A lot of the world spends its time oscillating between the gleeful anticipation of American decline and the detailed analysis of those endlessly clever American plots that keep the inevitable, surely approaching decline at bay. The rise of new powers like China and Brazil has been supporting the decline school of late, but sooner rather than later expect some analysts to identify a diabolically clever new American strategy: outsourcing empire.
Take, for example, Brazil as it experiences the growing pains of a regional power: Brazilian-led development projects in neighboring countries like Bolivia and Peru are encountering local resistance, protests by indigenous populations, and outright cancellation. The NYT reports
Brazilian endeavors are being met with wariness in several countries. A proposal to build a road through Guyana’s jungles to its coast has stalled because of fears that Brazil could overwhelm its small neighbor with migration and trade.In Argentina, officials suspended a large project by a Brazilian mining company, accusing it of failing to hire enough locals. Tension in Ecuador over a hydroelectric plant led to bitter legal battle, and protests by Asháninka Indians in Peru’s Amazon have put in doubt a Brazilian dam project.But perhaps no Brazilian project in the region has stirred as much ire as the one here [Bolivia].Financed by Brazil’s national development bank — a financial behemoth that dwarfs the lending of the World Bank and has become a principal means for Brazil to project its power across Latin America and beyond — the plan was to build a road through a remote Bolivian indigenous territory. But it provoked a slow-burning revolt; hundreds of indigenous protesters arrived here in October after a grueling two-month march that took them up the spine of the Andes, denouncing their onetime champion, President Evo Morales, for supporting it.
China is experiencing some of the same problems, most recently when the Myanmar government canceled Chinese-led construction on the Myitsone dam after the project encountered fierce local resistance.
The Brazilians themselves seem confused about all the hubbub. “We want Brazil to be surrounded by prosperous, stable countries,” said Marcel Biato, Brazil’s ambassador to Bolivia. Of course that’s what Brazil wants, and in principle that’s what neighboring countries want too. But foreign development projects involve more than good intentions and solid planning; inevitably, someone will want to cancel production on that dam or this road or that canal. Politics will get messy. Reputations will change. Development into a regional and global economic power does not come without challenges and drawbacks. Welcome to the big leagues.Welcome to something else as well. America’s prime interest is not the preservation of some kind of world power and resource monopoly. If a Chinese company buys a Zambian copper mine or a Brazilian company gets a contract to develop hydroelectric power sources in Peru, this normally poses no problems for US foreign policy. In fact, if as I believe America’s primary interest is in the health of the international system of trade and investment overall, the increased roles for other countries in that system actually help us out.The move of manufacturing into the developing world will, I think, ultimately look less like a collapse of the American economy than like a shift to a system in which America continues to enjoy the benefits of the liberal global economic system it has promoted for decades but shunts more and more of the costs onto the shoulders of other ‘stakeholders’ in the system. As countries like China and Brazil become greater manufacturing powers, they need to develop and protect sources of raw material. They make large investments in foreign mines, gas fields and transport networks.In the past, the US would be making those investments — and getting itself into hot water with all the interests in various countries who did not like the consequences of the foreign presence. Now China, Brazil and others are increasingly tangled up in these concerns while the US works on developing the post-industrial economy of the future. On the one hand, this new order outsources many of the headaches of power; on the other, countries like China and Brazil are increasingly trapped, like it or not, into the roles of ‘responsible stakeholders’, whose power and influence is harnessed to the task of making the America-designed world system work.As coffeehouse intellectuals and left wing graduate students ponder the evolution of the imperial system in what some of them are still calling “late capitalism”, the next dialectical twist of the argument will start to appear: the appearance of ‘decline’ was yet another crafty imperialist plot as the supernaturally clever Americans offload the costs of empire onto the shoulders of their compliant bourgeois stooges in China and Brazil.Wait for it.