Friday, September 22, 2006

Chavez on the Loose

If they didn't carry serious implications for our country, the antics of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez this week would have been good for some comic relief. "Yesterday, the devil came here," he said theatrically, standing at the rostrum of the UN General Assembly, "Right here. And it still smells of sulfur today." You can't make this stuff up. It's the product of a genuine megalomaniac, and I encourage you to read the full text of his UN speech. Separating out the bombast and excesses, however, his remarks contained important messages for us to ponder. Some may send a chill up your spine:

"What we now have to do is define the future of the world. Dawn is breaking out all over. You can see it in Africa and Europe and Latin America and Oceanea. I want to emphasize that optimistic vision. We have to strengthen ourselves, our will to do battle, our awareness. We have to build a new and better world."
If he is referring to the Latin America of his protege Evo Morales, the Africa of "freedom fighter" Robert Mugabe, or what he saw on a recent visit with Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, I can't imagine many in the West liking this better world he spoke of.

Repeatedly, he emphasized his rejection of the global political and economic order built in the aftermath of World War II. He evoked a new wave of anti-colonialism, in which the bonds to be thrown off are not those of foreign sovereignty, but of globalization, free trade, and consistent international law. Through rhetorical inversions, he turns the linkages of our liberal world order into chains to be broken, condemning even his host, the UN. While we might be tempted to dismiss this out of hand, there are two distinct challenges here that we shouldn't ignore.

First, we must conclude that the leader of an important oil supplier to the US cannot be relied upon to behave rationally, predictably, or necessarily in what others might consider his own best interests. I hope that the CEO of every international energy company with investments in Venezuela, and especially those contemplating further investments, was listening very carefully when he spoke. I've devoted a good deal of space in this blog to assessing the constraints Mr. Chavez would face in following through on his rhetoric, but we shouldn't fall into the trap of assuming he never will, or that he views those hindrances as we would. In particular, his threat to cut off oil exports to the US in the event of a conflict between us and Iran would, if carried out, greatly magnify the oil price impact of such an event and risk a much wider conflict.

The other challenge is more profound. Although it would be easy to write off Mr. Chavez's representations on the part of the world's poor as delusions or ravings, I'm afraid there's a good deal of truth here, not in his accusations, but in his sense that many people around the world share his perspective. Mr. Chavez is merely the loudest and most flamboyant of a large array of critics of globalization and of America. Is he mistaken in saying,

"And I think I have some inkling of what the peoples of the south, the oppressed people think. They would say, 'Yankee imperialist, go home.' I think that is what those people would say if they were given the microphone and if they could speak with one voice to the American imperialists."
Chavez may be playing to an audience of non-aligned countries, whose leadership he aspires to, and whose support he needs for a rotating seat on the Security Council. But his remarks at the UN and in Harlem reflect the currents and contain the seeds of a larger North-South conflict, about which we have been warned for decades. Fortunately, that conflict is hardly inevitable, if the US, EU and other partners continue to work on reforming the globalization system to make it fairer and more open. Our best defense against the Chavezes of the world lies in proving them wrong.

As a postscript, the stern rebukes of Chavez by House Minority Leader Pelosi and Congressman Rangel were welcome reminders of the days when politics ended at the water's edge.

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