Brexit gave formal expression to the growing public revolt against globalisation in the West. Not to be outdone, the United States of America (US) voted for Donald Trump who rallied his energised supporters around the isolationist policy of ‘America First’. Although the Western anti-globalisation movement has suffered crushing defeats in Holland and France, and will most likely face the same fate in Germany later this year, commentators agree that a considerable section of the Western electorate identify with the core agenda of that movement. We should therefore rest assured that mainstream political discourse in the West will for a while confront, address or respond to the views of that electorate. African governments need to recalibrate their international and national policies accordingly.
After centuries of expansionist and imperial policies and after aggressively promoting globalisation throughout the last century, the West, led by the likes of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Marine la Pen and Geert Wilders, now speaks the lofty language of self-determination, nationalism, patriotism and protection of culture.
On the face of it, these are issues that should resonate with non-Westerners who have raised them for a long time. However, penetrate the thin veil of political rhetoric, one will find bigotry, demagoguery and cheap populism.
In their campaign for Brexit, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage constantly assailed the European Union for the role it has played in contracting the sovereignty of European states. Yet in another breath, they proudly spoke of a return to the glory of the British Empire and maintaining their domination over the Commonwealth. Furthermore, the British government, of which Johnson is a cabinet member, is yet to recognise the long record of hegemonic tendencies of the World Bank and the International Monitory Fund, which imposed austere economic policies that destroyed social services in Africa and other parts of the world and which have continued to hold sway over the domestic policies in the developing world.
In both his campaign and presidency, Donald Trump (has) accused and railed against foreign corporations that are performing better than American corporations in the US. Whether in mining, oil exploitation and other business sectors, Africans have for long raised issues of irreversible environmental damage, plunder, corruption and exploitation perpetrated by American and other multi-national corporations on African soil.
In arguing that free trade should be curtailed, in part or in whole, to advance national interests, the Western champions of self-determination do not reference the long struggle Africans and other non-Westerners have fought against the rushed liberalisation of their economies, the privatisation of state enterprises, and the dominance of the World Trade Organisation.
Once seen as the greatest weapon ever invented against oppressive regimes, dictatorships and despotism, some powerful players in the West now see the internet in a negative light, as a threat to democracy, national security and Western culture.
Important as these issues are, it is unlikely that they will receive the full attention they deserve. This is so partly because of the ‘them vs us’ approach to global issues, which impedes an impartial and rational discussion. According to this approach, free trade and globalisation are good if the West benefits from it and bad if it does not. International organisations are good if they serve the interests of the west, and bad if they protect weaker states.
It remains to be seen how the corrosive political debate in Britain and the US will affect the emerging democracies in Africa, but early indications point to at least three potential consequences. Firstly, as the electorate in the West is becoming more and more inward looking, the global development agenda will face major funding challenges. This means that developing countries should try as much as possible to gain financial autonomy from the West or forge ties of solidarity among themselves.
Secondly, the relentless assault on key pillars of democracy such as the media, the courts and political parties might be seized upon by some politicians in Africa, with likely regressive effects on young democracies in these parts.
Thirdly, the consistent attack on the legitimacy and authority of international organisations such as the United Nations and NATO, coupled with the growing emphasis on state sovereignty, means that intervention to protect violations of gross human rights violations by states against their own people will be more difficult to authorise and implement, which should be welcome news to despots.
Whether we are witnessing a momentary blip in the moral uprightness of the West or the beginning of the end of its long hegemony, Africans need to take this as an opportunity to rebuild and re-align their bilateral and multilateral relations with a view to making a fresh start that allows them to take greater control of their own destiny.
It is clear that Asia is relishing the new opportunity that the West has presented to it. The mistake for us would be to replace one exploitative trans-continental relationship with another.
*Danwood Chirwa is Professor of Law at University of Cape Town.