Picture it: two flags, one Chinese, the other Cuban, flying on an oil rig just a few dozen miles off the U.S. coast. The January 2005 deal between Chinese state company Sinopec and its Cuban counterpart to explore for oil in the Gulf of Mexico is but one of many examples of new a “multipolar” trend in the hemisphere, indeed in the world. Although Cuba, because of the embargo, has pursued international partnerships for more than a decade, more nations in the hemisphere are following the same strategy.
In an effort to cast off dependence on the United States, contain its power, and pursue economic development outside the Washington Consensus, they are joining with partners elsewhere in the Global South.
No less than Charles Krauthammer—author of the influential 1990 article “"The Unipolar Moment,"” in which the neoconservative columnist hailed the post-Soviet era as one in which the United States alone would reign supreme—has declared unipolarity finished. With this announcement, Krauthammer did not have Latin American oil contracts in mind, but rather the “anti-hegemonic alliance” in the Middle East being constructed by an Iran supposedly fixated on acquiring nuclear weapons. Whatever these claims, the definition of international “polarity” at work here rests on the balance of military might—on hard power.
As the essays in this Report bear out, Latin America’s approach to building a new multipolar world order is decidedly in the soft power arena, even in its most militant version—Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’'s oil diplomacy. Venezuela’s strategy centers on diversifying its oil partners among Southern state companies, which are generally happy to transfer their technology, unlike their private-sector counterparts. The strategy also concentrates on building international solidarity through cooperation agreements with partners in various regions.
In its symbols and rhetoric, chavista internationalism recalls the Third World project analyzed herein by Vijay Prashad. Despite differences between Latin America’s history of colonialism and imperialism and those of Africa and Asia, the region played a critical role in supporting decolonization, from the signing of the UN Charter to the Non-Aligned Movement, and including the remarkable history of Cuban internationalism.
The far less provocative diplomacy of Brazil, compared to Venezuela’s, follows less in the spirit of Bandung and more in that of 1970s South-South cooperation efforts. Building coalitions in institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), Brazil seeks to constrain the North through international commitments to unify opposition to the Washington Consensus among undeveloped countries. To this end, Brazil spearheaded an alliance with India and South Africa to form the IBSA Dialogue Forum. This trilateral core, together with China, then served as a “coalition magnet” within the WTO, contributing to, among other things, the successful coordination of positions on agricultural subsidies at the 2003 WTO ministerial. But they remain rule “conditioners,” not makers.
Brazil’s assertive foreign policy in some ways parallels China’s. Its massive domestic market and booming output notwithstanding, China has in recent years postured itself as a fellow developing country, deepening and intensifying links with Latin America. Trade with China has grown at least fivefold since 2000, and although the bulk of it seems to reproduce classic North-South asymmetries—with Latin America exporting raw materials receiving finished goods in return—many governments believe China offers both an attractive alternative to the Washington Consensus and an intriguing development model.
Successfully building effective coalitions and mutually beneficial trade, linking with extrahemispheric partners and presenting a coordinated position in global forums—these policy options were largely unavailable to Latin America even just recently. Although these developments certainly do not signify the end of U.S. dominance, their momentum has been established. According to Aijaz Ahmad in this issue’s Anniversary Interview, Krauthammer’s “unipolar moment” was, for the left, the beginning of a “phase of experimentation with various forms of struggle, combining some older forms with newer ones.”
“These innovations,” he says, “might eventually show us the way to historically unprecedented forms that are appropriate for revolutions of the 21st century.”
Pablo Morales is editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas.