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South Africa’s position in a changing global order

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From left to right, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China’s President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pose for a BRICS family photo during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 23, 2023. – Picture: Gianluigi Guercia / POOL / AFP

By Cedric de Coning

We are living through a major phase shift in the Global Order. Europe has dominated the Global Order for the last two to three centuries. America has had a significant influence on global politics for the past 80 years, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union 35 years ago, has been the sole superpower.

For the last few decades, we all lived in what we – in the study of International Relations – call a Unipolar world order, dominated by the United States and its allies in the West.

It was also the period of globalisation and the era in which for the first time in human history, we have established multilateral institutions like the United Nations to deal with global issues like climate change, underdevelopment, transnational organised crime, and international peace and security.

However, in the early 21st century several trends and developments started to unravel this unipolar era. On the one hand, a number of negative effects of liberal capitalism emerged in the late 20th and early 21st century, and these generated significant discontent in and against the global financial and economic system.

In the West discontent grew as jobs and manufacturing were ceded to Asia, and especially China. This discontent resulted in growing support in the West for political parties that are protectionist, nationalist, anti-immigration and sceptical of the benefits of globalisation. Examples include the election of Trump in the US, Brexit and the election of populist-right parties in many countries in Europe.

Another way in which discontent with globalisation materialised was through Islamic and right-wing extremist terrorism. This form of resistance to globalisation ultimately produced the 9/11 attacks in New York. In response a US-led coalition went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later Libya, and started a global war on terror. The cost of these wars and the subsequent occupations – estimated at US$8 trillion – has drained the American economy and is still negatively affecting social cohesion and public trust in America.

The strategic failures involved in how these wars were started and ended, and how they were conducted – including in ways that fundamentally challenged America’s liberal values – have significantly contributed to America’s decline.

South Africa wants to have positive relations with most other countries in pursuit of its own interests – which is the development of South Africa’s people through the development of its economy.

A new global order has yet to fully emerge, but in this early phase of the transition there seem to be elements of a new multipolar Cold War, characterised by heightened rivalry among regional and major powers. Tension among these powers increases uncertainty and turbulence in the international order and negatively affects the functioning of the United Nations and the multilateral system.

It is unfortunate that this heightened rivalry and its downward pressure on international cooperation, is occurring precisely at the moment when more international cooperation to manage the effects of climate change and govern the emergence of new technologies like AI, is sorely needed.

How is SA positioning itself in a changing global order?

South Africa’s position in the global order is intrinsically linked to its role in Africa, and Africa’s position in the world. It is currently again the largest economy in Africa, and it is also seen politically as one of the countries in Africa with the most prominent role in global affairs.

South Africa has used its economic and political role to position itself as non-aligned. In other words, it does not want to be forced to choose between China and the United States, or between the East and the West. For example, in addition to hosting the BRICS Summit in South Africa in 2023, South Africa also hosted a United States-Africa trade meeting and an EU-South Africa summit. South Africa will also host the G20 in 2025, which will be the first time the G20 meets in Africa.

South Africa wants to have positive relations with most other countries in pursuit of its own interests – which is the development of South Africa’s people through the development of its economy.

The South African government believes that this strategy will increase its resilience and put South Africa in the most advantages position possible for achieving development and growth. This overarching objective informs South Africa’s position on issues such as climate change, global trade reforms, and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

From this broader framing of South Africa’s role in a changing global order, I will offer three perspectives on how South Africa is positioning itself in the emerging new Global Order.

First, South Africa is understood by many, especially in the West, to be in the revisionist camp. In this context, revisionist means countries that want to change the liberal order dominated by the West over the last 80 years. South Africa is a member of the BRICS.

What these countries have in common is a frustration with being side-lined to the periphery of the world economy. They feel excluded from a global system which they experience as dominated by and designed to unfairly benefit the Global North.

The stated aim of the BRICS is to work towards a future system of global governance where all countries will have an equal political and economic say in global institutions, and where no one state, or grouping of states, will be able to dominate others.

In pursuit of this aim, BRICS countries have established their own development bank, set up their own contingency reserve arrangement, are developing their own payment system, and have started to trade with each other in their own currencies.

However, many of the members of the BRICS also have close ties to the United States and Europe, including Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. So, whilst they do want to change aspects of the current global order, it is in their interest for this to be a slow and stable transition.

[…] South Africa is uniquely placed to be a bridge-builder between the East and West, and between the North and the South.

Second, South Africa also has close relations with states that self-identify with the liberal order and it often takes steps to defend aspects of the liberal order that it believes are important corner stones for a rule-based global order. Its position on the Israeli war on the people of Palestine is a good example.

South Africa used international law, including the genocide convention, and the International Court of Justice, to protest against breaches of the international global order.

South Africa even convened an extra-ordinary summit of the BRICS and called on the other BRICS members to act on the Principle to Protect (R2P) – which until that time, was understood to be the core principle of the liberal international order that articulated the need for the international community to intervene in a state, under extreme circumstances of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, in order to protect the people of that state against their own government, or against an occupying state.

Third, South Africa plays a bridge building role between the East and West or North and South. As a country that is a democracy, with liberal values enshrined in its constitution, and at the same time a country that feels it is a victim of the inequalities of the international liberal order, South Africa is uniquely placed to be a bridge-builder between the East and West, and between the North and the South.

South Africa thus wants to change aspects of the liberal order, such as the way the global economy and some global institutions have been designed to benefit the developed world. At the same time, however, South Africa defends aspects of the international order, such as a rule-based global order, against those that abuse international law in pursuit of their own interests.

In the context of the risks and uncertainties of a changing global order, and considering the many urgent global crises that we all share, including the gravest of them all namely climate change, there is a need to focus our attention on cooperation and shared values, rather than on where we may disagree.

South Africa can be a champion for helping Africa and the world to identify areas where there are shared interests, and to find ways in which we can cooperate around those interests. Universities, research centres and think tanks have a vital role to play in stimulating global cooperation through research and scholarly dialogue.

Cedric de Coning is a research professor with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and a senior advisor to ACCORD, where this article was first published.