In 1983, US President, Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of Grenada. Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain strongly criticised the invasion of a Commonwealth nation (the Queen was still the titular Head of State of Grenada), but that was all Britain could do, it could not send the Royal Navy to challenge the US Navy. Such a display of weakness by Great Britain was unthinkable half a century earlier, in 1933 when its naval power was still perceived as unrivalled.
In 1823, then US president, James Monroe proclaimed the “Monroe Doctrine”. This basically meant that the United States would no longer tolerate incursions by European powers in the Western Hemisphere, which it considered its backyard. For a couple of decades, these were little more than empty words, because the United States lacked the means to enforce them. That however, changed when the United States became a serious industrial power following the American Civil War and Reconstruction. The completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 meant that for the first time, the United States of America could reliably and efficiently link its western and eastern coasts. In simple terms , the United States had truly become a continental power.
The first target of a newly industrialised United States was the declining Spanish Empire. Spain was ejected from Cuba and Spanish possessions such as Puerto Rico and the Philippines were acquired. By 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, and US shipping and the US Navy could quickly and reliably link America’s East and West coasts. The United States of America had become the major power in its hemisphere. However, there was one problem – the Royal Navy and British naval assets in the Caribbean. The US Navy was not yet ready to challenge the Royal Navy. Then the Second World War came along, and a desperate Britain was suddenly ready to hand over control of naval assets in the Caribbean in exchange for badly needed munitions. With the acquisition of British assets in the western Atlantic, the United States became the uncontested naval power in the Caribbean, and the Western hemisphere – and this enabled them to operate at will; eventually invading nations like Panama, Grenada and Haiti.
China wants to treat the South China Sea the same way the US treats the Caribbean, but unfortunately for China, it has powerful neighbours and the US Navy, the de facto guarantor of freedom of movement in the region to contend with. This has not stopped China from pushing as far as it can, and building up its navy to cement its dominance of the South China Sea. This is how great powers behave. Ultimately, rules only matter when great powers say they do. In such a world, might is right, and weakness is a crime.
So how does this affect us in Africa?
The world is transiting from a rules-based order, in which the sole superpower had an interest in enforcing the rules, to an emerging “disorder”, which has many actors testing the limits. This was predictable, as great powers like Russia and China were never going to accept America’s unipolar moment which followed the fall of the Soviet Union. China has grown to become the second-largest economy in the world (by some measures it is now the largest), while Russia, at least militarily, has bounced back from the days of humiliation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both countries are eager to occupy their proverbial “place under the sun”.
They are not alone. There are other regional powers such as Turkey testing this new order and exploring a sort of revival of the old Ottoman Empire. Turkey has made incursions into Syria and is actively informed in determining the future direction of a chaotic Libya.. The success or failure of Turkish operations in Libya will shape the future of its military operations in the Sahel, and indeed all engagements in the Sahara and the Sahel. If the Turkish military achieves its objectives in Libya, it will be tempted to operate further south, in the Sahel, and thus challenge French dominance – both powers are already at loggerheads over the Libya question. This potential should not be written off, as Turkey is developing amphibious and expeditionary capabilities and could be able to accomplish this in a couple of decades. The fact that Turkey is a majority Muslim country, like most of the Sahel, also helps their cause.
This emerging new world order will be driven by great powers and regional powers “testing weaknesses” – and this puts African countries at a distinct disadvantage because we are yet to develop the economic and military strength to oppose military adventurism. We could be dealing with Russian, Chinese and Turkish military interventions (in addition to existing adventurism from the US and France) and have nothing other than high fangled appeals to morality to counter it.
Africa does not appear to be economically and geopolitically prepared for this century and we have been caught flat-footed. In addition, our internal problems, such as weak states struggling to exert themselves within their political boundaries, will make it difficult for us to build the economic, technological and military strengths to thrive in this new environment. Having pointed that out, it is important that we understand what we are up against.