EDITORIAL: SA adrift in a cold, uncertain world
While the Cold War was meant to have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, geopolitics is still influenced by old divisions and has become more complex
Just over a week ago an important anniversary passed without much fanfare in SA, though it had profound implications for the country’s future in a rapidly changing world.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall on November 9 1989 didn’t only mark the end of a dangerous period for the big superpowers that had started after World War 2, it also marked the start of a new era of hope closer to home.
While throughout the Cold War period, despite some tense episodes such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the US and the Soviet Union, mindful of the potential for mutual destruction, managed to avoid a so-called hot war.
Instead one saw numerous proxy wars across what was then referred to as the Third World as the superpowers sought to extend their reach and limit the other’s ideological and strategic reach. Africa wasn’t spared. From Mozambique to the former Zaire, and smaller nations such as Burkina Faso, the hands of the superpowers were visible in any number of civil wars and coups that wrought destruction and death.
It was no coincidence that as the Soviet Union’s collapse paved the way for a new relationship between East and West, it also contributed to the momentum for peace that eventually led to the end of wars in Mozambique and Angola, independence for Namibia, the fall of autocratic governments elsewhere, and the end of apartheid in SA.
That change — perceived as a victory for the western model of democracy and free markets — led to some complacency and outlandish theories, such as the ridiculous notion that history had ended. The end of the Cold War was represented by historian Francis Fukuyama as the end of humanity’s ideological evolution and the “universalisation” of western liberal democracy.
Soon enough, events showed how misguided this approach was, not least because of the inadequacy of seeing ideological struggles purely in the capitalism vs socialism paradigm. The 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks against the US brought religion into the frame and helped popularise ideas around clashes of civilisations, first proposed by Samuel Huntington less than a decade earlier.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the new world order would come from within the West with the outbreak of the global financial crisis around mid-2007. It reached what then seemed a dramatic peak — which turned out to be the start of the disruption — in 2008 when viewers across the world were treated to the spectacle of staff at Lehman Brothers leaving its headquarters with their possessions in boxes after the collapse of what was the US’s fourth-largest investment bank.
The Great Recession followed and the resultant discontent was fuelled by bank rescues, falling wages and a debt crisis that threatened to destroy the EU, the very foundation and symbol of the era of peace and prosperity in the wake of World War 2.
While hindsight is a perfect science, the rise in populism that gave the world Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
The US has actively jettisoned its leadership role and its influence will continue to decline. It remains to be seen who will fill the void. Those predicting a new era of Chinese domination were probably premature in their judgment. While Russia has outmanoeuvred the US in the Middle East, does it have the military and economic might to be the next big thing?
Far from being settled, ideological disputes on everything from economic policy to how to deal with the climate crisis have multiplied, with potentially grave consequences.
French President Emmanuel Macron gave a rather gloomy interview to The Economist in which he warned about the dangers of the US retreat from shared values that have shaped the world order since the 1940s and which now emphasised the need for Europe to stand on its own.
Where SA fits in all of this is still not clear, and it’s hard to identify to what extent our government has given it much thought.