UP EXPERT OPINION: Africa in an evolving global order

Posted on February 05, 2024

The world is experiencing not greater multipolarity, but greater bipolarity. The US and China are waging a new Cold War that is less about ideology and more about markets and technology. The West’s share of global output has fallen to about 50%, the lowest since the 19th century’s age of imperialism. How should Africa understand and respond to these developments? 

Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) expanded last month to include Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Even with 10 members in the bloc, Beijing still accounts for 60% of its GDP. Despite Washington’s bipartisan belligerence towards Beijing, China had been its largest source of imports for 16 consecutive years until Mexico overtook it last year. Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s unwise embrace of a personality cult and repression of dissent could, however, stall Beijing’s socioeconomic progress.   

US presidential elections in November could return to power the nativist, bombastic Donald Trump, which would present an existential threat to Nato and usher in another era of protectionist trade wars. By contrast, the re-election of Joe Biden would keep in the White House a dyed-in-the-wool Atlanticist.

However, the US remains the world’s largest economy, accounting for 25% of global output. Its technology companies and global cultural “soft power” will guarantee it a place at the superpower top table for generations.     

The Brics+ bloc accounts for 46% of the world’s population and 30% of its GDP. Its members are, however, status quo powers that are seeking to improve their own positions and reduce Western influence in institutions of global governance. 

India accounts for 13% of Brics’ GDP and has become the world’s fifth-largest economy. However, the chauvinistic Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi’s “trinity” of “Ds” certainly has demography — with India having become the world’s largest population — but has fallen spectacularly short in the practice of democracy and tolerance of diversity. New Delhi has long abandoned its Nehruvian non-alignment for an opportunistic foreign policy.

Second coming

SA charging Israel with genocide at the International Court of Justice was not only consistent with its historical championing of self-determination but was one of the most principled and courageous moments in its post-apartheid foreign policy. The country’s “active non-alignment” has, in contrast, often lacked consistency and substance.

Brazil’s $2-trillion economy is the world’s 10th largest, and the country accounts for 33% of the economy of Latin America and the Caribbean. Last year Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s return as president featured the “second coming” of one of the most popular figures in the Global South.

Lula’s pragmatism could help build bridges between the rich world and developing countries, especially as Latin American countries have largely ignored Washington’s discouragement of increasing trade ties with China.

The West’s declining global influence is evident in the dramaturgy of the ongoing Gaza conflict, in which Uncle Sam continues its performative power plays to little effect: Washington engages in an endless series of futile “shuttle diplomacy”; US vessels continue to be harassed by Houthi drones; while assorted regional militias refuse to be cowed by American military power, with fresh memories of Washington’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Unquestioning Western support for Israel’s continuing brutalities in Gaza is further weakening international support for Ukraine.

So what do these geopolitical trends portend for Africa? The continent must exploit the economic opportunities provided by foreign investors, while continuing its elusive quest for Pax Africana by working to dismantle the military bases and end the external meddling of the US, France, Russia and China.

Africa’s continuing conflicts and climate change challenges across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes will require enhanced regional capacity and continued UN commitment. This will be a big focus of UN secretary-general António Guterres’s Summit of the Future, scheduled for September.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a professor and senior research fellow at the Centre for Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria.

This article was first published by Business Day on 5 February 2024

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Pretoria.

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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