What on Earth is Going On?
If I was sitting on the Moon and watching that little blue ball hanging in space thousands of kilometers away, I would really wonder just what was going on. I could reflect on the 19th Century as a time of colonial domination as Britain, Spain, Portugal and France carved out for themselves vast tracts of land as a colonial Empires. The crude exploitation of the people of those far flung outposts and the cruelty exhibited is a raw wound even today.
Then came the 20th Century, and if we had been shocked by the 19th, it had nothing on the 20th Century, two World Wars with the death of tens of millions, the destruction of accumulated wealth and the displacement of millions changing the character of countries across the globe. Then the struggles for Independence from our colonial masters, again a struggle that involved billions and cost millions of lives. While that was going on the center of financial and military power shifted constantly – Germany, then Russia, then the USA while the powers created in the 19th Century waned – Spain, Portugal, France and the United Kingdom.
At the center of the turbulence in the 20th Century were ideological conflicts and the clash of ideas. What accelerated the impacts were rapid advances in technology and mass production. The emergence of the USA as the dominant political and economic power in the world came about because they were able to defeat their opponents by the sheer volume of production they were able to achieve. The ability of the USA to recover and rebuild and re-engineer themselves after major shocks, is what kept them at the front of these global shifts.
Even as we staggered towards the end of probably the most turbulent, the most violent and bloody Century of all history, the changes that will characterize the 21st Century were at work. The Chinese dragon came out of its Aladdin Lamp and cautiously made its way into the World economy and society. The disintegration of the Russian Empire was completed and Russia emerged as a middle ranking economy and power. The European Union was emerging from the ashes of the two World Wars that had fertilized its creation and expansion, Germany was coming of age, within the Union. Japan, after dominating the Far East for a Century, started a war that they lost and then had to rebuild Japanese society and economy. They were so successful that they became the first of the Asian Tigers and the second largest economy in the world – a benign Tiger because it had been neutered by the victors in the Second World War.
From my vantage point on the moon I can see all the earth as it rotates in front of me. I can see Russia, now a second tier power, with Putin trying to behave like a Tsar and a Stalin – free of the tangled web of Marxist ideology and wearing the mantle of the Orthodox Church which has emerged from the ashes the Soviet Empire like a Ghost from a bygone era. What makes the Russians so dangerous is their ambition and their technological capacity inherited from the Soviets.
I see Britain, always a problem child in international relations and still undecided as to whether it is a European State or an outpost. In the last Century they had debated entry to the EU for decades before deciding to go in and cut their 19th Century ties with their Empire compatriots. Even though they made the decision to become a member of the European Club, they were never fully committed and were constantly asking for special treatment to the irritation of their new partners. Now Brexit – not even understanding how a country with an economy that comprises 85 per cent services and which is 40 per cent dependent on Europe, can survive on its own as an island facing the North Atlantic. The new leader calls a snap election thinking that she can capitalize on her new leadership, only to discover that the ground is shifting, as in so many countries and suddenly it looks as if new Labor and leftist leadership might come to power. Suddenly the British ship looks all at sea.
Then there is the USA, what is there to say? Obama looks better every day. The new President seems determined to follow through on his redneck agenda in every way and in the process, is taking the United States out of its role as the leader of the global consensus on free markets, democracy and human rights. As one commentator in the USA said yesterday – Trump has succeeded in creating a new global consensus on free trade and climate change. The reaction of the Chinese leadership to this massive shift in global influence (not power) has been to move swiftly into the gap Trump has unintentionally created.
It started at Davos where the Chinese leader, made a key address in which he stated that they believed that the only way forward for the global economy was to press home the gains made in opening up global markets and using trade as the primary driver of global growth and development. He called for an interconnected world and what made this so astonishing is that this position is in total juxtaposition to the historical position of the “closed kingdoms of China in the 19th Century and the 20th Century under Mau.
If you now understand what occurred this week in Europe where the only man in Europe – Angela Merkel, stood up to Trump and clearly stated that Europe must take its place as a center of global power and influence and make its own future with less reliance on the Atlantic Alliance which had emerged and even dominated the 20th Century. She was promptly joined by senior Chinese and EU Leadership who stated that the world must remain committed to climate change and open markets. The significance of these shifts will influence the rest of this Century as the centers of power and influence shift towards European and Asian powers. The US today commands 25 per cent of global economic output and is the overwhelming military power, but real power and influence lies in the realm of ideas and communication. Military and economic power cannot translate into real global influence without engagement and consensus.
Then there is India – still struggling with extreme poverty and poor access to social services while at the same time fostering the establishment and rapid growth in a middle and upper class who are increasingly taking their place in global markets. India is a future power and her emergence can only accelerate the trend towards the center of global influence shifting away from the USA and Europe to Asia, with its teaming billions. The fact that more students in China are studying English than there are English speakers in the rest of the World talks to this new reality.
So where does that leave those of us who are Africans? In many ways we are the bridge over which the old and the new power brokers must travel. The danger is that they will fly over us or travel by sea around us and in the process ignore us and pay no attention to our ideas and role in the world. The danger is that the “dark continent” of the 19th Century will remain a hole in the earth which seems to absorb our efforts and money and shows nothing for it. As Mrs. Merkel said, we are on our own and it’s up to us to start the process to make Africa the continent of the future and not the past. Only Africans can do that and it will take all of us – no matter where we live, to strive to turn our obvious potential into growth and rising incomes and quality of life.
Harare 3rd June 2017