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Is nationalism vanquishing internationalism?

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Is nationalism vanquishing internationalism?

It’s hardly surprising that the world is competing over vaccines when our era has seen nationalism vanquishing internationalism and unilateralism overwhelming multilateralism, says Lord Peter Hain

One of my most enjoyable jobs during 12 years in Britain’s last Labour government was as UK Minister for Africa – the only ever African-born holder of that office. 

Brought up in South Africa, the son of anti-Apartheid activist parents forced into exile in London, the continent has always been close to my heart. And for two years from 1999 I flew all over it, from Morocco to Egypt, from Sierra Leone to Kenya, from Angola to Tanzania and from Namibia to Mozambique. 

That was when former South African President Thabo Mbeki spoke nobly of an African Renaissance. 

But today a miserly 1% of Covid vaccines injected around the world have been administered on the continent. Around 30m doses have been delivered in Africa – covering barely 2% of the total population. When Britain had vaccinated half its people, Burkina Faso had managed just 200 out of its 20m population: “vaccine apartheid”, charged Thabo Makgoba, the Archbishop of Cape Town

China with its Sinopharm, and Russia with its Sputnik vaccines, nipped in to donate hundreds of millions of doses to scores of their allies, provoking sour comments from the UK and US of “vaccine diplomacy”. 

By late June China had promised half a billion doses to 45 countries, but US President Joe Biden trumped that with his pledge of over half a billion to 100 countries “without any cost or strings”. 

Yet the former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said the outcome of the G7’s June 2021 summit was “a colossal failure to vaccinate the world, an unforgivable moral failure when Covid is destroying lives at the rate of one-third of a million every month”.

In the weeks that followed, the more contagious Delta variant began sweeping through South Africa and elsewhere. Brown echoed the World Health Organisation’s view that the G7 needed to distribute 11bn vaccines, and not just the one billion it had pledged, and that compulsory patent transfers were also needed to boost vaccine production for Africa.

The WHO said the G7 money would “only provide enough doses to vaccinate around 200m people… by the end of the year”, while the ONE Campaign observed, “By the next G7 summit only 10.3% of the population in low and medium income countries would be vaccinated by this deal.”

A splintering world

And if there is no global solidarity around vaccines, how can richer countries expect developing countries to incur the costs of tackling the climate emergency, which the richer nations have largely driven? 

But it’s hardly surprising that the world has splintered, competed and disputed over vaccine supplies. 

Although “nobody is safe until everybody is safe” – almost a cliché of the Covid-19 pandemic – our era has seen nationalism vanquishing internationalism, and unilateralism overwhelming multilateralism. 

President Trump epitomised that, by abandoning the Climate Change Treaty. He even left the WHO bang in the middle of the pandemic. His ‘America First’ was paralleled by ‘Russia First’, ‘China First’ and ‘India First’, all a form of aggressive nationalism coming on top of the defensive nationalism of tariff barriers, trade protectionism, closed borders and walls against neighbouring and other countries. Trump, Putin, Zi, Modi – as well as Bolsonaro and Erdogan – all reflected a ‘me-first’ world. Boris Johnson’s Brexit was of the same ilk. Yet the burning heatwaves hitting the US and Canada in July, and coming on top of the pandemic, demonstrated that G7 countries – indeed all countries – depend upon working more together, not competing and posturing apart.    

Trump was contemptuous of strategic international partnerships based upon mutual interests, and saw rules-based multilateral institutions like the UN, NATO or the EU as conspiracies to thwart US power. 

By contrast, President Joe Biden, in an article published in the Washington Post on the eve of the G7, European Union and NATO summits in June, promoted a renewal of transatlantic relationships based on “shared democratic values”.

He was greeted with open relief simply for not being Trump. But his scenario – shared by many Western leaders and pundits – is of the “democratic world” confronting the “undemocratic” forces of China and Russia, with however, Moscow diminished, no longer a Cold War superpower, and Putin regarded as a malevolent but declining influence. China was his real target, and China has certainly been muscular in recent times.

Biden proposed to set up a rival to the Chinese Belt and Road initiative by offering developing countries a transparent green route to investment in ports, roads and digital infrastructure, in a plan to replace Huawei’s dominance and to secure critical supply chains in semiconductor manufacturing; large-capacity batteries such as for electric vehicles; critical minerals and materials; and advanced pharmaceuticals.

China could well overtake the US as the prime global power within decades; it is already primed to beat the US in gross domestic product by the end of this decade, and as a frontier technological power too. 

Whereas in the Cold War the Kremlin was defeated when Soviet statism imploded economically, China’s brand of capitalism is much more successful, competing effectively with – and maybe vanquishing – the West, with the G7 (US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan) declining in its relative share of global wealth.

In the US-China conflict crosshairs

Although the US is often hypocritical in its ‘free world’ rhetoric, China is a totalitarian state with expansionist ambitions, practising genocide against its own Muslim citizens, the Uighurs, so a choice between Washington and Beijing shouldn’t be too difficult for the European Union. 

However, China is also Germany’s biggest export market and smaller EU countries have benefitted from significant Chinese investment in their infrastructure and businesses. Brussels and Beijing also agreed an important trade deal last year and the 27 EU member states don’t share Washington’s priority for Chinese containment.

Moreover, as the European Council on Foreign Relations reports: “More than a year after the start of the pandemic, the feeling has taken root among Europeans that they cannot rely on the US, Russia or China, and that they must move towards greater self-reliance.”

But if Joe Biden succeeds in rallying Western leaders to a new cold war, where does that leave Africa, caught by a choice between China’s state capitalism with its ugly authoritarianism, and Western neoliberalism with its widening inequality?

Attending the G7 as a special guest, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa protested that he would not be forced to choose either China or the US: he wanted to partner both. 

Meanwhile, as Gordon Brown recently asked, why do our global leaders “seem unable to do what it takes to forestall economic crises, halt climate change, stop the new nuclear arms race, end extreme poverty, illiteracy and avoidable infant and maternal deaths – and stop tax avoiders funnelling billions into tax havens?”

African countries, perhaps more than any others, are entitled to a positive answer. 

Lord Peter Hain is a former anti-apartheid leader and British Cabinet Minister. His new memoir, A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, has just been published by Jonathan Ball.

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