The relative decline in the influence of the West is widely and increasingly acknowledged. From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine to the advance of the Islamic State into a brittle Iraq and Syria, failure in Afghanistan and elsewhere is steadily hammering home a message that reflects the acceleration of global shifts in power. Such a shift has been expected for at least a decade, yet it is quite surprising in its recent intensity and scope.
In the process the United States (US), still the largest national economy and the primary global military power, is unsure if its future lies across the Atlantic or across the Pacific – uncertain about how to pursue continued global pre-eminence in a time when its global influence is in sharp decline.
The general and inevitable trend seems clear: a gradual US disengagement from key regions of the world, including in Africa. This development is accelerated by the shale gas revolution in the US and the prospects for energy independence. The global order is in flux and although it is not yet clear where we are headed, the rate of change is unsettling and destabilising. Globally, since 2008, violence is increasing, reversing the sharp declines after the end of the Cold War.
The only question is when and how such change will occur
Contrary to the expectations that arose after the end of the Cold War, the fall-out from the War on Terror and shifting of power towards greater multipolarity has tended to undermine, and even roll back, the movement towards principles such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Advances in democracy, accountable national governance and respect for international human rights are all coming under sustained pressure.
At the global level this trend is driven by important states such as Russia and China, neither of which supports external intervention in domestic matters, and also by the lack of US support for the developing of global norms in key areas such as the landmines treaty, nuclear disarmament and the International Criminal Court. In Africa, an important recent factor is the strong belief that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had abused the United Nations (UN) mandate to intervene in Libya in 2011.
Looking ahead, African states will be very hesitant to subscribe to a UN mandate that would allow others to intrude in restoring stability in violence-torn countries. This is already evident in the UN Security Council (UNSC) debates regarding intervention in Syria in 2013. Underpinning all of this is the lack of UNSC reform, and the belief that little or no effort is being made to reorganise global financial institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund - IMF) and the other components of the worldwide security and financial architecture. While they generally serve to protect Western privilege and power, they have also served to establish an impressive normative system that often advantages people over state power, particularly in its support of democracy.
Such opportunities will soon present themselves, but would require remarkable political foresight
Yet a new order is starting to emerge, which will eventually either require revolutionary change in the current global governance architecture, or result in efforts at alternative structures that may, at first, not succeed, but will eventually force change. The establishment of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) development bank is the most palpable sign of efforts in this regard, and has served as a bit of a wake-up call in some Western capitals. The only question is when and how such change will occur.
Three options present themselves. In the first, the West seeks pre-emptive reform that would allow Western states to set the rules for the future while they still have the influence to do so. Efforts at changes to the governing structures of the IMF and the World Bank and comprehensive UN reform, including within the UNSC, would mark the start of such change. Given the gridlock in the US Congress, this is unlikely.
The second is holding out in the belief that the future is not as set as some would believe. Thus democratisation in China or even globalisation itself could unsettle the current pathway of declining Western influence. This is the current US strategy, inevitably supported by the United Kingdom and others.
A third option is insurrection from within, where a country such as Germany reaches out and succeeds in building alliances across the current global divides on an issue such as UNSC reform, which allows for global realignment, breaking the current impasse. Opportunities for such innovation will soon present themselves, but would require remarkable political foresight and determination – never mind the implications and choices that Germany faces with respect to the conduct of foreign policy within or outside the European Union. This would include dropping their much-valued G4 initiative together with Brazil, India and Japan, which allows for an additional permanent seat for Europe in the UNSC, in favour of a single rotational UNSC seat for Western Europe.
What is certain is that the pressure for global governance reform is building up, and the options for a controlled release of that pressure are rapidly declining.
Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS