In this time of crisis, the world must turn to spirit of common humanity
Address by Aziz Pahad on his acceptance of an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria
● I am grateful and thank the University of Pretoria for the honour of receiving this honorary doctorate. I especially appreciate the award since this university has not only become a leading citadel of learning but risen to its calling as an African institution by embedding a pan-African ethos and spirit.
I am also deeply mindful of the volatile, complex and uncertain times we now live in. The pandemic has accentuated the underlying fault lines of the global community, bringing rising levels of despair, discord, anxiety and disillusionment. The coronavirus did not create these fault lines, it exacerbated them. But how did we get to such a fragile and fragmented state of global relations?
Over the many years of my involvement in international relations, the standard academic analysis has been that after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War ended and the US emerged as the leading global, political and economic superpower. It was proffered that humanity had at last reached the golden age of democracy, peace, prosperity and a strengthening of multilateral economic and political world order.
The World Trade Organisation and the UN multilateral system were to be the pillars of a new utopia in contrast with narrow nationalism and unilateralism. This was the promise of a new and better world for all — but it never came.
The world changed for the worse. The tipping point was the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US that strengthened and consolidated the influence of US right-wing foreign policymakers. A process was unleashed that fundamentally undermined the rulesbased system of international law and multilateralism.
Charles Krauthammer, a leading US neo-con ideologue, argued: “At the end of the Cold War the US faced a unipolar moment when no other power existed to challenge American hegemony and the US in future will act as a custodian of the international system.”
The US national security strategy document of 2002 stated that “the US will not hesitate to strike preemptively against its enemies, and will never again allow its military supremacy to be challenged”. Over the years the US has forged “coalitions of the willing” and demanded the prerogative to “act as a custodian of the international system”.
In 1997 the neo-cons, who had gained key positions in the Republican administration, set up a new group called the Project for the New American Century to “shape a new century favourable to American principles and interests”. They hoped to achieve this through a “Reaganite” policy of military strength and moral clarity; in short, to build on the success of the past century and ensure US success and greatness in the next.
They wrote to president Bill Clinton in 1998, calling on him to adopt as policy the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power in Iraq, support for the safety of US allies — Israel and moderate Arab states — and protection of oil resources in the region. They called for pre-emptive strikes on “rogue states” such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq and for the US to reorient its political and military strategy towards China.
It is my assertion that post-9/11 the very basis of international law was undermined and multilateral institutions like the UN have been fundamentally weakened. Today the exaggerated narrative of terrorist threats is the continuing rationale for Pax Americana. The consequence of such policies is that today Africa and the rest of the world face one of their greatest crises.
Features of this crisis include the failure of globalisation; the growing influence of the militaryindustrial complex; the dominance of neoliberalism and the Washington consensus; disregard for the UN Charter and international law; growing threats to regional and international peace and security; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the growth of populist political and economic nationalism and anti-democratic tendencies; and the recent unprecedented consequences of Covid.
The tendency of rich and powerful countries to overbuy and hoard Covid vaccines is a shocking example of nationalism. The Atlantic Council, a leading US think-tank, warned in 2016 that the current decade would be characterised by a breakdown of order and violent extremism in many parts of the world. Other US and European academic institutions and think-tanks made similar predictions.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned that “our world is suffering from a trust deficit disorder”.
“People are troubled and insecure,” he said. “Among countries, co-operation is less certain and more difficult. Divisions in the Security Council are stark. Trust in global governance is fragile. Today, world order is increasingly chaotic.”
Where will this lead to? What is the fate of our fragile, fragmented world?
Events on January 6, when neo-fascists stormed Capitol Hill, left the US and the rest of the world stunned. We will experience many such incidents globally.
Institutions of higher learning must grapple with the question of whether countries, including the US and other Nato members, are abusing their political, economic and military power.
It seems that many established principles and reference books extolling the virtues of US and European democracy and good governance, which have influenced so much international theory and practice, will have to be re-examined. Today we are experiencing the growing political, economic and cultural influence of emerging countries including China and Russia.
China’s President Xi Jinping, addressing the World Economic Forum in January, said: “To beggar thy neighbour, to go it alone, and to slip into arrogant isolation will always fail ... let multilateralism light our way toward a community with a shared future.”
President Vladimir Putin called on humanity to act before the world is destroyed by a nuclear catastrophe.
President Joe Biden has much to do to restore his country’s standing in the world. He must, for the sake of all of humanity, find common cause with other global leaders to return the world to a more stable, peaceful and prosperous order.
Now more than ever the world is in need of true leadership to inspire a united and decisive global response to the threats and challenges.
Throughout history there are examples of crisis that present threats to the future of humanity — and humanity responded as a united and decisive force to defeat such threats. We live in such a time.
We would do well to remember that the human family remains bound together by mutual vulnerabilities and an abiding sense of solidarity, compassion and interdependence. These have been the essential values that have guided SA’s foreign policy since 1994, profoundly informed by our global landscape of grave asymmetry and deep inequality.
I am confident that given the challenges humanity faces, today’s University of Pretoria graduates, researchers, academics and future graduates will join their counterparts in Africa and the rest of the world to “rebuild trust” and defeat tendencies to slip into arrogant unilateralism. Together we can build a united, peaceful and prosperous Africa and a better world.