African Union’s Power Strategy on the Global Political Scene
In the context of the evolution of human societies, integration — be it in Africa or elsewhere in the post-modern world — is based on the dynamics of positioning supranational organizations as a global pole of balance and regulation.
This article discusses the African Union (AU) and its desire to position itself as a pole of influence that is capable of offering avenues of differentiation and resistance vis-à-vis “Western supremacy” on a global level. Since the end of the bipolar world, and more precisely following the 2002 Durban Summit, the AU has sought to play a role in shaping the international political arena. Obviously, this ambition accords with the double aspiration to transcend the regional confines of the organization and to become a player in the international political arena. Based on the soft power theoretical model propounded by Joseph Nye, this research sets out to analyze the different ways in which the AU hopes to achieve its aim of gaining global political influence. In particular, we look at the material approach through which it seeks to attain global status and strengthen its political multilateralism.
AU’s influence-building strategy
The regular AU summits were established for the purpose of offering to its members an original forum for North-South and East-West dialogue, thereby allowing the AU to play a role on the global scene and build a powerful and useful solidarity between the rich and the poor. The idea was to use Pan-Africanism as an instrument for sharing, and achieving progress and modernization through the implementation of concrete programs. Besides these summits, ministerial conferences also provide the AU with a platform to present itself as a dynamic force in the international political arena and as a competitor of the United Nations. These conferences provide the member states with an arena to discuss the affairs of the continent and its relationship to the world. However, in order to consolidate its ambition of high influence and efficiency through multilateralism, it is important for the AU to acclimatize to current political issues and make a concerted effort to act on the recommendations adopted at ministerial conferences. This would enable member states to revitalize the AU’s political solidarity and dispel perceptions of a center-periphery divide within the organization.
A considerable part of the African continent is made up of very poor and underdeveloped countries: 14 of the top 20 poorest countries on the planet are in Africa. These countries suffer from severely uncompetitive economies, very high levels of debt, and chronic poverty. This does not place the AU in a favorable position within the international community, which in turn undermines pan-African efforts to tackle the challenges of the contemporary world.
The current state of affairs has been a major drawback for the AU in the balance of global power. While it is true that some African countries — such as South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Morocco — are flourishing economically, the level of economic growth has not been substantial enough to render the organization influential. Another obstacle to the positioning of the AU as a pole of balance within the international community is the tentative efforts to build an integrated pan-African economic space. This can be attributed to the lack of inter-governmental exchanges and the absence of a pan-African institutional operator responsible for regional economic integration. The African continent has huge human and technical potential as well as significant raw material deposits. However, almost all African countries have failed to transform this potential into significant wealth through stronger economic and commercial exchanges with the wider world. Looking forward, regional countries should focus on opening up specific horizons and establishing clear goals. There is an urgent need to rethink the role of the African bloc in terms of building power in the global space. The AU can only boast of accelerating population growth and extracting resources to yield influence. Today, Africa's population is estimated at nearly 1.5 billion people and is projected to reach 2 billion by 2050. The literacy rate is less than 50 percent. Less than 35 percent of the population has access to decent housing and less than 20 percent of Africans of working age have a decent job. African countries receive on average only 6 percent of the royalties generated by mining products. Developing its technological capabilities and promoting intra-African mobility remain key priorities for the region’s future progress.
Fifth largest in GDP
An analysis of the international balance of economic power today shows that Africa currently has a distinct advantage against a backdrop of slowing Western growth and the rise of emerging countries. If we consider Africa as a state, the macro-economic indicators are generally satisfactory, earning the continent a position among the top five of world powers with total GDP of US$4,854 billion – coming fifth after China, the United States, India and Japan. Africa’s estimated 1.5 billion inhabitants are spread over a vast territory of 30.3 million square kilometers. The continent is one of the largest free trade and economic zones in the world as of January 1, 2021. Measures to accelerate regional integration, promote peace and security, build infrastructure and improve human capital through adequate supervision of youth and women in particular are all strategic priorities on which significant progress must be made to improve living standards. Africa's influence at the international level could also be enhanced by the national armies which are enjoying great tactical and strategic leeway in the face of contemporary security challenges. The continent’s armies have a combined total of 5 million soldiers and 7 million reserves. One of the “weapons” of the AU's strategy for enhancing its global power lies in strengthening its economic power. Africa is the largest source of raw materials in the world. One-third of the world’s uranium, bauxite and iron reserves are in Africa. It is also home to 65 percent of the world’s gas reserves, 45 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 95 percent of the world's coltan and cobalt reserves. In light of this data, will Africa continue to tolerate resource discrepancies between its member states and accept its place at the bottom of the world economic rankings, or will it finally evolve and unite its efforts to take its rightful place in the world GDP rankings?
Toward a new Africa
Looking at the future, one hopes that a new day will dawn on Africa, even if the current outlook is darkened by the many political, security, health and economic challenges. However, a groundbreaking shake-up of the socio-political and economic status quo is imperative if change is to happen. This is difficult to digest, but that awareness is essential in order to face the future with serenity. Africa is in turmoil as the degeneration of the existing system takes place. This factual transition will certainly lead to major socio-political and economic changes. Within this context, the AU has the potential to act as a catalyst in the establishment of a new Africa with a renewed vision of the world and its global interactions. One can only be offended by the fact that some countries are still behind or lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of economic development, democratic progress, recession of conflicts and other socio-political crises. This situation will likely be an impediment to the AU’s efforts to capitalize on its presence in the global sphere.
Within the African "family", it is important for states to form an influential group capable of catalyzing and energizing post-colonial Africa as a power on the international stage. It is time for Africa to finally take its rightful place within the international community in terms of taking initiatives, speaking out and taking a stand, and developing proposals for mutually beneficial cooperation. Indeed, African countries can use the AU platform to communicate with the world, express their aspirations and exert their influence. It is essential that the AU ceases to give the impression of being in the concert of nations just to be a customer for the G7, G7+1, G20, or simply just to pursue relations with the old metropolises – the French, British, Portuguese or Belgians. The time has come for an African presence in the world solely motivated by collective adherence to its values or by historical affinities woven by colonization. African countries should no longer limit themselves to the Senghorian idea "of an opening, through language..., to the civilization of the universal… within which Africa can make its own culture shine”. It is important for African countries to make their presence profitable in the Concert of Nations if they are to get the position they deserve in the international community. A strong African Union can only be possible with strong member states. No one can be more aware of this than the Africans themselves, who must do everything in their power to derive the greatest benefit from this platform. The continent must make a new start. The current global socio-economic context is largely favorable to this new start. The synergy of skills and aspirations of leaders, forces, civil society, intellectuals and the diaspora are urgently needed to meet the challenges of attaining real sovereignty and increasing the influence of the continent. In this aspiration for influence, no African should lose sight of what the continent represents in terms of its potential in the 21st century. There cannot be a new world without a new emerging Africa.
The African continent has ample opportunities to face inevitable changes on a global scale. As long as the models of development are reinvented, African countries will find themselves in the midst of a boulevard of opportunities, which they must capitalize on intelligently. This will demand a clear understanding of their common interests in the geopolitical space. There can be no new Africa without the renewal of leadership teams and new practices. Indeed, let us note that broken promises, a wait-and-see approach and betrayals by certain political partners have seriously affected the development of the African continent throughout the last 60 years.
What is essential and deserves to be highlighted is the incredible resistance and resilience that Africa is demonstrating. Africa's relaunch can only take place in an environment open to pluralist communication that culminates in the mutual enrichment of leaders and peoples. Thanks to digital networks, intercession and geopolitical power can lead to greater socio-dynamic, economic and political mobilizations that are capable of shaping public opinion.
This will in turn require discernment, participation and protection from extremist and populist minorities, which is essential for the construction and dawn of the new world. There can be no new world without a new Africa.
 Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, and former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He has served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and deputy undersecretary of state for security assistance, science and technology. https://www.csis.org/people/joseph-s-nye-jr.