ISS TODAY ANALYSIS
Africa’s rise in strategic importance on world stage could reshape international order
As global powers seek support for their competing worldviews, will Africa capitalise on its rising diplomatic value?
African states have long featured prominently in the foreign policy calculus of the great powers and middle powers in more recent times. This is particularly in terms of natural resource extraction, energy security and finding new markets for trade and investment.
But due to their relatively limited hard-power profiles (or material capabilities), no single African country can challenge or obstruct the global ambitions of powers such as the United States (US), China, Russia, the United Kingdom (UK) and France.
As a result, the continent has struggled to influence the international agenda outside of bodies like the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). However, 2022 may come to be seen as the year that marked a decisive turning point.
In hindsight, multilateral responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are perceived as far more significant than individual states’ reactions to a specific crisis. Positions adopted in the UN General Assembly’s 11th Emergency Special Session on Ukraine have been interpreted (primarily by the West) as a key signifier of countries’ commitment to the current rules-based, global order.
The conflict has been framed as an attack on the normative bedrock of the international system — pitting revisionist forces against those seeking to maintain the status quo. An analysis of regional voting patterns for the three UN resolutions adopted on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (see chart) is revealing.
Across all three votes, the Western European grouping (which includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and Israel) maintained an extraordinarily high level of unity in opposing the invasion and supporting all three resolutions. This was mirrored by the Eastern European group, with a handful of exceptions.
These voting patterns — and the framing of the invasion as an attack on the international order by US president Joe Biden and European Union Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, among others — show that the West expected states from other UN blocs to share this worldview. While many did for the first two resolutions, there was a considerable drop-off in the third resolution, which booted Russia off the UN Human Rights Council.
Votes from Africa, and Asia-Pacific to a lesser extent, underscored a sharp global divide on the unfolding conflict. African states were split almost down the middle in their support of the first two resolutions — while being far more muted on the issue in other diplomatic engagements.
Reasons for the different voting outcomes are specific to each country, but there’s a clear mismatch between Western and African states’ worldviews on how the crisis is understood politically. As a result, Africa has become a significant site of global power contestation for influence and support — reminiscent of the Cold War era.
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This has bolstered the continent’s strategic importance on the world stage. African countries are seen as ‘swing states’ in a grand battle between those attempting to maintain or undermine the current international order. This was exemplified in recent months by a series of high-level diplomatic tours.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz conducted his first official visit to Africa in late May, visiting Senegal, Niger and South Africa. The trip informed Germany’s hosting of the G7 summit in June, which focused on the economic impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and current AU chair, Senegalese president Macky Sall were invited, showing Scholz’s acknowledgement that African perspectives should be considered. African states (and the AU) aren’t part of the G7.
In July, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the continent, seeking to reboot relations with Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. Concurrently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia to garner support and provide reassurances on the impact of the conflict on Africa’s food security.
Early August saw US State Secretary Antony Blinken visit South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda to revitalise relations and promote the US’s new strategy for sub-Saharan Africa. The strategy follows the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act in April, which links to ideas in the US’s 2017 National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy and 2022 North Atlantic Treaty Organization Strategic Concept adopted in June. Both strategies point to the return of long-term strategic competition among states.
Together, these engagements show a concerted effort among global powers to revamp relations with African partners against the backdrop of increasing rivalry. Beyond the search for new markets and natural resources, African states are being included in influential countries’ foreign policy planning in a bid to secure support for competing worldviews on the international order.
The critical question for the continent’s leaders is how to make use of this rising strategic value. That this value is externally derived is irrelevant. What matters is how it could be leveraged to achieve Africa’s collective political and developmental agenda.
This is the moment for Africa’s leaders to agree on and pursue long-standing big-ticket items, like meaningful UN Security Council reform. Accomplishing that will be difficult and may require a considerable recalibration of relations among African states themselves.
As global power rivalries intensify, it’s worth remembering that the current international order has rarely worked in Africa’s favour — and has arguably reinforced the continent’s marginal position in world affairs. So African countries are naturally positioned as revisionist forces, striving for a more representative and equitable international system that could better respond to the challenges all states face.
At the same time, a new international order that is more transactional and lacks a robust normative bedrock could prove far more sinister than the current one.
In either case, Africa’s rising strategic stock on the world stage cannot be squandered if its leaders are committed to a common political, developmental and human security agenda. DM
Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the world, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.
First published by ISS Today.