Outlook 2022: global trends in a world of paradoxes

Unlike the Cold War experience, there is no single explanatory perspective for the many global developments that will exert their influence in Africa in 2022. Contemporary views differ widely in their explanation of the major dynamics that have and will shape the world.

Same world, different lenses

Some realists see coming events dominated by how China and United States (US) manage their power and resources, the relationship between the two countries and interactions with other international actors. This is against the backdrop that great-power politics drive events. Thus, international politics will be controlled by the relative capacities of the two major powers.  

Others point to the emergence of a ‘tribal world’ in which the identity of many is defined by basic human instincts of group identity rather than ideology or economics.

In many places, therefore, the identities that matter most are not national but sub-group markers centred around ethnicity, religion, sects and others. At a macro level, the similar rise in nationalism and separatism that has had a massive impact on regionalism and multilateralism is, in ways, another dimension of a tribal world. Others, however, emphasise that today’s world is characterised by increased inequalities originating from the widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots blamed on the ills of capitalism.

Beyond these perspectives, many consider the fourth industrial revolution, and technology for that matter, as the defining feature of recent times and a major future factor. As with many revolutions, it is changing the ways individuals, groups, communities and states interact, think and exchange.

Realists see future events dominated by how China and the US manage their power and resources

Finally, climate change, many believe, is the primary issue of our time, given the emerging scientific indication of its trend and the difficulty in changing state behaviour to improve things. Disruption to the earth’s climate will have greater long-term influence on the global economy and international relations than any other forces visible today.

Although these perspectives represent differing approaches to understanding the crucial realities of our time, the details of each provide insights into issues with which the world is grappling. Defining characteristics should, therefore, be seen as a product of various perspectives rather than one.

Progress and challenge paradox

What do these variable perspectives and realities mean for global peace and security? First, we live in a world of paradoxes. On the one hand is unprecedented development happening across the world as a result of enormous economic growth and enhanced cooperation among states.

On the other hand, are potential threats to global peace and security, fuelled by interlocking challenges of inequality and governance deficits that threaten the progress made so far. Over recent decades, the world has also experienced the evolving scope and scale of armed conflicts and violence.

Persisting security realities

Interstate war, the major preoccupation when the United Nations was founded, is a rare event today, even if the threat of a major global conflict remains real. Intrastate armed conflict, however, continues to be a major challenge worldwide. Over the past decade, internal conflicts have caused the highest number of conflict-related fatalities since the end of the Cold War. Their proliferation has also reversed gains in the management of global peace and security. Africa and the Middle East account for most of the increase, not least because of the Arab Spring. Armed conflict in Asia, Latin America and Europe has dropped.

Intrastate conflicts today are extremely complex, typically involving proliferation of non-state armed groups, linkages with criminal and sometimes extremist interests, growing internationalisation and connections to global supply chains. These factors have made contemporary conflicts more difficult to resolve and have increased civilians’ exposure to mass atrocities and other grave human rights violations. 

Unprecedented development cohabits with threats to global peace and security in today’s world

Many non-state armed groups active in intrastate conflicts operate with loose and fluid chains of command. Decentralised groups form shifting coalitions and alliances, maintaining links with external supporters while pursuing numerous ideological, political and economic agendas not necessarily amenable to negotiation. In many conflict theatres, armed groups are well equipped with military-grade weapons acquired from poorly secured stockpiles and transfers from the illicit market, or from states.

Intrastate conflict has metastasised, now simultaneously subnational and transnational, sometimes carried out even in urban areas. Beyond armed conflicts, other violence affects human societies in unprecedented ways, including violent extremism and terrorism, criminal brutality and transnational organised crime.

Issues stoking the fires

Many important trends will continue to shape our thinking of global peace and security. These include mobility, economic relations and trade, inequality, technological advances and climate change. Mobility is an integral part of human experience. Throughout history, people have moved from one place to the other in search of greener pastures.

Mobility is driven by many interrelated factors, most notably armed conflict and violence, but also climate change and environmental degradation, economic pressures and the absence of, or weak, governance. Armed conflicts, ethnic violence, terrorism-related activities and organised crime have displaced entire communities, both internally and across borders, and have severely disrupted traditional mobility patterns.

Human desire for mobility is rising, but barriers are being built to stem that fundamental right, with the developing world at the receiving end of many attempts to stifle it. Despite perceptions of high mobility of Africans to the global north, their movement to other parts of the world is far lower than that of other populations.

Economic relations and trade, particularly among the bigger powers, may remain a major threat to global stability. This is due to increasing competition between China and the US and significant supply chain challenges triggered partly by the Covid-19 pandemic. It could also potentially enhance economic development in the developing world, especially in Africa, where efforts to implement the African Continental Free Trade Area is a step in this direction.

Inequality, a key driver of world instability, conflict and violence, is increasing internationally, nationally, sub-nationally and in communities. Rapid advances in digital technologies are also reshaping human interactions in novel ways. The changes are of an incommensurable magnitude and promise to improve many aspects of life. But they are happening in an unequal world in which only the fortunate few benefit.

Africa is showing the way in strengthening multilateralism and regional cooperation

The climate emergency is gaining momentum. While climate change and environmental degradation are rarely, if ever, the trigger for conflict, their interplay with other factors can multiply risks that are known to contribute to insecurity. This is already the case in some parts of the world.

Melting ice caps are opening new shipping routes and access to natural resources, which could increase tensions between countries already at odds over maritime issues. If not managed carefully, the global energy transition towards climate-friendly economies could disrupt jobs, food prices and energy markets, potentially destabilising entire regions.

Implications for policy

These dynamics and drivers present major challenges for policymakers in the developing world and for multilateral structures. Indications are that Africa is showing the way in strengthening multilateralism and regional cooperation given the strides made on the continent against global trends.

Africa’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic is one example of how member states of the African Union (AU) rallied around. They provided personal protective equipment to countries unable to procure these and campaigned for access to cheaper vaccines. They also lobbied for the temporary waiver of patent restrictions so that the continent could produce its own vaccines.

Clearly, the time has come for the AU to develop some sense of strategic autonomy. The adequacy of current reforms can be questioned. The organisation needs to strengthen the implementation of existing common African positions and adopt more of these in situations where they don’t exist. It must also strengthen its agency in external relations and managing partnerships, since no region or country can effectively handle the reinforcing dynamics of these issues alone.

Photo: tralacBlog/Gerhard Erasmus

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