Riding the Trump Train to Regional Integration

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on November 18, 2016.

Donald Trump, a brown-shirt celebrity and con artist, is moving into the Oval Office. Although the usual suspects hurried to congratulate, this victory is bad news.

Admittedly, the liberal hawk Hillary Clinton, would have expanded President Obama’s preferred mode of warfare, using death squads and drone strikes. Indeed, Mrs Clinton’s deep links to elite opinion makers and finance wizards would have enabled her to easily assemble coalitions and spread ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ and capitalism through the barrel of a gun.

Mr Trump, however, lacks Mrs Clinton’s leadership skills; he was naïve about the job requirements and makes Donald Duck appear like a seasoned intellectual. On the campaign trail, the president-elect dropped about two lies per second and waffled so much that it’s hard to discern what he plans to do. Still, two concerns seem to be immigration and isolationism both relevant for Latin America. Reportedly, he intends to quickly deport up to 3 million illegal immigrants right after taking office. For now, he claims, only criminals, but ‘illegal immigrant’ already implies as much, and this won’t go down as quietly as Mr Obama’s already harsh policy. The main target is the Hispanic community and this policy will affect Chile too, as migrants will push southward. Therefore, Latin countries should start to develop an appropriate migration regime.

But more important is isolationism and the related probable (but not certain) death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As most ‘free-trade’ agreements, the TPP served to demarcate a (in this case US) sphere of influence. For who’d believe that Chile — or Peru, or Colombia, or all together — could negotiate as equal partners with Washington, each relying on the US market, diplomatic cover, and military aid? Thus, the US-dominated TPP would have deepened regional economic gaps between members and non-members. Within this setting, Latin America could not capitalise on the illusory yet powerful imagination of shared identity.

Mr Trump vowed to scratch the TPP, and he better sticks to that or else risk a rebellion from the frustrated working class milieu or the alt-right white supremacists who brought him to power and now occupy a desk in the White House.

Thus, the Trump Train, paraphrasing German commentator Jakob Augstein, rolls toward “the end of the West.” As November 9 concluded “the era of liberalism,” liberals also lost their role model. Even though it has always been dubious to import US culture, it’d now become outright dangerous.

Mr Trump’s administration differs from those that hitherto disguised imperialism as liberal democracy, or globalisation. This makes navigating US relations a lot harder. So far, countries like Chile knew pretty well from historical experience how to integrate into the US order to obtain rewards. But a jack-in-the-White House-box, apart from his protectionist promises, won’t even notice such efforts.

Certainly, Mr. Trump will go away, and maybe sooner than later as his conflicts of interest and the Republican’s desire to install genuine conservative Vice President-elect Mike Pence constitute an explosive mix. So it’s best to dim Chilean-US relations down, avoiding enthusiastic rhetoric and even official visits.

The loss of Washington’s moral cover and regional ambitions should force privileging of regional relations, which should lead to political-economic consolidation between Latin countries. Chile should move first, as it’s leaders appear more sober than for example Argentina’s. Moreover, despite current economic problems Chile’s economy is well linked to other major countries and still remarkably stable. This entails a degree of freedom vis-a-vis Washington that Brazil and Argentina can’t match.

Ricardo Lagos and Sebastián Piñera, likely top contenders for the next presidency who actually hold Washington in high regard, commented remarkably frank and anxious on president-elect Trump. Hopefully this attitude prevails.

Arguably, while economic integration is a must, it’s unwise to make it the cornerstone. First, because Latin American markets will continue to rely on wealthier markets for a while, and second because an economistic approach could blow up the inter-American system as it’s by far not as cohesive as Europe, which went down the economic path.

Chile at the forefront should utilise the currently relaxed relations with Peru and Argentina. Reaching out to Lima and Buenos Aires would serve Chilean interests as this would diminish Bolivia’s influence and sensitise Argentina to Chilean concerns in Antarctica and the South Atlantic/South Pacific for these spots will become geopolitical flashpoints if the country’s narrow, liberal-economistic view of foreign relations prevails.

Sure, Latin countries won’t need US interference to cultivate their tensions, making integration even more tiresome. Yet, without the US, Latin countries have to reshuffle economic and security arrangements not only amongst each other but with other global actors as well. Negotiations yielded higher individual benefits if undertaken as a group. Thus, for any bloc forming Latin America must find ways to accommodate the geopolitical mechanisms that underpin the inter-American system.

The Latin America tour of the Chinese president provides an opening to test how to involve Beijing in such a project. China has interests in the region but by far not as substantial as the US. So getting China involved without compromising human rights commitments provides one opportunity to reorder Chilean relations in particular and Latin American relations generally.

The Trump Train brings change. Latin leaders should jump on it.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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