8 November 2023

Geopolitics: Alliances at the Bottom of the Wave

The headquarters of African Union
The headquarters of African Union

Rabat – We remember the announcement with pomp of the signing of the quadripartite declaration between South Africa, Algeria, Ethiopia and Nigeria in March 2022 establishing an alliance of consultation and coordination on major African issues. A G4 inception that sought to confirm the existence of a new geopolitical axis based on the paradigms of the pivotal state and strategic intermittency in Regional Security complexes.

The four countries, however, have no specific assets to share but their desire to test each other on the various regional geopolitical chessboards. The first goal was to set themselves well in order to restore order in the African Union which began to slip through their fingers. In such a risky move, South Africa and Algeria fourth hard to ensure that their ascendancy over the pan-African organization did not fall into the water.

Nigeria sought to demonstrate that it did not plan to bring about a radical diplomatic shift in its position on certain endemic conflicts. Abuja also intended to consolidate its ascendancy over ECOWAS and clearly stress its essential role in all security equations, particularly in terms of energy security.

Ethiopia sought, on the one hand, to jump on the bandwagon to have weighty, even laborious, support in its standoff with Egypt over the Ennahda dam and to play the saving spoiler in the political and diplomatic equations in East Africa on the other. Ethiopia cleverly used its privilege of hosting the headquarters of the African Union.

Alliances of circumstance and cracked alliances

At first glance, the four countries’ move seemed legitimate. The various maneuvers seemed to be a trial balloon to gauge the various transformations underway pertaining to global geopolitics in the current transitional phase that the international system is going through. However, more tangible would be the reading that each of the four countries was eyeing a possible co-optation by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to put its name on the potential list of candidates for the post of permanent member as part of the laborious reform of the United Nations System.

In the same perspective, a frantic race has been witnessed between Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Finally, only Egypt (which had been excluded from the G4) and Ethiopia succeeded in joining this set on August 24, 2023. Egypt was invited along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Argentina, and Iran. They should, in principle, be officially admitted in January 2024.

What is the correlation between these different geopolitical exercises? There are as many as the appropriate geopolitical reading allows. But I will focus on a more down-to-earth reading. I will look at the hypothesis that alliances based on ideological ascendancy are running out of steam, if not engaging in a fatal erosion. Proof of this is the composition of the BRICS and some regional organizations.

Second, alliances of circumstances on the basis of hasty appreciation always fizzle out. The proverb says “Two can play at that game”. The superficial nature of makeshift alliances is predictably failing because the actors do not share the same political and diplomatic aims. To this must be added the pitfall of the stagnation of the process of circulation of the political elites who are credited with controlling the decision-making system.

Thirdly, alliances of circumstances aim to create a hierarchy of actors that draws its strength from unfinished or even erroneous readings of the political situation (and timing) that presided over their creation. From the outset, a lame structure emerges.

How can these arguments be made? First, over the past eight years, the global geopolitical chessboard has undergone a shift in the hierarchy of power and dominance, affecting state actors and international organizations.

From the exhaustion of actors supposedly intermediate or emerging powers, we have moved to the erosion of bargaining power and decision-making hegemony within regional and international organizations. This is true in organizations such as the European Union, the African Union, the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, MERCOSUR, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, not to mention less successful organizations such as the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, etc.

Second, the perception of the industrial-military complexes and the structures that have been deployed in their orbits has changed in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. If, from 1990 to 2015, the tendency was to cause disorder in many issue areas —making sure not to go beyond the limits assigned—the approach currently adopted would be to no longer rely on the sub-actors they have created and supported and even less on the less reliable non-state actors. Both categories have exhausted their service and life expectancy.

The behavior of the United States and Russia with regard to their strategic parity arrangements is a perfect illustration of such a paradigm shift. The temptation to involve China in a triangular equation aspiring to correctly read the hermetism resulting from a declining international system has so far failed. China is aware of such a scheme and does not have the means to properly read such signals, let alone engage totally in conflict resolution processes.

The tendency would therefore be to neutralize troublemaking state actors and get rid of intractable non-state actors who revolt against their sponsors or show ingratitude through passive and active resistance. The following examples may help understand this argument.

First example: the traditional hierarchy of traditional state actors has become more critical than ever before. Within the European Union, the Franco-German couple exists only through the series of oddities committed over the last decade pertaining to the European common foreign policy. Brexit and the war between Ukraine and Russia have aggravated the misunderstanding, if not the crisis.

The second is the weaknesses of regional organizations. This is the case with respect to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the League of Arab States, and the African Union. All these organizations were unable to slightly resolve the local conflicts that divided most of their members. Even an organization such as the African Union, which aspired to correct the shortcomings of the original Charter (OAU-1963), has done worse by mutedly privileging the ideological dimension and trying to impose a new hierarchy of actors.

The third example casts the game of Ping-Pong between state actors of equal power. The latter have aimed not at readjusting positions on the geopolitical chessboard but at neutralizing each other and outsider competing actors.

The new configurations have imposed new perceptions that are more realistic than in the past. At the top of the list of decisions made to fit in is the resolution of so-called frozen conflicts. A move that has important geopolitical significance

The news is focused on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan recovered the territory that was wrested from it in 1994. The Armenian-backed Armenian dissident movement lost the battle. What is happening is only a move to restore order insofar as this separatist movement has never been recognized by any country, including Armenia.

Frozen conflicts and territorial integrity resolution

The case of Nagorno-Karabakh calls into question the narrow interpretation of the principle of self-determination and the principle of the inviolability of borders inherited from colonization. Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it has never given up recovering its borders, and Armenia has shown realism by no longer embarking on a lost battle. Armenian realism comes from the fact that Erivan was aware that the post-breakup stakes of the Soviet Union no longer have the same strategic and geopolitical significance.

In addition to the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, there is the Kurdish precedent. In the wake of what was called the “Arab Spring”, the idea of creating an independent entity in Iraqi Kurdistan was considered, and the results of the referendum gave a cold shower to the sponsors of this solution in the United States, Israel, and other Western countries.

The project of a Kurdish nation bringing together the Kurds of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey is old, but its realization is difficult, if not impossible. The reason is that such a precedent could snowball and explode ethnic aspirations around the world.

The Transnistria conflict opposes a dissident movement, and Moldova would soon be on the list of frozen conflicts to be settled. The separatist movement that unfolds there will be subject to pressure and forced to give up its dream of being internationally recognized as an independent state. The dynamics of unilateral autonomy under the benevolent eye of the interested regional powers are no longer a security shield for both sponsors and proxy actors. The war between Russia and Ukraine has introduced a new geopolitical equation that calls into question the salutary nature of the status quo. And it is not excluded that Russia will adopt the same position as the one adopted with regard to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The conflict in Yemen can be inserted into the box of conflicts that will have an outcome in the coming months. The Yemeni case does not differ from the two cases mentioned above. Indeed, in the past, the combination of ideology and foreign interests was intended to keep the conflict alive. However, the evolution of geopolitics in the Middle East may convince the actors involved to seek a solution that promotes territorial integrity and shelves doctrinal and religious differences.

In light of the above, several conclusions can be drawn. First conclusion: the constitution of a state on the basis of a single ethnic group is an aberration, because there is no pure ethnicity in any country in the world.

The second conclusion is that the populations within constituted states that enjoy autonomy have already exercised their right to self-determination. They can claim more rights, but within the framework given to them by the Constitution.

Third conclusion: the autonomy proposal is not an open offer. The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is a perfect illustration of this. The idea of autonomy for the Armenian populations of the province within the framework of Azerbaijani sovereignty has been put forward. It was reportedly accepted and encouraged by some members of the Minsk Group (United States, Russia, and France), but rejected by Armenian dissidents. After the 2020 war and current developments, this offer would no longer be on the agenda.

Fourth conclusion: separatist movements cannot be reliable parties to conflict resolution processes. Because they are either proxy movements in the service of one or more regional or international foreign states or free electrons who do not refrain from siding with organized crime networks or transnational terrorist movements.

Fifth conclusion: The collision between separatist movements and organized crime networks makes the intelligence services that promote and encourage separatism appear like the full guys.

Sixth conclusion: the idea of autonomy within the framework of the territorial integrity of states is judicious, democratic, and respectful of the right to self-determination. It is in this spirit that French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to Corsica should be interpreted. If this proposal made its way, it would snowball in other French regions and beyond.

Seventh conclusion: It is becoming obvious that the global security and strategic chessboard manipulated by the great and middle powers can no longer accommodate the proliferation of failed states. The latter became a danger even for those who created, funded, and kept them alive.

Eighth conclusion: the religious dimension can no longer be used to justify the foreign policy choices of states involved in endemic conflicts. These states cannot resort forever to pariah movements to carry out their security and military doctrines. Non-state armed groups are going through difficult times, and the ideological right-hand men of some countries no longer have the means and the geographical and transnational space required to continue doing their generously paid work.

Ninth conclusion in the form of a question: what would be the future of the Sahelo-Saharan region? Is pacification possible with the new authorities in countries that have recorded regime change? Would the French military withdrawal and the multiplication of non-state armed groups and paramilitary companies subservient to foreign states be likely to create chaos? Is it to be feared that the failure of France in West Africa will push some structures to revive dissident tendencies in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger?

Tenth conclusion in the form of an additional question: is regime change the only option to achieve peace and security in some issue areas? Would this happen through the use of pragmatism or as a result of the stubbornness of domestic and foreign policy planners?

Separatism, terrorism, and failed states

Eleventh conclusion: The encouragement or manipulation of coups has shown that the new generations of the military are driven much more by the feeling of saving their state structures from shattering than by being at the mercy of foreign powers. Those who believe that the recent military rebellion movements in sub-Saharan Africa will replace an old power (France) with new powers (Russia or China) will soon have a second thought.

Twelfth conclusion: some, once important actors in regional subsystems, are losing the control and intelligence to adapt to new changes. They suffer from the syndrome of denial, the illusion of having a right to speak, and the lack of lucidity in the face of unexpected crises. In Africa, some of them are driven by one-system ideology, clan management, and political recklessness. The circulation of elites is banned, and decision-makers in these countries vegetate in outdated external alliances. But these alliances are as fragile as they are illusory.

The G4—South Africa, Algeria, Ethiopia, and Nigeria—are good examples to sustain this argument. Similarly, the hegemonic spirit displayed by some of them in their respective regions becomes ridiculous and unworkable.

South Africa will soon no longer be able to rule over countries that are growing in its immediate neighborhood. Nigeria is making an intelligent shift in its system of alliances and is becoming aware that it cannot impose its geopolitical vision within ECOWAS forever. It chooses the economy as an element promoting growth and co-development (the Nigeria-Morocco-Europe gas pipeline is an example in this respect).

Algeria is entangled in its intranational and regional political contradictions. Nor will Ethiopia be able to make the argument of hosting the headquarters of the African Union to surf alliances and have their cake and eat it too.

However, a fair question could be raised with respect to the alliance between South Africa and Algeria, who have succeeded in all their geopolitical plans in failure. This applies to the failure of a project aimed at making an ideological alliance a weapon of geopolitical bargaining in Africa. The two countries no longer wield the influence they had enjoyed for decades in the African Union. They have been elected several times in the United Nations Security Council (South Africa, 3 times since 2007 and Algeria, 3 times since 1968 and preparing for a 4th time in January 2024) without ever striking any deal but showing a steady “followism,” if not obedience, that they could neither stop nor temper.

In geopolitics, it is sometimes legitimate to make bets. And the most unlikely bet is to assume that very soon the alliance between South Africa and Algeria will shrink like a skin of grief and end up disappearing into the wild. The inevitable institutional transformation of the African Union, the ups and downs in the BRICS, and the intra-national political stagnation will eventually bring about surprises. One potential surprise would be to question the sustainability (and the exorbitant and ineffective cost) of this alliance challenged by the rise of actors who frame their political and diplomatic behavior in co-development and interdependence and not in hegemony that jeopardizes peace and security regionally and worldwide.

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