Trump, the gift that keeps on giving

Following a few “promising” summits, Brics has failed to live up to all the hype of a new global player contesting the status quo of the world political economy.

Brics was unknowingly presented with a gift that seemingly keeps on giving in the form of US President Donald Trump. The US government may unintentionally shift the balance of power towards the global South. Trump is undermining established norms and standards in the very institutions skewed to favour the North. Trump seems to be a capitalistic quasi-political realist, who for all intents and purposes sees the world as a business conquest. He views the world as being in need of corporate restructuring and reducing what he deems as America’s overall historic political debt.

One such example is Trump’s antagonism towards Nato. The military alliance held a summit in Brussels in July and the meeting was less pleasant than the now ill-fated G7 summit – that ended with increased tensions between the G7 nations.

Trump has shown his ability to carry some of his threats through. His administration has already broken away from the Human Rights Council, withdrew its support for the Paris Agreement and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has effectively discarded years of constructive diplomacy and multilateral efforts, much to the dismay of his alliance partners. The Trump administration also showed an astonishing disdain for the Palestinian plight at the hands of the Israelis, when Nikki Haley staged a walkout from the UN Security Council, an unprecedented breach of protocol that left some UN members seething.

What all this exhibits is a US gradually shifting back to unilateralism and perhaps isolationism reminiscent of pre-World War 2 America. No matter what Trump’s ultimate game may be, he is shaking up the current status quo. America is making enemies at a faster pace than usual. Potentially, the US may alienate its alliance partners in pursuit of its narrow foreign policy. Trump’s general disregard for tradition is testing the durability of these age-old alliances, partnerships and cooperation agreements. Although US alliance partners might decide to wait out the Trump storm, he just might decide to up the ante in pursuit of his grandiose vision of America First at all costs.

What does this all mean for Brics though? Well, not much except for China and Russia. China and Russia have a real opportunity to step up in world politics and edge out US dominance. It would take some effort of recalibration by the two countries to position themselves as a new alternative to lead the globe in world affairs. However, Europe doesn’t trust China and Russia.

Although China’s President Xi Jinping would have much preferred to avoid the trade war, he believes that China will emerge from this bruising war in a better condition than the US. China, unlike the US, has a firm grip on all aspects of its social, political and economic spheres. The Communist Party of China has consolidated its rule of the communist country, thus the effects and fallout of the trade war can be better managed in China than in the US. China has unfettered access to direct credit to use as it pleases from its state banks, as opposed to the US which is heavily regulated.

Xi also does not have any real political threat to his presidency by his citizens or his party. He enjoys the full political support that Trump sorely needs. Trump has not endeared himself to the media, often being dismissive of the media as reporting fake news. Xi, on the other hand, has a grip on the media in China, thus he can control the rhetoric and discourse in his own country and thereby minimise public backlash from the much-anticipated economic fallout of the trade war.

Russia inevitably was drawn into the fray by siding with China in retaliation for the increased import tariffs on its steel and aluminium products. China and Russia have an opportunity to actively engage in bilateral talks with other affected states, such as Canada and Mexico. Trump’s actions may have further unintentionally enhanced the increased cooperation between China and Russia, particularly on the security front, as exhibited by ongoing joint military drills.

Interestingly enough, India has had a rather circumspect approach in dealing with Trump’s trade war, of which India too has been a victim although not to the extent of China. Perhaps it has everything to do with the fact that China is anxious that India is being seduced into a strategic US-led alliance with not only the purpose to contain the rise of China, but also to hinder its inevitable rise to superpower status. Although cognisant of the pitfalls of a fully fledged alliance especially with the current administration, India undoubtedly perceives the US as a pivotal strategic partner necessary to build up its economic, technological and military position and to check Chinese expansionism.

Brazil, which is facing similar problems to those of South Africa in terms of economic stagnation as well as escalating domestic issues such as corruption and rampant unemployment, needs to clean up house and chart the course of South America. The Venezuela crisis is likely to test Brics nations’ leadership capabilities, which at this point leave much to be desired.

South Africa needs to garner the support of its neighbours in the Southern African Development Community if it is to wield any real influence as a Brics member. Through high-level bilateral engagements, South Africa needs to negotiate mutually beneficial and sustainable economic, trade, finance, political and skills transfer agreements to gain political support. What will happen is that South Africa will no longer solely represent itself in Brics, but rather a group of mineral-rich and resource-wealthy countries with increased levels of potential in terms of economic and political development under its stewardship.

- Mthombeni is a student at Wits School of Governance

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