🔒 RW Johnson – ANC’s deluded welcoming of a dangerous ‘new multi-polar world’

By RW Johnson

South Africa’s foreign office, DIRCO, frequently celebrates the coming of a multi-polar world. Indeed, Naledi Pandor seems excited at the prospect. The notion is that the power of the USA and the West in general is in decline, that this is reflected in the erosion of “the rules-based order” inaugurated in 1945 and then administered by the Bretton Woods institutions – the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the whole panoply of United Nations bodies. Instead the rise of China and the Global South as a whole will see a general diffusion of power among many countries and this will be paralleled by the declining role of the US dollar and its replacement by a basket of currencies.

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Naledi Pandor is, indeed, given to celebrating the arrival of this new order as if it was established fact when actually the dollar, Euro and Yen remain supreme, China is actually in decline and many other Third World countries are in dire straits. But it is worth standing back and asking what it is that we are losing. Nobody doubts, after all, that the West’s role is declining and that the centre of the world economy has moved to Asia. And this is bound to have major results for the international order. But are we losing more than we are gaining ?

The key point to grasp was made by the economist, Charles Kindleberger, who argued that the international system of finance worked best when it was supported by a hegemonic power whose vital interests were ultimately co-terminus with the system itself. What that meant was that when a crisis occurred this hegemon would intervene to maintain the stability and survival of the system. In the 18th and 19th century Britain had been that hegemonic power and London had become the world’s financial centre. In case of crises or panics London would ensure that the system held. It had to: British power was world-wide and the system could not collapse without doing grave damage to British interests. This hegemonic support was essential because the international economic system was capitalist and it was in the nature of capitalism to produce periodic crises and panics. There had to be a lender of last resort – and it was the City of London.

However, in the late 19th century British imperial power waned with both Germany and the US catching up and threatening to surpass Britain. The result was a period of exceptional danger in which Britain was too weak to play its traditional hegemonic role but the US was not ready to take its place. The result was catastrophe – the complete breakdown of the international system, two world wars, Japan, Italy and Germany grabbing whatever other territories they wanted, a world Depression and the descent of Germany into utter barbarism as it turned mass murder into an industrial process. Italy was not far behind, using poison gas to kill and subdue the Ethiopians whose country Italy had decided to take.

By contrast the new world order inaugurated first by the Atlantic Charter and then by Bretton Woods, was highly beneficent. The principle of self-determination and thus world decolonisation and democratisation was established. The UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, enshrining universal suffrage and democracy as a goal everywhere. Many new states were born and everywhere their independence and territorial integrity had to be respected. The number of independent countries expanded from roughly fifty to nearly two hundred.

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Simultaneously there was a long economic boom as first Western Europe and then East Asia recovered and gradually the whole decolonised world was included in the world capitalist system. With the fall of Communism and the adoption of market principles by China and India virtually the whole world was integrated into an international capitalist economy. This brought great benefits, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. 

Which brings us to where we are now. It is, above all, sensible to realise that we have just come through a period of unparalleled human progress. Democracy, decolonisation and rising per capita incomes have spread throughout the world. But, as Western power diminishes, the system has begun to fray. China has grabbed pretty much all of the South China Sea including islands, oil fields and fishing grounds which indubitably belong to other, weaker countries. Russia grabbed first Crimea, then the Eastern Ukraine and makes no secret of its wish to recapture and subdue the Baltic states and even Poland. Venezuela has just decided to grab Guyana and its oil fields.  All of these new imperialists are autocratic, non-democratic countries. This is not an accident: as Amartya Sen pointed out some time ago, democracies do not go to war with one another. 

These new imperialists are not, as some would like to pretend, the vanguard of progress. They are throwbacks to an older era, countries which failed to benefit from the waves of democratisation. They have to be contained. They are the new barbarians. Moreover, the world system works best if there is a hegemonic power supporting it. We cannot want that power to be China, a country which spies on its own citizens, which has never allowed a free election in over seventy years and which mowed down its people with tanks when they asked for democracy. Whatever one’s reservations about American power it is hugely preferable to that. 

The situation is rather like that around 400 CE when the Roman Empire was coming under concerted barbarian attack. All of Europe had known hundreds of years of peace, stability and progress under Roman rule. At times the locals chafed under that Roman domination but as they realised that Rome was withdrawing its garrisons to protect Rome itself, they panicked. Who now would deal with the Vikings or Visigoths if they attacked ? Who would maintain that peace and civilisation ? And they were right to worry. As we know, the fall of Rome was followed by a Dark Age of many centuries in which the population starved and declined, in which invaders of all kinds ripped into Europe and pirates took over the Mediterranean again.  

So we too should be very cautious about welcoming a new multi-polar world. We have to preserve the best of the Bretton Woods world that we are leaving behind. We most try to keep a rules-based order. We must not allow countries to invade others and gobble them up. Notice that Russians or Chinese (or Venezuelans, for that matter), if given half a chance, will emigrate to Western countries. In the end everyone wants what they offer: peace, democracy and respect for human rights. Nobody is trying to emigrate to Russia, China or Venezuela. Around a million Russians have fled Russia since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine. And currently there is a flood of wealthy Chinese fleeing to Singapore, Australia and anywhere where the rule of law obtains. Millions of Venezuelans have already fled abroad. 

These people fleeing to the democracies and a rules-based order are telling us something. People are voting with their feet. What the Western world bequeathed is precious. Celebrate the coming of a multi-polar world if you like but instead of denouncing the old Western-led world, better realise it was as good as we are ever likely to get.

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