As we all speculate on the nature of a post COVID-19 world order, one thing seems certain – the altercation between the USA, the world’s largest economy, and China, the second world largest economy, will take centre stage. The ripple effects of this will cascade down the various nation states. The immediate post COVID world will usher Cold War 2, in which China, Russia and many of the countries in the Pacific will be on one side while the USA and its allies, united largely by the fear of China’s rise, will be on the other side.
Relations between Washington and Beijing were already in a downward spiral before COVID-19. There were a number of reasons for this: first is the tension arising from a perception of China’s rise (or re-emergence since it was an ancient power) and a perceived decline of the USA, second is the wrong framing of the tension between the two countries as an ideological contest rather than a struggle for global hegemony, and third is the worsening of bilateral relations between the two countries during the Trump presidency, fuelled by trade wars and growing US unease about expansive Chinese economic diplomacy, military deployments and influence operations around the world. Beijing in turn seems to believe the USA is pursuing a deliberate strategy of containment and regime change against it.
With COVID-19, the responses from both sides have reflected pre-existing trends of mistrust and rivalry. We see this vividly in the competing claims about the origins of the virus (both countries have accused each other of originating it as a bioweapon) and competing narratives over which country has been more efficient in dealing with the pandemic. The US seems to view China’s efforts to portray its success in reining in of the virus inside China as part of the country’s efforts to discredit and ultimately topple its global leadership. In response, the US has also ramped up its own public diplomacy campaign to discredit Beijing’s model, highlighting its probable culpability in the spread of the virus and in underreporting the number of people it lost to the pandemic (the state of Missouri has for instance sued China for lying over the virus). Recently Washington has sought to boost its own contributions to the international response to the pandemic, not only as a way to project its power but also to win hearts and minds. Critics have argued that the US’s handling of the pandemic made it look like a country to be pitied, rather than admired.
In the coming Cold War 2, America’s Africa policy is likely to hinge around playing up the bond that have supposedly existed between them and Africa as traditional allies and promising that it will continue to provide financial support for a number of initiatives in the continent, including good governance and democracy. The US will also most likely ramp up the fear factor around the dangers of China’s resource-backed loans and of allowing the country unfettered foothold in Africa. China, which in 2009 overtook the US as Africa’s biggest trading partner, is on its own likely to rejig the terms of its colossal Belt and Road Initiative – its gargantuan global infrastructure development projects- to make it even more attractive to Africa. It will also continue to remind Africa that they share common bonds of being ‘developing countries’, that it never colonized any part of Africa but rather actively supported the anti-colonial movements in the continent. Of course it will also emphasize that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of African countries, is not imperialistic and racist. Video recordings of the treatment of Africans in China during the pandemic will however be counterfactuals to the latter claim.
The coming Cold War will take place in the context of ‘decoupling’ and ‘de-globalization’ as the current globalization of markets is repudiated and countries and individuals re-think their supply chains, placing more emphasis on security and ease of supply over price and quality.
How should Africa respond to the coming Cold War?
What is clear is that the continent’s pattern of response to the first Cold War (1947-1991) will not be adequate.
As the Cold War raged after the Second World War, many African countries became members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was formally established in 1961 through the initiatives of the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. Though several of the 120 members were closely aligned to one of the two blocs, the group proclaimed a policy of not being aligned to either of the two competing blocs and pushed for the solidarity of the countries of the global south.
In the coming Cold War 2, the non-aligned movement cannot possibly be re-invented. In fact since the end of the first Cold War, NAM has been struggling to reinvent its purpose in the current world system especially given the difficulty of applying any of its key foundational ideologies – national independence, territorial integrity, and the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, to contemporary issues. Besides, the socioeconomic gap between African and non-African members of the movement has widened considerably – most of the members have left Africa behind. Additionally the coming Cold War 2 is not about any defined political or economic ideology – like the Socialism vs. Capitalism contest of the first Cold War, but between two powers, one seeking to maintain its hegemony, the other trying to become the new hegemon. Both powers are driven essentially by the same capitalist economic impulses, though they employ different emotionally charged veneers to mask their interests.
For Africa to effectively play in the coming Cold War 2, I will recommend the following:
One, a strategic decoupling from the global economic system. During the first Cold War, several Marxist scholars touted the idea of the developing countries delinking from the capitalist economic system, and presumably linking to the communist bloc. Part of the criticisms of the ‘de-linking’ argument however was that it would amount to moving from one dependency to another. The world has changed in more fundamental ways since the end of the first Cold War. Most African countries have built some competencies and can now strategically de-link and focus on internal and intra-African co-operation – without being too dogmatic about any opportunity that will come from the global system.
Two, it is time for Africa to heal itself of the ‘begging bowl syndrome’ and learn how to project power. It is for instance exceedingly disheartening that when Donald Trump called Buhari, in what was clearly part of US’s efforts to get involved in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) diplomacy, the Nigerian presidency narrated it as if Buhari won a Nobel Prize. A headline in the Nigerian Guardian of Tuesday April 28 2020 was titled: ‘Trump speaks with Buhari, pledges US support to Nigeria in coronavirus fight’. The paper further quoted the Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohamed as saying: “President Buhari used the opportunity to brief the American President on the steps that Nigeria was taking to contain the spread of the disease”. We were also told President Trump promised to give the country ventilators.
Embedded in The Guardian’s headline is the sort of master-servant relationship which Africa accepted willy-nilly during the first Cold War and which partly explained why it was treated like a ‘small boy’ during the period – and up till now. And for the Information Minister to tell us that Buhari “briefed President Trump” (who is roundly criticised at home for his handling of the pandemic) on the steps the country is taking to contain the pandemic smacks of inferiority complex. For Africa to gain maximally from the coming Cold War 2, we need leaders with the requisite confidence to deal with other world leaders as peers. Such leaders will likely talk of their President exchanging ideas with other world leaders on how to solve a particular global problem or contain a pandemic, and not ‘briefing’ their supposed peers on the steps their countries are taking to contain such a pandemic.
Three, many parts of Africa missed the opportunity to use the pandemic to project power through PPE or face- mask diplomacy. For instance, as parts of Europe and USA were groaning under the lack of PPE to fight the COVID-19, what would it have taken various African countries to project power by announcing they are sending millions of face-masks to some of the hard-hit countries like Italy, Spain and some states in the USA? What will it for instance take the Nigerian government to get the famed Aba tailors to produce 100 million quality cloth face- masks for influence operations and power projection around the world?
Four, part of the strategic retreat from the global system will be a prioritization of home grown commodities and remedies over imported ones. For instance while the Western world are scouting everywhere for ventilators, it was recently reported that a team of engineers at the Abubakar Tafawa University (ATBU) Bauchi has invented automatic ventilators, disinfection chambers and software applications for screening and treatment of coronavirus and Lassa fever. There are also African remedies that are being touted in the social media, including by African survivors of the disease. One wonders why governmental attention has not been paid to the local efforts and therapies. True, some may in the end prove not to be effective but the whole treatment for COVID-19 has been trial and error everywhere. There have been drugs that were widely touted for being potential cures in the West only for them to fail at clinical trial. This means that if any of our touted local remedies or even inventions fail to live up to its hype on critical evaluation by experts, so be it.
Five, African countries need to build nations that will make all the citizens stakeholders in project. In several African countries, the basis of even statehood remains contested. In most African countries, it has been a game of musical chairs after the other – one strong man comes to power, uses state power to privilege his in-group and disadvantages others, only to be eventually replaced by another maximum ruler with a different ethnic/religious identity who repeats the same circus show. Unless African countries are able to create ‘imagined communities’, their ability to maximally play in the coming Cold War 2 will be seriously constrained.