen that allowed it to become a failed state? Yes, we are supporting Saudi Arabia through co-ordination of air strikes, but why did US policy in Yemen completely collapse, destabilising the country?

Another big question and probably the most discussed national security question at the moment is: what should be done about Iran? Almost all Republicans have denounced the Iran deal. They feel Obama’s argument of “It’s this deal or war” is a farce. Every GOP candidate has rightly seen the deal as a pathway to Iran getting a bomb - except Rand Paul.

Why have we not supported Israel to its fullest? Why is the fight against Islamic State (IS) failing? What can we do about it? How effective is the money America spends on foreign aid? How aggressively should the US pursue intervention overseas? Why have our closest allies signed up to the Chinese bank, giving us a small jab to the arm? Are we going to pursue a ‘remain the leading power in Asia’ strategy at all costs? If not, how do we deal with this balance of power equation between China and us?

These are some extremely important and difficult questions to answer. The growth of power of Iran in the Middle East, China in Asia and the threats of Russia are worrying. It is not just Republicans like myself who are worried, but US allies like Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and others.

Republicans need to really sit down and think about responses that are in America’s best interests, rather than constantly calling for military action like more air strikes or boots on the ground, without this being the most appropriate course of action to take. America has other ‘weapons’ in its arsenal. Don’t get me wrong; there are incidents where the threat of military action and then following through with such action is appropriate if demands are not met, but not every international incident like North Korea, Ukraine, Japan or Somalia should be a call to arms, especially if it is simply to appeal to right wing lobby groups. International relations is messy, it’s dirty, it’s complex.

There is a huge negative perception of Republicans overseas, thanks to this frequent war-hungry rhetoric put forth by some American lawmakers as well as card-carrying GOP members. We also have the complete and utter disaster, i.e. Iraq, to thank for this.

Despite George W. Bush’s huge mistake, he did have some important foreign policy related programmes that proved extremely beneficial to all parties involved, now part of his legacy. His President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief or PEPFAR became one of the cornerstones of US-South African relations and US-African relations in general. Bush also signed more free trade agreements than any other president. US-India relations really only started to improve once the civil nuclear co-operation deal was signed in 2006 between the Bush administration and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. Washington, prior to this deal, had taken exception to India’s nuclear programme, imposing harsh sanctions against it after its 1998 nuclear weapon test.

Before Gulf War II, Republicans were known for foreign policy achievements. It was a Republican, Richard Nixon, whose visit to China ushered in a new era of Sino-American relations. George H.W. Bush expanded the West's liberal order, and helped reunite Germany. Moreover, H.W. Bush understood the importance of multilateralism, including the United Nations, to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Today, the world automatically associates Republicans with the famous “you are with or us or against us” quote.

The same can be said of the average American and their perception of American politics in Washington. In recent times, it seems as if Democrats and Republicans never agree on anything. Republicans now control both parts of the US Congress, but it is still hard for larger deals to get done. However, Obama has been negotiating two large multinational trade treaties, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could make their way through Congress because Republicans tend to favour such treaties due to the overall boost to the economy.

As outlined above, it is not going to be an easy four or eight years for the person who succeeds Obama, especially regarding managing the BRICS countries. Brazil and India appear to be obvious alliances that need to be nurtured and improved with all three countries being democracies. The US has been in Latin America for a long time and knows it well. The same cannot be said of China, their diplomats and their investors, except for smaller countries like Venezuela. Furthermore, the US and India share common ground on a range of issues, such as the rise of China and international terrorism.

China really is the most significant concern to American power globally. They have been clear about replacing the US in their region and undermining the strength of the US in western backed institutions and overall US led international order. It is no secret they are building up their military forces and even expanding their presence in outer space. These are immense challenges, especially if China does not become more transparent regarding their future plans.

We know China’s economy will eventually surpass the US. The latest document to act as a fortuneteller and predict the future is HSBC Banks, ‘The World in 2050’. At current growth rates - but we know based on this week’s data that China is slowing down - the Chinese economy would be bigger than that of the US by the 2040s. India will be next or third but with an economy only one-third as big as the US or China.

In 2050, the other BRICS don’t look so good, according to HSBC. Brazil hasn't even overtaken England despite a huge population advantage. Russia is even worse off, with its economy barely doubling in the next 35 years. And South Africa, well… we all know how well we are doing at the moment, but at least we represent Africa as a whole, right?

Back to the present and the American presidential race; most elections usually don't turn on foreign policy, but because of the state of the world we live in, it appears likely that there will be plenty of discussion of it.

The sooner the Republicans can get a frontrunner for the presidential election, the better. It shouldn’t be someone with extremely limited foreign policy experience, and if this turns out to be the case, they have to pick a strongman on foreign affairs with lots of experience for their vice president, like South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham.

It is also important that they have the right foreign policy advisors by their side to help manage their campaigns and administration. We certainly don’t need a repeat of 2008 with ridiculous foreign policy statements being made by a number of Republicans (think Sarah Palin and her experience dealing with Russia). International relations is a serious topic and it needs serious minds dealing with it.

Whoever becomes the next US president, one thing is certain: they will have their hands full dealing with BRICS flying at them. DM

Read more:

  • Obama and Rousseff meet in LATimes
  • China revising US grand strategy on org
  • Russia supplies Iran with sophisticated air defence system on Al Jazeera
  • At the heart of the US South African trade dispute is a serious game of chicken in The New York Times
  • Scott Firsing
    DM-Firsing-bad-b-and-w-job.jpg
    Scott Firsing

    Dr Scott Firsing, an American and permanent resident of South Africa is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa where he previously served as a Senior Lecturer and Head of the International Studies Department.
    He is also a current research fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue based at UNISA.

    Scott's other current appointments include Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria and Director of Public Engagement at the Aerospace Leadership Academy. The founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former Bradlow Fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles






Do Not Miss