There is no doubt that the power hierarchies among states and regions continue to shape the international economy and politics. This was evident at last week’s G7 meeting when the discussion on Russia and Iran dominated the gathering.
On display was how the behaviour and actions of politicians have a detrimental effect on global economic and other important issues. (In the process strengthening the argument that South Africa is not unique when it comes to politicians messing things up.)
Interestingly, Iran and Russia – despite not being on the agenda – hogged the spotlight with the argument over whether they should have been invited. Earlier reports indicated that French President Emmanuel Macron had invited Iranian foreign affairs minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the meeting – an action that would be deemed an insult and undermining to President Donald Trump, as the US wasn’t consulted. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal remains a thorny issue.
Although France and the US differ on the Iran matter, they agree somewhat on Russia. Both Macron and Trump are of the view that Russia should be invited to join the next meeting to be hosted by US in 2020. As you would expect, this caused murmurings among other G7 members; in fact they are quite critical of the suggestion. It has infuriated some critics of Trump back in the US and caused rumblings among some quarters in the Republican party. To them, it is unfathomable that an American president would want Russian President Vladimir Putin back in the circle.
The G7 meeting concluded with little consensus on key global issues. Instead, any potential agreements evaporated and the differences between leaders broadened.
All of this legitimises the realist’s perspective of international politics: the view that dominant states will always pursue their own interests, above everything else.
It is these actions of the powerful states that has South Africa and the rest of Africa reworking their relationships with the other states, in shaping new power hierarchies that have come to dominate international economies and even regions.
The changing pace of global economics
The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad), which also took place last week, signals the changing pace of the global economy, in which states have to proactively reconfigure their relationships with each other. Mind you, as this was the seventh such meeting, it’s not a novelty.
What has changed, however, is global economics and geopolitics. Globalisation in this period has demonstrated how some once-developing countries have in the past 15 years emerged as economic powers, such as Russia, China and India. While others within a specific region like East Africa have demonstrated their potential for fast growth, their southern African peers have struggled.
Taken together, these two meetings have shown Africa’s participation to be one of African leaders seeking G7 approval and applause for having established a continental agreement.
For example, when President Cyril Ramaphosa presented the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) at the meeting, he urged a very preoccupied G7 leadership to continue working with Africa and commended them for reorienting their relationships with the continent. These leaders might applaud AfCFTA, but they won’t go out of their way to make it succeed.
In fact, that couldn’t be further from their aspirations.
Any G7 country that will be working with Africa on free trade will be pursuing what they see as easy pickings, to best serve their interests.
It certainly won’t be based on noble intentions and a moral obligation to advance Africa’s economic growth or development.
Seen this way, while the Japan-Africa meeting might yield some positives here and there for individual countries, at the heart of it lies the reality of a Japan that seeks to reposition itself in relation to a region that has the potential to grow economically and politically in the next 20 years.
Behind the Ticad’s veil of pragmatism and mutually beneficially aims, Japan conceals its deepest fears: losing out to China and Russia.
Understandably, South-South cooperation (between developing countries) post the global financial crisis is defined by China leading, with Russia not so far off the pace in building linkages with Africa. Consider how trade among the Brics partners alone has been a signifier of what some analysts are calling a new model of globalisation, with the focus no longer centred on the West’s financial crisis but on the rapid growth in developing economies.
Developments such as the forming of trade regions and blocs within emerging markets now have the potential to reorient the global economic power structure.
It is important to emphasise that each country – China, Japan and Russia – has self-interest in building economic, cultural and political ties with Africa. Each is motivated by expanding their own power and economic well-being.
What to make of this
First, the emerging South-South cooperation continues to signal a growing shift away from the West. Trade, investment, skills and goods are now exchanged outside the realm of Europe and the US, due to interconnectedness shaped by globalisation.
This is a positive development, provided African leaders position their countries and the region cleverly and move beyond trade that is dominated by selling raw commodities.
Second, the power hierarchies between countries will always determine how powerful states relate to or approach their ties with Africa. Therefore, caution on the part of Africa must always be exercised. History has taught us how the expansion of a state can shape global economies and politics.
In two months, Russia will host its own Africa-Russia conference on economic and political cooperation. The courting of Africa continues.
Ongoing globalisation will continue to shift economic power as it unfolds. Unfortunately for Africa, it continues to be trapped between powerful states that will use it to advance their interests and further remake economies to gain more power.