Coming to terms with the shifting locus of global influence

Categories: | Author: SuperUser Account | Posted: 5/24/2011 | Views: 1177

As the locus of global power keeps shifting, a question arises: does South Africa take cognisance of the changes, and what kind of response are we crafting?

The Lisbon Treaty that was recently ratified (and coming into force on the first of December 2009) is a culmination of fifty years of European economic and political integration. It is set to restructure European Union (EU) institutions and redefine the Union’s global focus. The treaty is a product of protracted negotiations and consultations within the twenty-seven EU member states. To give effect to this goal, and to project a common face of the EU to the world, the Lisbon Treaty has created two powerful positions: the President of the Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs.

Due to its former colonial ties, Africa is an important feature of the EU’s history . Over the years, most African countries have benefited from the EU’s largesse. The African continent has also served the EU’s political interests by helping to stretch the EU’s global reach. Apart from its relationship with African countries, the EU has always been viewed as one of the catalysts of the earlier trends of globalization, alongside the US and Japan, driving global output and trade on the strength of its expanding internal market.

Since the early 1990s, however, the locus of authority has been gradually shifting away from traditional powers such as the US, the EU and Japan. Such emerging powers as Brazil, Russia, China and India have now moved to the center-stage in shaping structures of production and trade. China and India, in particular, are reformatting the coordinates of the global economy. This is evident in the steady increase of their contribution to global production, growth and trade. It is also evident in the role they are playing in global governance institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the G20.

While China is known mostly for its low-cost production, it has ambitions to scale up its production value chain and acquire new technologies. It is gradually changing its attitude to issues of intellectual property. In recent times, it has been pouring significant amounts of resources towards developing technological capabilities and building knowledge centers.

China awards more university degrees annually than the US and India combined, with a focus on churning out science and technology graduates. In shoring up its knowledge base, it has bold intentions to compete head-on with Europe and the US on high quality and value-added products in the future. It realizes that technological innovation is crucial in achieving prosperity.

As a result of its growing political and economic traction, China is taken seriously in both Washington and Brussels. But its growing boldness is not always seen in a positive light in the West. Indeed, China does from time to time provoke nationalistic and protectionist sentiments in the US and in some parts of Europe, blowing the cosmetics off the ‘Enlightenment’ values of liberalism, openness and tolerance that belie ethno-nationalistic impulses in parts of these Western countries.

The growing confidence of emerging powers is sending chills across Europe and the US. In various surveys, citizens of Western countries have expressed skepticism towards globalisation, viewing it as responsible for hollowing out production and facilitating the migration of jobs to China. Europe, in particular, is worried about its decreasing influence on matters of global governance. Britain’s Secretary of State for Business, Peter Mandelson recently asserted: ‘As Asia and Latin America have risen, the proportional influence of even the largest European states has shrunk. As if to make a point, the American president marked the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by going to…China.’

It is against this backdrop that the decision by European leaders to elect two unknown figures to drive its next phase of growth and mobilise the 27-member EU to act in one coherent voice on the global stage took the world by surprise. Two political lightweights – the Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy taking over as President of the European Council, and Baroness Catherine Ashton, as the new foreign policy chief – are at the coalface of repositioning Europe on the complex global terrain.

It is clear that there were apprehensions amongst the traditionally powerful players in Europe about installing leaders who could overshadow the place of previously dominant European states (France and Germany) on the global stage, prompting a choice of non-threatening figures. This is a clearest sign of lack of readiness on the part of the EU to be a coherent global actor. Leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and German’s Angela Merkel are intent on stamping their imprimatur on the emerging EU’s identity, and they see themselves as first among equals.

Sarkozy’s vision is to restore French power and influence in Europe and would not want to play second fiddle to anyone. Germany, an important broker in Europe and the single largest financial contributor, would also not countenance a European Council President who steals the limelight and shares the most coveted space next to Obama and Hu Jintao.

There are other dynamics at play in Europe. The smaller countries, especially the former Eastern European states, are in constant tension with traditional powers in Europe. There are competing visions for the future: a minimalist vision that emphasizes the need for internal cohesion, largely driven by Germany and France, versus those who articulate a strategy of a ‘Global Europe’, mainly Britain. There are also differences along the Center-Right and Center-Left spectrum.

Rifts are running deep. The EU finds itself unable to string a coherent narrative of an emerging global system. An EU that that stands on an equal footing with China and the US on the global stage is increasingly looking like a mirage. Its voice on major issues related to climate change, energy, trade and finance, and security will remain faint until it gets its house in order.

Europe is suffering a crisis of confidence and identity, at a time when its global leadership is much needed as an important balance between China and the US. In his recent book, The Geopolitics of Emotion, Dominique Moisi, one of Europe’s foremost geo-strategic thinkers, suggests that Western powers are not only losing their grip on global influence, but also suffer from a crisis of confidence and identity. This lends their foreign policies a measure of eccentricity.

For the foreseeable future it is China and the US — managing a complex interdependence as G-2 — that are likely to provide a clear and purposeful global leadership. With China far more aware of its new global leadership role and potential influence, and with the US redefining its posture on positive terms towards the rest of the world and understanding the importance of building closer relations with China and other emerging powers , the stakes for global influence have never been higher.

As a country with ambitions to swing the global agenda in Africa’s interest, we again find ourselves haunted by the very same question: does South Africa take cognisance of the shifting locus of global power, and what kind of response are we crafting?

Dr. Qobo is Head of the Emerging Powers and Global Leadership Challenges Programme at the South African Institute for International Affairs (, and he is also a member of the Midrand Group.

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