/ 15 June 2023

Who will be the bully in a changing world order?

President Biden Delivers An Update On The Ukraine Russia Crisis
US President Joe Biden. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It might not seem so to the many economists and commentators warning of our impending economic peril should we be booted out of Agoa – the preferential trade programme that allows 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to export to the US tariff-free – but there’s risk to President Joe Biden taking the advice of US lawmakers. 

The risk is that the world’s biggest economy for the next decade at best could only further alienate other small and not so small countries on the African continent and in the global south in their battle for hegemony in the global order. 

There has long been a swirling sense of discontent from nations with the manner in which the US has sought to use its economic muscle and dollar dominance to bow nations to their will, which explains the number of countries that have sought to align themselves with the Brics grouping of nations. 

The list of applicants even includes the US’s neighbour and the world’s 15th-biggest economy, Mexico. 

South Africa, like most other emerging market nations, has long held its non-aligned stance, which makes sense both economically and politically given its historical trade links with the West and the growing importance of the East, namely China, over the past three decades. 

China is its biggest trade partner, followed by the US. It would be suicide to choose any side in this Cold War 2.0, which has been fuelled by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

It has become clear that in the US’s discomfort with losing its status as the world’s biggest economy, it has resorted to what one analyst calls the “George Bush” doctrine in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001: either you are with us or against us. 

It is a game we cannot and should not play — and many other countries are in a similar boat. The Agoa threat will be seen as bullying in this most sensitive period in world history — the restoration of the status quo from centuries past, China’s pre-eminence. The world is changing.

There is much risk in the short-to-medium-term outlook for South Africa in the threat of suspension or expulsion from the Agoa trade deal. 

It has become pivotal to the country’s motoring assembly plants in East London and our agricultural sector, namely the vineyards in the Western Cape. 

We should all be concerned about the global disorder that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year has sparked and the central role that South Africa has now found itself in, through no fault of its own. Or maybe not — depending on the findings of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commission into the activities of Lady R when it was docked in Simon’s Town.

Whether the country is absolved or not, the threat of banishment from US markets tariff-free will remain a dark cloud hovering over the country because of our membership of Brics and the real prospect of hosting accused war criminal Vladimir Putin in August.

Ramaphosa and his administration’s navigation of this crisis over the next few months will be his and the party’s greatest test.

Disinviting Putin isn’t an option. But were Putin kind, he could save Ramaphosa the legal ramifications of having to ignore his arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court when he lands in the country by dialling in on Zoom. 

This seems rather unlikely, as his emissaries have made it clear that he doesn’t care for muting and unmuting during deliberations. As the Mail & Guardian reported last month, he is coming.

What are we to do should he come? Ignore international law? That will come with stinging economic costs. The alternative, arresting a sitting president of a nuclear state, is impossible to imagine.

There is no winning here, and many other nations will be watching how the US and China respond to a little country in Africa struggling with its many problems.

Who will be the bully or the ally?