The discreet charm of strategic overlap: How the US uses lesser powers and why they like it

Since the 1990s, France had been nervous about the US in Africa. American allies in Uganda and, after 1994, in a Rwanda since ruled by English-speakers, looked threatening to its old claim over much of Central and West Africa. Brazil felt the same about the close relationship between Washington and Bogotá: the idea of having significant US military assets right in the Amazon, and a close relationship between the only real fighting military in South America and the big Northern power was a nagging worry in Brasilia’s foreign policy and defense establishments.

How things change. France is in charge in Mali, with the Americans—and the Canadians—in the background. And in the mess developing in Venezuela around the coming death of Hugo Chavez, Washington will likely again look to Brazil to take the lead.

From the US’ standpoint, there is no reason to fear the outcome and in fact, its interest in each region are well served the engagement of those peculiar allies. Like the US, France and Brazil seek stability and they have enough at stake to be willing to get involved, very seriously in the case of France, more lightly, but for certain actively, for Brazil.

How does that work? The US has limited interests in Africa and Latin America. To the dismay of analysts from those regions, and of DC-based cheerleaders for them, the Obama administration, like Bush’s before him, and Clinton’s in his second mandate, have been increasingly neglectful of these regions. And, unfortunately, it makes perfect sense. Asia is where the big economic game is played, Iraq and Afghanistan are still eating away at the US military budget, and Congress’ dysfunctions may well castrate the Pentagon. What is called for in Mali and Venezuela may not be that much and, at least for Mali, even a disaster there wouldn’t be that disastrous.

Brazil and France, in turn, far prefer to keep the US out, they like the idea of taking the lead somewhere, and have real stakes in those games. This makes for perfect modern marriages: on one side, the mid-size guys want in and seem to have enough in play to invest what is needed; on the other the big guy wants mostly out and simply doesn’t have enough at stake to invest what is needed. The little guys also get glory out of it, and the big guy looks modest.

Everybody is happy.

Any problem with the fable? Well, yes. If things get out of hand, neither France in the Sahel, nor Brazil in Venezuela can really deliver. France could not hold Rwanda and was forced to leave Côte d’Ivoire, the jewel in its African crown, when the civil wars there grew serious. As for Brazil, its military has not ventured out of the country without a blue helmet since 1965, when they were the fig leaf behind which US marines put the Dominican Republic back in order. This has served both quite well: France is slowly shedding its neo-colonial skin and bit by bit ditching the old Françafrique, and Brazil burnishes the Gentle Giant image that has made it such a good neighbour in South America. In other words, they cannot play their hand too harshly. In the background, the US must help quietly, and hope that they succeed.

Jean Daudelin

Associate Professor and Ph.D Program Supervisor