Sunday, May 11, 2014

Speechifying diplomacy

I must confess, I never liked John Kerry much after he returned from military service in Vietnam and put himself at the head of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Literally millions had built that movement by attending meetings, organizing and attending demonstrations and other actions, designing, printing, and distributing leaflets. They had done this for several years until more than 1 million people showed up in antiwar demonstrations in Washington DC. John Kerry had not worked on that. He had been in the military.
But he has always been a very entitled person. He believes that what he says must be taken very seriously by everybody, much more so than what other, ordinary people say. So he declared himself to be a leader of the peace movement and that was that.
As Secretary of State he follows the same practice: he talks a lot. He also vastly overestimates the power of his words. Where others had failed to create a more peaceful Israel and Palestine, Kerry waded in – and made more speeches.
But, as Andrew Bacevich, a very perspicacious commentator at Boston University, whom I have mentioned before in these pages, pointed out, the Israelis have no interest in making peace with the Palestinians. The Israelis are enormously powerful. The Palestinians are not. Allowing them to have their own state, at best a successful state, would have enhanced Palestinian power and, relatively speaking, reduced that of the Israelis. Why would Israel do that?
The US does not have much leverage in this situation. But it could put some pressure by threatening to cut back its $3+ billion in weapons it gives to Israel every year. But such a policy change would have to pass by conservative and domestically powerful Jewish organizations such as AIPAC. To accomplish that Kerry should have done a lot of lobbying, conversation, arm twisting. Public speechifying predictably did not accomplish anything.
So Kerry's mission in the Mideast failed. It only worsened our own situation because it made it even clearer to all the Arab nations that the US is on the side of Israel without any qualification. That may well make trouble for us in the future.
But Kerry is undeterred. He now shifts his speechifying to Africa and in the last few days we have heard several eloquent orations addressed to African leaders. Being unable to address people without giving them advice, Kerry tells Africans to strengthen democracy. He tells them to combat corruption in politics and business. And, most importantly, he tells them to allow American capital to invest in Africa.
Here is clearly the nub of this new campaign: Africa is rich in natural resources. Africa is developing a small middle class that has some disposable income for consumer goods. Africa has a whole lot of what we would like.
Not so many years ago there was a bit of excitement about a Chinese campaign to find suppliers of oil and other energy sources in Africa. The Chinese went about it very quietly. They offered advantageous contracts to various oil rich countries and they tried to make themselves indispensable to different African governments. All of this was done without eloquent rhetoric. The Chinese sent different officials to do the hard work of establishing concrete relationships & contracts. They then sent more officials to develop those relations.
What makes China a particularly attractive partner is the fact that Beijing works with the African states, unlike the West, without demanding political and economic reforms, and tends to accommodate their interests as well. For example, Chinese aid and investment in Africa is rendered with no strings attached and usually spent on infrastructure projects that raise grassroots living standards. The most frequently cited example is Sinopec, China’s state oil company, which has acquired oil concessions in Angola and is rebuilding the country’s transport infrastructure, hospitals, and state buildings.
That’s why China is now being regarded by the majority of the African states as a more attractive partner than the U.S. or any other Western country.” (“China's geopolitical penetration of Africa” accessed 5/5/2014 at
Maybe John Kerry should stop talking for once and see how other countries, like China, proceed. More importantly he might listen to African countries to hear what they think they need from us. Mutuality makes better friends.