Tuesday, November 6, 2007

U.S. v China, in Africa (brought to you by oil)

More than fifteen years after the fact – we still miss the stability provided by the Cold War. It was the Cold War that taught us where we stood. More importantly, it was the Cold War that taught us where everybody else stood, too.

How we long for those matchless masculine consonants and corresponding numbers, the all-business acronyms with hardly a vowel between them:

  • US v. USSR
  • AK-47 v. Kalashnikov (OK, not an acronym)
  • F-16 v. MiG

The symmetry was beautiful and simple. Elegant even. Without sounding too nostalgic, The U.S. had a good thing going before it took the Cold War title.

Look at the United States since then: “The World’s Superpower.” I’ll be the first to admit nobody took that all too seriously. It was bumper-sticker patriotism, something to rally around for the guys on the Sunday morning talk shows. I’d argue that few people believed in that big talk, but of course that suggestion doesn’t jibe with the nation’s attitude before going into Iraq. (We were gonna kick some butt and smoke cigars.) I guess that brand of jingoism could be sloughed off on post-9/11 syndrome…we felt it was our due to kick some butt. You can’t blame us for that, right?

Times certainly have changed.

As Thomas Friedman says – in his plain-spoken columnist speak – the world is now flat. The Cold War meant rough and tumble polarity, each team takes a side. That gave way to something towards the idea of interdependence and reciprocity – a world connected where everyone is mostly equal with some being more equal than others. On top of this lies the superpower good guy (the good ol’ US of A!) who will make sure the circuits hum and the brake train brakes and whatever it is engines do.

For those who don’t believe me – or, him – here’s a quote from Friedman’s book, called The World is Flat:

What the flattening of the world means is that we are now connecting all the knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network, which – if politics and terrorism do not get in the way – could usher in a an amazing era of prosperity and innovation.

But something got in the way of Friedman’s coined term. I am not talking about globalization. I am talking something less amorphous and baggy: the decline of U.S. power. Somewhere, somehow the United States lost its way, and most of the world’s favor. The country continues to play well economically (if others are nice about buying American debt), but the government has really lost its touch on the political economy front. I first became aware of how far the U.S. has fallen in a recent story in the New Yorker on France under Sarkozy by Adam Gopnik when he wrote this:

Now, for the first time, it’s possible to imagine modernization as something independent of Americanization: when people in Paris talk about ambitious kids going to study abroad, they talk about London… When people in Paris talk about manufacturing might, they talk about China; when they talk about tall buildings, they talk about Dubai; when they talk about troubling foreign takeovers, they talk about Gazprom. The Sarkozy-Gordon Brown-Merkel generation is not unsympathetic to America, but America is not so much the primary issue for them, as it was for Blair and Chirac, in the nineties, when America was powerful beyond words.

Those words hit me hard, I guess, but not in a blustery patriotic sense. It was almost a sense of relief. And I’ll argue most Americans feel that way, too. (Or the crazy tripe I hang out with.) To the falling status of the U.S., most Americans will just as well say “fine.” We’re not the ones who have to make the tough decisions, play the real politik, always be the bad cop realists. The country has learned the hard way that when you try to shape the world, realities get in the way and the little blue planet has a way of shoving back. Hard.

Trump the China card
Which brings up China. In a Hollywood sense, see them as China, the new kid on the block, the quick riser, the country with the U.S. in its sights. China: Looking for love and respect. In one sense it’s a good thing the United States found China. An old cliché, I know but part of me feel the U.S. needs an enemy:

  1. To feel better about itself;
  2. To kick some butt if it feels the need;
  3. Give Pat Buchanan something to get worked up about.

The truth of the matter is that the country does need an enemy, but for different reasons than you’d think. The United States needs a rival – I prefer this term – to help Americans shape how the world looks and feels. An enemy, er, rival gives Americanos something to look forward to in the morning papers. It forces us to view the maps on the network news, chart the progress of our enemy in the department of winning over the hearts and minds. I’ll hark back to the time when Ronald Reagan pulled out the map of the western hemisphere and it was magically mostly colored red. That wasn’t an accident. We stood on our couches: Those bastards! How dare they…Even though we didn’t know who “they” was, we could at least claim it was the Ruskies. (If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been colored red.)

China gives the U.S. the same choice today. If it wasn’t for China, how interested would Americans be with the head-thumping government of Myanmar. (Who knew where Burma was a few weeks ago? And how big it was?) If it wasn’t for China’s friendship with North Korea, would we care if they were making a bomb in their caves?

The same could be said about Africa. China becomes interested in Africa, and now we’re supposed to care?

Africa, the land of U.S. not-so-benign neglect? Yes, the Chinese have moved into the continent of our discontent, where they are making things easier for nasty African governments by buying their oil and selling them guns. Again, guns – guns to kill journalists and maim children and pistol whip democracy demonstrators. It’s China who now doles out aid with no strings attacked, no questions asked. They prefer to call these relationships “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Rumors have it Chinese businessman happily pay bribes to land contracts and close deals.

But there’s more. They're killing us in the hearts and minds department. Chinese firms invest heavily in infrastructure around the continent, building bridges, roads and dams. Even more, China also deploys peacekeepers to missions in Africa and has forgiven $10 billion in bilateral debt to African countries.

It’s the oil, governor
You may have heard something about oil. It comes from the ground, is presumably black and according to Chuck Yeager, it’s good for engines.

Between the years 2004 and 2030 world energy consumption is projected to increase by 57 percent between, according to the Energy Information Administration. In the same period, world oil consumption is predicted to increase 47 percent to a consumption rate of 118 million barrels daily.

The U.S. will go from consuming 20.1 million barrels a day in 2003 to 27.6 million barrels by 2030. A 37 percent increase. In the same time period, China’s oil consumption will increase 62 percent, from 5.6 million barrels consumed in 2003 to 15 million barrels.

But the Chinese and U.S. will not be the only countries in search of energy. Other than China, much of the world’s increased appetite will come from India and other countries outside of today’s block of rich nations – North America, Japan Europe and Australia – called the OECD. These non-OECD countries will make up a large portion of the world’s growing energy needs.

So what are they doing in Africa?

“China already has significant presence in many African countries,” according to a briefing by the Council of Foreign Relations. In the first 10 months of 2005, China invested $175 million in African countries, most of it targeting oil exploration.

To break it down even further, China has been heavily courting Sudan, where it buys 64 of the African country’s oil exports. I’d argue that this number is somewhat deceptive because Sudan is currently ranked as the world’s 37th largest oil producer (behind Australia, Vietnam and Ecuador) and owner of the planet’s 36th largest oil reserve. But other people would argue the Chinese prop up this corrupt regime by paying good money for their oil.

Also, the Chinese state-owned energy company, CNOOC, recently bought a 45 percent share in an offshore oil field in Nigeria, the world’s 12th largest producer and largest African producer.

Finally, China receives half of its oil from Angola, Africa’s second-largest producer (and the world’s 18th largest).

How can I help?
So where does this leave the United States? It’s a new position for the ol’ Red, White and Blue, but something they could excel at. It would mean dumping the usually crappy method of U.S. development for Africa. We’ve all seen it before: Style over substance and U.S. aid to Africa in the thinly disguised role of advancing bald U.S. objectives. This isn’t an anti-Bush rant, it counts for all the presidents past and present. In the past, the only way the U.S. was going to let Africa develop was if the U.S. would also benefit. Look at:

FOOD AID: we’ll give you the food, but you’re getting it from our farmers, never mind the poor saps who try to eke out a living in your dusty fields.

HIV/AIDS: Only if you stay within the bizarre strictures of our fundamentalist outlook on life (as if he ever used a condom when he was 16-years-old!). Also, don’t ask us about generic drugs.

FREE TRADE: We’ll buy your oil and we’ll place your textiles on a quota system.

CIVIL WAR and INSTABILITY: Dial zero for us to proclaim it genocide; then dial one for the UN, two for the British ou trois for the French. Better yet, just call the British collect.

It seems anytime reasonable Africans out there – and there are many who would gladly support reasonable U.S. policies – stand behind a proposal, the U.S. says NO! Banning land mines? No. International Criminal Court? Over my dead body. Supporting some paper pledge against child soldiers? Not really. Ask us next year. Controlling small arms entering African countries? You mean gun control? I’ve got to run for election. How about putting an end to agriculture subsidies? Talk to Congress, my hands are tied. Debt Relief? That’s so 2006.

Instead of African plans and ideas, the continent is left holding the bag with AFRICOM, and the U.S. government is doing some heavy lifting in the PR department to make sure it’s not dead in the water before it leaves port. I had a cranky post last week or so about the responsibility of the news media to not let every Tom, Dick and Harry postulate on every hair-brained scheme they could come up with about AFRICOM. My tirade went something like this: If your subjects were going to just, you know, let it out and do some “oral thinking,” journalists should at least call them on it. I still stick by that, dear reader.

But thinking about it a little longer, who can blame these subjects from noodling on and on about this. AFRICOM is one of those wild plans hatched by the Bush administration where the continent’s best interests may be in mind. But you never trust it because it just plain seems sinister.

I can’t speak for all Africans. But most would say sinister is not what they’re looking for from the U.S. That’s so Larry Devlin and his days in Zaire, but without the good music and cold drinks.

No comments: