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Opinionista

As global alarm bells ring, a new world order is being forged — and it is a risky place

mm

Ghaleb Cachalia is a Democratic Alliance MP in the National Assembly.

The apparent decline of American and Western supremacy is not transitory and bears significant implications. The foremost consequence is the potential emergence of an unregulated international order lacking norms and fostering identity-based conflicts.

As the year draws to a close, I reflect, as we all do, on what has passed.

We all lost friends – too many, too soon – to Covid and other causes.

We witnessed the madness of war – in Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and more – where ordinary people, caught in the crosshairs, lost most everything near and dear to them. We saw, at first hand, the hypocrisy of many, the soft underbelly of prejudice, and the exposure of a global political system – here and elsewhere – as woefully deficient.

The 1964 Zager and Evans song, In the year 2525, foretells the future, pointing to the technological advancement and other changes which depict a dystopian future in which humanity becomes reliant on technology and faces the potential consequences of its own actions, and predicts we are destined for a rough ride.

What is clear, though, is the decline of the Pax Americana – a victim of its own inherent paradoxes. We appear to be in, not for a clash of civilisations, but for an emerging polity that no one has yet been able to predict.

I look forward to witnessing it unfold, as the unreligious me observes the Quranic sura Al Asr: “by the declining day, Lo! man is a state of loss, Save those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance.” Amen, as they say.

With the falling apart of the Pax Americana we are witness to the UN contributing to its dramatic failure – often as a result of indecision – either when member states can’t agree or when they selectively apply, or don’t apply, international norms to suit their interests,

After the devastation of World War 2, the contemporary global system – originating in 1945 with the inception of the UN – aspired to construct a rules-based international order. The idea was that via the establishment of international organisations and the definition of regulations, nations pledged to prevent conflicts, protect victims and shape a more peaceful global environment.

After World War 2, comprehensive human rights documents emerged aimed at fostering a peaceful international order by holding states accountable to these principles.

Paradoxically, the very architects of this system – Western nations – frequently fell short of these standards and, more significantly, exploited these institutions to fortify Western hegemony, setting the scene, despite well-founded intentions, for the relinquishing of the power so diligently acquired.

The often-missing ingredient, arising out of empathy and generosity, shows that true and lasting power – bestowed on the powerful by others – cannot be sidestepped. Overlooking this leads to the essence of the power paradox: The misinterpretation of what initially led to empowerment paves the way to an eventual decline from power.

If one looks back to the onset of the Vietnam War, the initial fractures in American (and Western) hegemony can be seen to emerge, accelerated over time by its response to the “war on terror”. What has become increasingly clear is that the US can no longer dictate terms in a multipolar world through unilateral actions, military or otherwise; such actions only bring devastation and disrupt potential alternative frameworks. Moreover, the appetite among American voters for intervention appears to have diminished along with the demise of the US’s unipolar moment.

Francis Fukuyama, writing in The Economist in 2021, said that “the peak period of American hegemony lasted less than 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the financial crisis of 2007-9. The country was dominant in many domains of power – military, economic, political and cultural. The height of American hubris was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when it hoped to remake not just Iraq and Afghanistan (invaded two years before), but the whole Middle East.”

In August 2021, the key marker was plain when the Taliban seized Kabul as American forces hastily withdrew, marking the end of two decades of American intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East with a humiliating defeat. A mere six months later, the Russia-Ukraine war erupted, with its potential economic and geopolitical ramifications threatening to destabilise the entirety of Europe.

Read more in Daily Maverick: In the rapidly shifting world of geoeconomics, the Rest is getting tired of the West

As Christopher Layne – an American academic specialising in foreign policy – writes: “One of the iron-clad lessons of history is that great powers that seek hegemony are always opposed – and defeated – by the counterbalancing efforts of other states. Yet the prevailing belief among the American foreign policy community is that the United States is exempt from the fate of hegemons.”

The question is: To what extent has Western hegemony been eroded? The US invasion of Iraq, based on false premises, resulted in the death of nearly a million people. During the Arab uprisings, democracy was selectively applied, and the military coup in Egypt led by Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was portrayed – somewhat ludicrously – as a “restoration of democracy”.

Under the Obama administration, attempts to reverse Middle East decline through interventions in Libya and Syria proved futile. Following the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, the US relinquished its pretension to be the dominant external power in the Middle East.

Again, the current state of the Middle East is precarious – to say the least – with regional powers engaging in complex interactions through hostilities or rapidly shifting tactical alliances. Ongoing conflicts persist in Yemen, Palestine, and Syria; shipping passing through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is becoming increasingly precarious and as Iran edges closer to nuclear capability, the threat of Israel’s military action becomes more tangible.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

The apparent decline of American and Western supremacy is not transitory and bears significant implications. The foremost consequence is the potential emergence of an unregulated international order lacking norms, exacerbating the divide between Western and non-Western worlds and fostering identity-based conflicts. This risk has intensified, since the events ignited by the 7 October 2023 Hamas attacks.

Meanwhile, the Global South faces increasing alienation, while Russia and China’s policies may well consolidate. This opens the scene for the Islamic world to align itself with a non-Western geopolitical axis – the unique treatment of Israel in its actions against Gaza signalling the end of the West’s superiority, forcing it to confront moral and political decline.

The alarm bells are ringing – the question is who is listening and can anything be done to stem the decline? All bets are off, but it seems clear: Given the strained qualities of mercy, munificence and magisterial supremacy, the unipolar world is pretty much over. DM

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  • jcdville stormers says:

    A well written analysis

  • Mark K says:

    Both Russia and China are in terminal demographic decline. Their populations now are unable to sustain the economic systems that they have built. They are acting up now because in a few years they will be well-past any point where they can sustain their present militaries. They know this. The West knows this. I have no idea how the “Global South” doesn’t know this too.

    The USA is becoming more isolationist, as it does periodically. This will pass too. Their demographics are fine, and they can easily sustain their overwhelming military advantage. The power discrepancy between the challengers of the hegemon and the hegemon only looks likely to grow greater in the years and decades to come.

    If the Global South picks the wrong side, it will have devastating consequences economically. I am disappointed that a DA MP has misread the geopolitical map to such an extent.

    • dexter m says:

      SA must not pick a side , we must use all to the benefit of SA citizens.

      • Mark K says:

        I agree to an extent… but here’s the thing: Our actions must remain truly neutral for that to be possible. Having joint naval drills with Russia and China, as we did recently, signals picking a side. If the US were to offer joint naval drills, I would caution against it.

        Do you think DIRCO under the ANC is really neutral? Very few people actually believe this.

        • dexter m says:

          In 2022 we had operation “Shared Resolve” with US military. By acting with both groupings we stay independent. We have done naval drills with US and EU members , and we should still do them. For the last couple of years DIRCO’s actions has been moving back to the old cold world policies followed by the non aligned nations. ANC rhetoric to voters does not always match the actions of DIRCO.

          • Mark K says:

            Interesting. I was in China in 2022, so I may have missed that US-South African drill. I could not find information on South African participation in Operation Shared Resolve when I googled it. Can you suggest where I might find more information?

            The joint China-Russia-South African naval drills, however, were very, very easy to find.

            Making a distinction between the ANC and DIRCO seems disingenuous when the ANC itself seems incapable of distinguishing between party and state.

        • dexter m says:

          Is there really a “ANC” , seems more like factions under a brand . Have no idea what faction DIRCO falls under. What scares me is how do they handle coalition politics at a National level , because it will be a miracle they get more than 50 %. On the military i did a google search “south africa us military “. when i search i use us much info as possible , you will be surprised with what you get . Also it was not a naval drill was Army.

    • David Franklin says:

      The Americans do have a tendency to be isolationist from time to time. But their demographics… that’s precisely the thing. They are increasingly polarised into two camps, deeply hostile towards each other, and unable to find common ground. It will probably take a decade or more before that spills into civil war, but when it does, that military strength of theirs will be their undoing. And no, I’m not envisaging a rerun of the 1860s, but rather something resembling the Northern Ireland Troubles. With the difference that city by city, county by county, military units will support either Democrat or Republican governments against opposing insurgencies, with ordinary citizens caught in the middle. I hope not, for all their faults I have a lot of time for many Americans, but mere sentiment does not stop such things!
      There is another problem with their military strength, actually: they have very high-tech weapons. Destroy a single American UAV, and it represents a massive blow, whereas the loss of an Iranian-built, Houthi-operated drone is not much more than an irritation. That high technology depends on sophisticated electronics, which depend on things such as rare earth metals, very pure silicon, and so on. Not a problem to lay one’s hands on in a relatively peaceful, “flat” global order, but increasingly vulnerable to disruption in a world fragmented into competing blocs.

  • Colin K says:

    A decent overview of the political landscape. For me, though, the most interesting/important player will be business.

    At all levels from street trader up to global multinational certain parameters are crucial, particularly certainty and stability.

    Obviously the behemoths hold most sway. If Visa/MasterCard/SWIFT decide you’re out, there are problems. If Google decides to withdraw Free email from your populace, what do you do? Just two basic examples of what large private companies can do.

    My point is that with many large “Western” and “non-Western” companies having global footprints, how much leverage will they have if governments do things that disturb local, regional and international stability?

  • Jon Quirk says:

    I think Mr Cachalia should have juxtaposed his belief in the decline of the West, with decline of China, even before it had fully risen. We are not seeing the replacement of one unipolar power by another, but the rise of c0-existing blocs, two of which will be the USA and China, a third will be a Europe, with Japan partnering with, and supporting both the USA and Europe.

    India is also making a case, and trying hard, to also get a seat at this power table.

    It will be interesting to see which way the Arab world will tilt, which will tell us much about the Iran/Saudi Arabia arm wrestle.

    I believe a balanced, and more stable World may well be the outcome.

    • Mark K says:

      I like your take on this, sir. You clearly keep an eye on these things. I worry that before that more stable world arises, tensions could well explode and create something that resembles a World War. For everybody’s sake, I hope my worry is unfounded.

    • dexter m says:

      I like your thinking . But i think the blocs are still in formation . Only thing certain for the moment is we got 1 super power US and 2 emerging ( China and India) . EU still needs to be stress tested (Without NATO it is only an economic bloc ) . US ( if Trump elected) will add even more uncertainty , his policies are more in line with US foreign policy pre WW2. As a cynic i do not see a balanced and stable world in my lifetime.

  • Johan Buys says:

    politics is a mess almost everywhere : there seems (media) to no longer be the big middle, just far left and far right. Strong man / autocrats either run or want to run the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe with China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia notable large and powerful ones in between.

    A map of autocratic nations colors most of Africa, the middle east and Asia with a splattering elsewhere like Venezuela and even some in the EU. If the author believes that the rebalancing of western hegemony is going to grow from the likes of China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the other basket cases, he is sorely mistaken. The proposed expanded BRICS nations is a collection of basket cases.

    There are good reasons why millions of people flee to democratic successful countries, often at enormous risk. Political, personal, religious and economic freedom plus the rule of law is what people seek. If the west (and Japan, South Korea plus others not in the “west”) exercises hegemony of those principles then I welcome their hegemony.

    As to the demise of western hegemony : don’t hold your breath. Alternatively, pray that Nato and its allies don’t take a non-interested stance next time some madman threatens other nations.

  • Johan Buys says:

    As to the future : 2024 and 2025 are very likely to see escalation of conflicts into broader wars involving more nations. Gaza is the likely trigger that may finally sees Iran and US in direct conflict along with Russia and Syria. It all depends what Saudi Arabia and Egypt do. China will not get involved, neither will India.

    Supply chains will be turned upside down, again. Certainly from trade wars and bans but also as we see now from shipping attacks. Expect ‘western’ firms to steadily relocate their Chinese sources. People like to say for example Apple iPhone is made in China. Rubbish. It is assembled in China for under $3 per device from parts made predominantly in the US, Japan and Korea. The total Chinese parts and labor in a $1500 phone is less than $40. Apple will shift assembly to Mexico or Texas and laugh off the extra $6 in costs.

    • peter selwaski says:

      I doubt that USA and Iran will be in direct conflict, but I’d bet that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear program sites. If nothing more, seal the entrances, but likely neutron bomb them.

  • David Franklin says:

    It is strange that some people think China or Russia are our friends. Or that they are part of the global South. They are neither.
    Nor are they nearly as powerful as they would have us think. Their demographic decline, and China’s desperate shortage of water, may well push China to invade Russia. The amount of fresh water in Lake Baikal is far more valuable to the PRC than Taiwan could ever be, and far more attainable, especially with Russia having weakened themselves in Ukraine. Who would step in to help Russia? North Korea? Iran? India? Maybe India: they want what is left of the Himalayan glaciers for their own, rapidly growing population.
    China has been colonising and plundering Africa; anyone who believes that they are our friends is delusional. Likewise, observe Russia’s behaviour in the Sahel. Speaking of which, observe the onslaught of radical Islamists in the region: Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Daesh…
    And why do they want Africa? Because, as climate change hits them, these powers see that we are the best place to grow FOOD.
    South Africa, and the global South as a whole, from Colombia to the East African Community to Mauritius to Indonesia, and arguably Aus/NZ too, do not need to pick a side between Russia/China/radical Islam/Europe/USA.
    We don’t need them. We are strong enough together. We can be our own side, the one that the fading Northern powers will compete to ally with, provided our leaders aren’t selling us out.

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