By Prof. John Harbeson
As I witness and begin to live through the political earthquake in the United States that started last month, which I find appalling and perhaps ominous, my thoughts to turn what it might mean for other regions of the world, and for Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa in particular. I begin to realise that the world into which former colonies have been introduced since their independence, and whose established norms they have been expected to embrace, may be on the cusp of a fundamental transformation.
After a half century in which industrialised democracies have encouraged, aided, cajoled and, at times, heavily pressure African countries to adopt the liberal political and economic they have sewn into the fabric of the international political and economic order, those very values may now be at unprecedented risk at their source – the industrialised countries of the north.
The looming consequence of extraordinary significance may be that the United States, Britain, and potentially other industrial democracies, will increasingly be fighting domestically over the scope and legitimacy of the very values they have been urging on sub-Saharan Africa for a century—ostensibly even during the colonial era. To the extent this occurs, at least some industrialised democracies will be wrestling with those liberal values at the same time African countries are, notwithstanding their still profoundly different circumstances.
In the last issue of this journal, I wrote about the potential challenge of Brexit—Britain’s impending exit from the European Union – not only on decades of European Union embrace of borderless free trade, but to seventy-five years of global institutionalization of free trade beginning with the post-World War II Bretton Woods agreements. Sub-Saharan African and other developing countries have wrestled in democratic dialogue with industrialised countries on how to make free trade rules fairer. At the same, in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, the international financial institutions imposed stringent terms for adherence to these terms on African and other developing countries, ostensibly both in the belief it was in those countries’ best interests and in order to preserve the integrity of the international order’s free trade architecture.
Now, the US, on whom the viability of the Bretton Woods agreement is dependent for a quarter-century, and whose embrace of the free trade architecture continues to be indispensable, has conducted at election in which both major party candidates retreated from that commitment. They have done so at a time when China, Brazil, India, and even Russia and other emergent economies, whose own commitment to free trade is not necessarily beyond question, have assumed increasing importance in the future economic development of many sub-Saharan African countries. Ironically, they have done so even as sub-Saharan African countries have initiated important continental free trade agreements just as they are under threat in Europe, the Americas, and perhaps in the Far East with the Transpacific Pacific Partnership.
It has become a fair question to what extent the global free trade architecture, which is responsible for unprecedented economic growth, will survive, now that, really for the first time, constituencies that have felt left out and behind by this prosperity have threatened to prevail democratically in at countries that have been its architects. Of course, there is still the enduring indictment that the free trade architecture has sustained rather than liberated developing countries from debilitating dependency. Which countries in these circumstances, if any, will lead the world out of a descent into nationalist dog-eat-dog mercantilism that was largely responsible at worst for the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s well before today’s potentially vulnerable independent nations of the global south came of age? From whence will come the leadership and vision to repair the flaws in economic liberalism rather than discard it?
Global free trade architecture, now at some risk, both depends upon and is integral to sustaining democracy, within nations as well as between and among them. As an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs notes, there are two kinds of populism that can energise and mobilise distressed citizenries at the grassroots: that which is inclusive of the economically marginalised and of those suffering ethnic, racial, national, and gender discrimination, and that which, out of fear and resentment, targets these same communities.
Liberal democracy is the goal of the former type of populism, authoritarian repression the likely product of the latter type. At a time when waves of democracy in Africa have experienced sagging momentum, it is not helpful that negative populism has reared its ugly head and appeared to surge in mature countries that have been the exemplars of progressive populism. Now is the time to restore that momentum in the north as well as the south.
Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies