Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS

There was a time SA punched above its weight in international relations, but that effervescent legacy dwindled during the era of former president Jacob Zuma. With a new, internationalist President Cyril Ramaphosa SA is now in a position to make up some lost ground. But how and where should SA focus?

A lot depends on how you imagine global politics is likely to unfold. The most obvious and most key feature of the modern era is that the period of a single, global superpower in the form of the US is fading, and in its place will be the triad: the US, China and India. More than that, the nature of “super-powerdom” is also changing. The idea of “global leadership” is embodied in a single nation is fading rapidly. If the presidency of Donald Trump has demonstrated anything, it’s that in a straight battle between the best interests of the globe  as a whole and the US in particular, the answer will be “America first”. Trump has willingly jettisoned the notion of the US as a “force for good” in the world, choosing instead to put the US’s own interests first and always. 

 In reducing global diplomacy to a zero-sum game, Trump has diminished the possibility of winning solutions in which all sides gain. Trump’s trade war is not only about fridges and steel, but it’s also symbolic of a “might is right” mentality as opposed to a rules-based system.

With the US is edging out of the diplomacy arena, the mantle falls to either China or India. China has so far shown the desire and the aptitude to carry the torch. China often claims it has “lifted” 700-million people out of poverty through more than 30 years of reform.

There is no doubt that its achievement has been extraordinary, although it’s often forgotten that China put a lot of those people into poverty in the first place through years of benighted communist economics. Still, the development of China and its phenomenal record is something to admire, and there is no doubt that it will be a major force in global diplomacy.

The big, as yet open question concerns India. In many ways, if the 20th century was the US’s  century, the 21st century is India’s to lose. Many armchair economists would claim that China has shown the world a new kind of capitalism in which centralised power enables a country to focus on longer-term goals, deflecting day-to-day political pressure in favour of infrastructure development and overall economic growth. This would explain why China has grown so fast and India, the world’s largest democracy, has lagged. 

Yet this claim is specious. First, the comparator should not be China but Pakistan. Pakistan, after all, emerged out of greater India and shares history, population development and some of India’s enormous cultural mix. It’s also a much more authoritarian and militarised state, and yet the number of times Pakistan’s annual economic growth has been faster than India’s over the past 30 years, you can count on the fingers of one hand. 

Second, India’s economic growth is starting to outpace that of China and is likely to do so in the near future. If this holds up, then the theory of the utility of the centralised, authoritarian state falls away. Democracy, it turns out, is not the bottleneck on development it is often claimed to be. Policy decisions, in either democratic or nondemocratic states, are the key.

What about the EU? Surely it will be a force in the modern era? Possibly so, but the EU is a complicated beast, and it’s not clear it will play any notable role in global affairs outside of its members. A single dominant pole is less likely, and many more contenders are out there. Not least, Africa’s most dismaying country after SA , Nigeria. 

In short, SA ought to have two immediate priorities on the diplomatic front; fix the relationship with Nigeria and gently favour India in the battle between the big three. SA shares so much more with India than it does with China or the US; the diplomatic ties should be stronger and mutual lessons greater.