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The decline of American power and the rise of China in Central America.

Nicholas Virzi
03 de noviembre, 2021

Back in the 1980s, the political scholar Joseph Nye coined the term soft power. Nye defined power as the ability of one actor to influence the behavior of other actors to obtain certain desired outcomes. Nye then drew the distinction between hard and soft power. Hard power applies when one country coerces another country through violence or threats to achieve the outcomes that the aggressor wants against the will of the aggressed country. Soft power applies when a country gets its desired outcomes by convincing another country that their respective interests converge. Soft power is all about co-opting rather than coercing.

Nye based a country´s soft power on three factors: its culture, its political values and its foreign policy.  Obviously for a country´s culture to contribute to its soft power, it has to be attractive to others. Similarly, if its political values are to contribute to the soft power of a given country, they must not only be shared, that country must be regarded as living up to its professed values. Finally, a foreign policy will only contribute to a country´s soft power if it is perceived as legitimate and possessing moral authority.

Taking the measure of the United States, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the once admired and feared superpower has lost both hard and soft power. The manner of its retreat from Afghanistan has left little doubt that America has lost both her will and her way. The enemies of the United States, confident in the fact that the dissuasive threat of American military might can be safely ignored, are on the move in Asia, the Middle East. The next stop is Central America, right smack in America´s backyard. This isn´t a warning, it´s a fact. China is already here.

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Along with its hard power, the United States has also seen its soft power arsenal sorely depleted. The truth is that only a minority of people in the developing world want what America is selling. America´s culture does not have the sex appeal it once did, and nobody is more to blame that her own political elites. Portraying the United States as a systemically, and incurably, racist country that needs to be comprehensively re-founded and re-invented is a curious branding strategy for America´s political leadership to take to the world. This is especially true in a multicultural, multiracial country like Guatemala, that has long struggled to forge and maintain a semblance of national identity and unity.

Political elites in the US seem to have forgotten how closely the peoples of the world follow American domestic affairs. When it tries to impose conceptions of justice, equity and inclusion that are controversial within its own borders, the United States is not seen as living up to its professed political values, much less as practicing them abroad. 

Lastly, the legitimacy of American foreign policy is now increasingly being called into question on the political right of the spectrum in countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, as it always has been by the progressive left in the region. The Central American left has never bought into the American message, bringing up at every opportunity such trivial details like the long track record of US military interventions and coups, medical experiments on indigenous populations, and training and support for counterinsurgency military operations during the Cold War. The interesting turn of events is that now the United States has managed to alienate the Central American right. This costly blunder will be a game changer for the American security paradigm, as it sets the stage for the penetration by China of Central America.

In Guatemala, rumblings are now heard on the right that maybe the left has had a point all these years. Rather than being steadfastly in the American camp, maybe it would be better for Guatemala if she remained non-aligned. 

It´s not like loyalty to the United States has paid off for the political right in Guatemala. The United States pushed the criminal trials against the military leaders who were its closest allies during the Cold War. Well, now the old school military in Guatemala is no more. With the old guard went the last vestiges of reflexive pro-Americanism in the Guatemalan military. Much of the newer generation admire the martial ideals and traditional values of the Chinese military. Guatemalan military officials have returned from training in the United States, and report that the American´s loss of morale and confidence is palpable. In soft power terms, defeatism is a hard sell.

In intellectual circles, more and more analysts are arguing that maybe closer trade ties to China might not be such a bad idea. Guatemala is one of the few countries left in the world that has not abandoned Taiwan in favor of China. This has always been a position based on loyalty to the United States, which, in turn, has always treated Guatemala as a pariah. So, the logical question to ask is why not trade with China? After all, the United States does it. 

The problem for the United States is that China is going for broke in Central America. The Tiger wants it all. Only one country, Paraguay, recognizes Taiwan in all of South America. In Central America, only Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua do, and we all know where Nicaragua is going.  

China is hell bent on setting up a military base in Central America, just like the ones the United States has close to its shores.  Now, the United States has to ask itself how it would react if a country in Central America, like El Salvador, offered the Chinese a naval base in its territory. Would the United States invade? If so, that would immediately revert the proximate threat. But, what if the United States just doesn´t have the will to project its power for what would obviously be purely power-political reasons? If it is the case that the United States is unwilling to apply its military hard power to stop the Chinese from gaining a military foothold in Central America, then it should promptly rethink its foreign policy approach in Central America. Chasing away your friends is not the best idea.

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