By Ambassador Usman Sarki
Hegemonism has often created counter reactions in the realm of relations between and among states. The dismantling of the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later in 1991, presented a stark and somewhat bleak reality to many countries in the global South.
To survive and thrive, they must adapt themselves to a unipolar world that was dominated by the victorious Western allied powers led by the United States of America. Under that situation, choices about independence and autonomy had to be asserted with circumspection and dexterity. Likewise, the inclination to be “non-aligned” practically and normatively became a redundant proposition, hence the gradual lessening of the influence of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) on the world’s stage
Several other initiatives that used to be popular at the forefront of global consciousness also fizzled out or just faded away with the implosion of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. Notably, the call for a “New International Order” no longer appealed to the nations in the global South for the practical reason that there were no other sponsors of the idea besides them.
Other initiatives including the New International Economic Order (NIEO), the New International Information Order (NIIO) and a variety of other causes just became no longer feasible or even appealing due to the almost preponderant and overwhelming dominance of the space by the Western countries with the United States leading the pack.
Regional affairs such as the Israeli and Palestinian issue became ossified to the extent that the idea of a “two-states solution” become a farce and a deception that proved practically impossible to achieve. As the world became less polarised and more uniform under the themes of democracy, human rights and free market economic doctrines, less room was left for the countries of the global South to maneuver in terms of asserting basic prerogatives and outlooks.
Even the accepted concept of national sovereignty and other principles of international law were observed or respected purely as a discretionary expedience by the leading Western powers. France was able to assert more influence in her former colonial domains especially in West and Central Africa with the tightening of her control over the economies and finances of these countries.
Her unabashed interference in their political affairs became even more pronounced with each passing year to the point where elections only took place with the consent of Paris and the acknowledgement of the predetermined candidate that would emerge as president. She established military bases in several locations in these countries to consolidate her hold over them.
The United States intensified her involvement in other countries’ affairs and carried out coups and regime changes. The invasion and occupation of Iraq defined the years following the fall of the Soviet Union and became a landmark event that reverberates across the globe up to this day. Conflicts were spurred by various factors notably internal unrest and destabilization from outside that rent many countries apart. The EU and the United States imposed their will on Libya and completely destabilized that country following the killing of the erstwhile leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Maintaining autonomy and independence in an increasingly polarised world is a tricky business for African nations. Their objective conditions particularly the economic ties that they have had with the outside world and their greater incapacitation in terms of reliance on other countries for food and fertilizer supplies, technology, finance and other essential products, made it impractical for African nations to maintain autonomy or assert independence in the face of entrenchment of dichotomy in global politics.
One incident that exposed the fragility of Africa including those countries in the north of the continent, is the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, that is today at the heart of the polarization of global diplomacy and the revival of Cold War era antagonisms. The relationship between the United States and her allies in the West on one hand and China on the other, is another bone of contention in global politics, that has caught many African nations in the complex web of perceptual dilemma in terms of demonstration of sympathetic attachment to one side of the divide or the other.
These two paradigms of inter-state conflict and growing rivalry between two economic superpowers, have imposed some constraints on counties in the global South particularly those in Africa, in terms of navigation of the intricate channels of global diplomacy and assertion of certain prerogatives to become relevant in the unfolding schemes of things.
It is in this context that the notion of “strategic autonomy” should be assessed, in order to determine whether such a posture can realistically be maintained by African countries or not, especially in the face of growing insistence on the part of the Western nations to support their cause in the unfolding drama between them and Russia over Ukraine.
Choosing sides in conflicts is a risky business especially when core interests of nations are involved. In Africa’s case, the supply of arms, grains, fertilizer, chemicals and other goods essential to their survival is a matter of existential consideration involving the approaches to both Ukraine and Russia. Adopting a posture of alignment with either party would amount to losing certain privileges from the other, which would have serious implications to their stability, peace and security.
The fig leaf of international law and appeal to established principles and norms of international behaviour did not seem to be enough to provide cover to African states under which to make an escape from the reality of alignment with Russia or Ukraine and her allies in the West. South Africa in particular, found it almost impossible to hide her close ties to Russia and resisted every conceivable pressure brought to bear against her by the West, for siding with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.
Iran, India, Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt and several other countries in the global South also felt the need to adopt a posture of strategic autonomy in the ongoing conflict, or tactically aligned themselves with the Russian viewpoint against that of the West in the final determination of the rationale for the war in Ukraine and the course it had taken.
Joining new groupings like the BRICS may offer countries of the global South an exit from the strictures imposed by the Western dominated international financial institutions and global governance system. However, individual responsibilities must be borne by nations for their choices and actions in supporting one side or the other in situations such as presented by the conflict in Ukraine, or the US-China rivalry.
Under such considerations of limited options and constricted room for maneuver, nations should look for strategic spaces rather than autonomy which is neither practical nor desirable. Opportunities such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as conceived by President Xi Jinping of China ten years ago, should provide a corridor along which new relationships can be built by African states.
West and East European states are now availing themselves of the opportunities offered by the BRI to upgrade their infrastructures particularly seaports, long-distance road and railway networks to improve their economic competitiveness and chances of exporting more goods to China. Central Asian countries as well as those in South East Asia, are busy establishing ties with China based on the BRI principle and reaping huge benefits thereof.
This “New Era” ushered in by China’s President Xi Jinping has made it possible for African countries and others in the global South to look for alternative models of partnership away from the Western dominated arrangements that have existed since 1945. Because of this new opportunity, countries like Venezuela under the Nicolas Maduro government and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, can resist US pressure and stand firm on their resolve to maintain independence albeit at tremendous cost to their nations’ economies.
This availability of options also led to the point where the nuclear arsenal of the DPRK has now emerged as a formidable deterrent force to threaten several countries in the region and the United States. The Islamic Republic of Iran was also able to prove resilient in the face of extremely harsh sanctions regime’s imposed on it by the US and her allies ostensibly because of its nuclear programme but also due to strategic Israeli and Saudi interests.
The emergence of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia, the wars in Yemen and Syria, Turkey’s turn around in NATO and the EU, the fractious politics of the United Kingdom, the disruptive contributions of the Trump era in politics in the US as well as the global COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath of heightened uncertainties, have all contributed to shift the focus of countries from the facts of a unipolar world to a new resurgent multipolar arrangement.
The phenomena of Presidents Victor Orban of Hungary and Aleksandra Lukaschenko of Bylorussia in Eastern Europe and their independent postures in foreign policy, have signaled to the world the diversity and range of opinion in Europe itself about autonomy versus collective action of states in the region.
In Latin America’s greatest country Brazil, the short-lived authoritarianism of former President Jair Bolsonaro, also sought to shift regional politics and ideas about democracy, environmental politics and race relations to the far-right of established traditions of that country. The ever growing China-Russia alliance in the face of US and Western attempts to separate them has also created its own dynamics in ushering in new possibilities in global alignments.
The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) nuclear submarine agreement that left France in the lurch and seriously piqued, created another strategic enclave in the growing rivalries between the US and China and Russia. The expansion of BRICS and admission of the African Union into the G20 grouping also signal the end of the unipolar arrangement that has subsisted since 1991, and the emergence of new forces and dynamics that will probably shape the world in the next twenty or so years to come. Countries to watch in this unfolding realignment will be Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey in the Middle East, where US influence is effectively on the wane while that of China and Russia is on the rise.