These days, there’s an unusual spectacle in world affairs. The United States has relatively good relations with the major powers: China, the EU states, India and even Russia are all more or less working together. But two middle powers, Turkey and Brazil, are not only asserting themselves more effectively than in the past; they have chosen to do this is ways that run counter to US policies. In particular their united and coordinated opposition to US policy on Iran has raised eyebrows and significantly complicated what was already a very difficult situation for American diplomacy. More recently, the strong reaction in Turkey to the Israeli interception of a convoy organized by Turkish groups with aid for Gaza underlines the possibility that Turkey is moving decisively away from its longtime partnership with the United States.
The new bout of activism by these middle powers is a harbinger of things to come, not only in Turkish and Brazilian foreign policy but it the policies of a number of other middle powers that can be expected to become more assertive going forward. They are going to enjoy tacit and sometimes overt support from some of the great powers who would also like to see us taken down a peg or two. The American establishment by and large was taken by surprise by the new and more difficult Brazilian and Turkish foreign policies; it’s worth looking a little deeper to see what is behind this and see what lessons if any there are for the future.
Recep Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey.
Turkey and Brazil are very different places, but in some key ways their situation is very similar. First, they are ambitious powers who live in what, during the Cold War, was an American sphere of interest where the options of smaller powers were limited. In both cases, the post Cold War world has gradually opened up fresh avenues for foreign policy. For both Turkey and Brazil, the first step to recovering more independence and playing a wider role is to complete the liquidation of the Cold War order, which they both interpret as freeing themselves of their foreign policy dependence on Washington. For Turkey and Brazil to become the kind of powers they want to be, American power must be reduced.
Second, in both countries new forces are rising to political power. Formerly both Turkey and Brazil were formally democratic but in practice power was held by a relatively small and well connected elite: international businessmen, elite opinion leaders and a small military and civilian foreign policy elite. In both countries, that is changing. Brazil’s Lula was long a radical and unacceptable figure to the Brazilian establishment; his entry into power meant that a new kind of Brazilian (poorer, less well educated, more internally focused, often darker skinned and left leaning) was coming on scene. In Turkey, the victory of the AK Party was also a kind of domestic revolution, overturning the old west-leaning, cosmopolitan and secular Kemalist establishment that had ruled the country ever since the 1920s. The new powers in Turkey are more religious, more inward-looking, more based in Anatolia than in cosmopolitan central Istanbul.
Both Turkey and Brazil are now more democratic, but that democracy does not translate into pro-American or pro-globalization. In both cases, the democratization of national life means greater power for those who feel different from and alienated by the world order that the United States is trying to build. In both cases there is a kind of intersection between realpolitik, the interests of the state, and the politics of civilization. The old cosmopolitan elites were relatively westernized and globalized in their assumptions; the new, more broadly based ones are not. In Brazil they share the historic Latin suspicion of and hostility to ‘Anglo-Saxon capitalism’ and a world order based on it. In Turkey, the new powers are much more likely to see the West as a rival and even an oppressor rather than, as in the Kemalist days, a goal and a destination.
If you combine the geopolitical and cultural realities, you see two countries whose interests are diverging from those of the United States and are also increasingly shaped by cultural forces that oppose the historical American project of building a global liberal capitalist order. That is a powerful combination of forces, and no one should think that the recent foreign policy conflicts with the United States are small things. Something fundamental is changing here, and we, the Turks and the Brazilians will only slowly come to understand what has happened and what it means.
That is not all. Both Turkey and Brazil are at a point in time when both their external and internal situations favor anti-US foreign policy moves. In the Middle East, taking an anti-American line builds Turkish influence and opens doors across the region. Fading Russian and European power in the Middle East creates a vacuum which a newly ambitious Turkey can hope to fill; anti-American and anti-Israel policies win friends and supporters for Turkey as it flexes its regional muscles. (Fading Russian power also makes Turkey less afraid of its northern neighbor; Turkey feels increasingly confident that it can manage its relationship with Russia without an American big brother to protect it.) In Latin America, strategic neglect and strategic failure by three American administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) have left the United States with fewer friends, more enemies, and less leverage than at any time since World War Two. Argentina, Brazil’s historical rival in South America, is confused and distracted with a weak political establishment and weak economy; alienated from the United States and concerned with internal economic issues, Argentina is in no position to undercut Brazil’s latest attempt to establish itself as the leading power in South America. By playing an anti-American card, Lula builds support for his vision and his party in Brazil, even as he relegates Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to the second division in Latin America. In the short run, the Brazilian economy has managed the global downturn well; in the long term, the continuing rise of India and China mean that there will be more foreign consumers for Brazil’s exports and investors in its enterprises. Add to that the impact of massive off-shore oil discoveries, and it is not surprising that Brazil is feeling feisty.
So we have two countries who increasingly want to defy the United States, are able to do so, and find at least in the short term that an anti-American stance enhances their political prospects. Under these circumstances, we ought not to be surprised by the new directions in Turkish and Brazilian foreign policy.
The first question for the United States is what this means; the start is to clean out some of the intellectual deadwood that prevents us from seeing the world as it is. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all came into power with One Big Idea; it is President Obama’s unhappy fate to be in office when all three Big Ideas that have shaped American foreign policy since 1993 came unglued. They are all forms of the persistent American faith in progress: the idea that social, political and economic development will lead to the establishment of a harmonious world system made up of peaceful democracies. Perhaps, in the very long run, this will turn out to be true, but it is certainly not the case today.
Hillary Clinton lands in Brazil.
The Clinton administration’s foreign policy centered on the idea that globalization would create a new and peaceful world. The Bush administration believed that advancing democracy would bring peace and stability. And President Obama appears to believe that the rest of the world is naturally disposed to cooperate with America’s global project, and that America’s job is to be something like the coach of Team World as we go about settling various problems on the basis of consensus.
The first message of Brazil and Turkey is that there is no team, there is no consensus, and a great many countries and peoples around the world do not like the kind of world that America is trying to make. President Obama can be polite and considerate (as when he made a speech in Istanbul to reach out to the Islamic world) or he can be abrasive and rude (as when he flew to Copenhagen in the failed attempt to deprive Lula of the honor of hosting South America’s first Olympic games) but it doesn’t make much difference. Brazil and Turkey believe they have interests and goals which require the frustration of President Obama’s plans and they have no hesitation in acting to thwart him. It is actually an enormous form of American vanity to assume that what we want is so right, so good for everyone and so manifestly the best possible road forward that the world will willingly follow our lead.
But if Brazil and Turkey torpedo one of Obama’s core ideas, they are also living contradictions of President Bush’s belief that the advance of democracy in the developing world would advance America’s foreign policy interests. In both countries it is forces newly empowered by democracy that are opposing the American attempt to stop the Iranian nuclear program. If the old elites were still securely in place, Turkey and Brazil would be less difficult and more predictable players on the international stage. As countries become more democratic, they become more responsive to cultural and economic interests that resent the world’s power structure and seek ways to change it. It is possibly true that after a period of settling down and trial and error democratic publics will make shrewder choices, but this can take decades and generations. One must also note that democracies do not always side with democracies against dictators; democracy is not a magic bullet that will give the present generation of policymakers a quieter life.
And finally, these developments in Turkey and Brazil expose the flawed thinking behind the Clinton administration’s belief that the promotion of globalization would unleash the kind of economic development that would consolidate a peaceful world under American leadership. Few countries have benefited more from globalization than these two dynamic economies, but that economic development has not led (and is unlikely to lead anytime soon) to the kind of foreign policy cooperation Washington wants. This is partly because success makes leaders feisty; they believe that their rapidly increasing economic clout should give them more political say in the way the world works. Development also empowers more voices in society to speak up: in Thailand as well as in Brazil and Turkey, rapid economic growth supports the rise of new groups of interests and actors in domestic politics with interests and outlooks very different from those of the old elites.
In other words, many of the core policies which Americans have pursued in the hope of achieving stability while consolidating American leadership are making American leadership increasingly difficult in an increasingly unstable world.
At the moment, Brazil and Turkey are more annoyance than threat (though geography and culture makes Turkey the more serious of the two for the moment). And the efforts the administration is making to improve relations with the really big powers will make it harder for the middleweights to have as much effect as they hope. But if the American foreign policy establishment can’t liberate itself from some of the Whig fantasies that currently envelope liberals, neo-conservatives and realists alike, we are going to face much greater problems as reality stubbornly refuses to follow our script.
For President Obama, the hardest part may be to give up on the dream of global multilateral solutions to the world’s big problems. Not everyone is going to go along with him on global warming and nuclear proliferation. There are powers out there who are consciously out to frustrate, block and if possible defeat the United States on important international issues — even when we are, in our own eyes at least, the ‘good guys’. They don’t oppose us because President Bush offended their moral sense and alienated their affections; they are serious adult people who believe that greater American power and success is a threat to their own security and well being and who are ready, willing and even eager to do business with dark forces in pursuit of a common agenda to frustrate the United States. They aren’t terrorists and in most cases they don’t sympathize with terrorists; they simply represent elements in the international system whose interests and in some cases vision is opposed to our own.
This means that President Obama is going to have to use power to get his way rather than relying on sweet reason and the power of his ideals. He’s going to have to persuade countries that going along with the United States is better than defying us, and to do that he’s going to have to think about how to make people pay when they make the wrong choice. Otherwise his great ideals will not come to fruition. He can kiss non-proliferation goodbye, for starters, if he can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb.
None of this means that America is losing its power in the world, but it does mean the end of the dream that our immediate goal is the abolition of foreign policy and the society of states. We are not going to replace the Westphalian order with the Parliament of Man anytime soon. Instead, foreign policy is going to be about warding off threats, dealing with opponents, building coalitions and advancing our commercial interests where we can. Globalization and democracy aren’t (thank goodness) going away, but neither will they make our problems disappear.
Hang onto your seats, friends. The world is getting more complicated — and more dangerous — all the time.
[ Top photo courtesy of World Economic Forum; bottom photo from US Department of State. ]