The Financial Express

'Basket-case' & 'shithole' labels: Story of a shipwreck

| Updated: January 27, 2018 14:06:38

'Basket-case' & 'shithole' labels: Story of a shipwreck

Is 'shithole' labeling only Donald J. Trump's? In his election, after all, race-driven immigration and other seamy practices dominated. Not every voter for this Republican candidate will approve of his choice of words, or even the context; but enough among his so-called 'base' supporters use those very same words, at the least, against countries of other stripes. The Charlottesville riots, for example, exposed some of them: a newly energised Ku Klux Klan, even the die-hard evangelicals behind his Israeli embassy shift to Jerusalem. Ample evidence suggests those words resonate across the mindset of a sizable chunk of the United States, not just its 45th president.

That should not be surprising news for those who have sincerely followed the trajectory of the world's sole superpower since the Cold War ended. The causal factors may be written on too many walls, as too the predictable consequences for anyone wishing to read them. Since similar, but milder, labels have been used before, the question arises if such terms reflect more the state of the country where they originate than the subject country; and if so, whether any shift from a gross to a vile term conveys a worsening state of the country of origin.

In 1971, the United States witnessed the irrevocable callable of the revered Bretton Woods institutions that it alone established in the early 1940s (the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, of the World Bank). It was when the country's first 20th Century trade deficit occurred. Elsewhere, the Vietnam War had turned sour, and the best US friends became a network of friendly dictatorships rather than democratic countries, as the end of World War II had falsely predicted.

It was then that Bangladesh cried out loud to stop a murderous Pakistan (under one of those 'friendly US dictatorships') in what has widely been called genocide. That voice was not only not heard by US officials in Washington DC (even when reaffirmed by US diplomats in Dhaka), but also dispensed from the slate with a 'basket-case' reference. Since Trump has acknowledged that the US weltanschauung [worldview] is worse today than before, flinging anthropomorphic allusions only betrays the fact.

The $1.3 billion trade deficit the United States faced in 1971 (according to a 2015 US Census Bureau report), multiplied several hundred times to $508 billion in 2014, indeed, never reaching a figure lower than $350 billion in any year this century. If that is not all, how the country has slipped in terms of a slew of factors is certain to dent the public psyche to some extent, leading to today's more blunt finger-pointing: corporate competitiveness, educational indicators, the Gini Coefficient Index (which measures the income-gap between classes and rated below 40 per cent then, approaches 50 per cent now), healthcare, as for example, obesity levels spiking, and environmental sensitivities (not to mention damage) expanding, all testify to the deteriorating US plight. Trump's 'America First' blueprint seeks to structurally change that exogenously (that is, by non-market means), now that endogenous factors (an increasing uncompetitive economy, trade negotiations, and so forth) have failed to work. Very much like Kissinger's 1971 appraisal, Trump's could become the wrong prescription at the wrong time for the wrong subject.

Every country directly insulted by Kissinger and Trump has earned world respect over one issue or another, even admiration. Indeed, since 1971, at least four patterns can be discerned in how countries have responded to a foul-mouthed United States leader. Bangladesh illustrates the first by silently nullifying the very label applied to it: moving up from Kissinger's 'bottomless pit' interpretation, the country now knocks on middle-income doors among countries with annual growth-rates, outpacing US counterparts consistently (in some years by multiples).

Rather than rebut through performances, a second response has been to ignore the United States. Haiti exemplified this since 2010. CNN's Anderson Cooper noted in a January 2018 broadcast how grimly but sturdily Haitians recovered from the massive 2010 earthquake, clearing debris with their own hands rather than wait for US help. By the time that help came, the bulk of the work was done. Puerto Ricans did the same only last year. After the destructive hurricane, even Trump's visit was seen more as an insult by Puerto Ricans than a relief measure. To apply a 'shithole' label to the former and adopt a noblesse oblige approach towards the latter suggests the problem being far less the subject country and more the source country.

Salvadorans depict a third more complicated pattern. When the spotlight is shifted from drug-trafficking (feeding no less a US market), gang-fighting (again, dramatised by unassimilated deportees from Los Angeles), and entrenched poverty, how El Salvador is playing China off against Taiwan, over trade and investment, for example, pales in comparison with how it is yanking  the US yoke. Even though unilaterally invoked from 1823 through the Monroe Doctrine, Salvadorans began dismantling it within US soil. Free-riding on the United States made it possible: since they arrived in masses during the 1980s during a bitter Central American conflict (driven no less by the United States in its Cold War struggle against communists in the continent), Salvadorans could not assimilate sufficiently well into US society, thus living marginalised lives and resorting to smuggling and gang membership. Yet, when thrown into the fire with more hostile US policies, like California's three-strikes-and-you-are-out singling them out for deportation from the 1990s, they have steadily curried more Chinese favours, even if playing Taiwan off becomes a part of the game. If their balancing game gains traction across Latin America, and US losses become China's gains, then President George W. Bush's attempt to seduce these countries into a free-trade agreement earlier in the century will have been trumped by, well, Trump's presence.

The fourth and final pattern belongs to African countries, and may be the boldest of them all. It is actually a mix of all the three other patterns: rebranding through performances (Bangladesh's), refrain from US dependence (Haiti's), and rebalance awry relations (El Salvador's). China seems set to gain the most from verbal US aberrations, but it is not the only country looking at, and working for, a soaring Africa, Asia, and Latin America today. How the United States stands out as the black sheep in this early 21st Century fold must, in a large part, be attributed to the flipping lid and a badly corroded 'Manifest Destiny' mindset.

With all these countries on positively-inclined trajectories compared to a sinking US ship (Trump himself depicted such a picture in his election campaign), the 'shithole' castigation could backfire on the United States, while the 'basket-case' branding could also boomerang if, in the rest of this century, US foul-mouthing teams up with its uncompetitive economic plight. It will be interesting to see if then the rest of the world will use the same labels as it is receiving now.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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