opinionBy Adekeye Adebajo
Johannesburg — BRAZILIAN President Luiz Ina cio Lula, a man from a poor, working-class background, caused a storm before the recent Group of 20 (G-20) meeting in London by saying that the global financial crisis had been caused by blue-eyed white men with blond hair who had arrogantly seen themselves, he implied, as masters of the universe.
Across the third world, three-quarters of the world's population perfectly understood Lula's words, but much of the western media was aghast at the lack of political correctness from a global statesman.
The fact that the most powerful man at the G-20 summit was Barack Obama, an "Afro-Saxon" US president with a Kenyan father, seemed, however, to vindicate Lula. Obama himself noted that, a few years ago, anyone predicting a meeting with rich countries and emerging economies hosting an American president called Obama would have been dismissed out of hand. The fact that China -- the new "workshop of the world" -- is now the world's third-largest economy (after the US and Japan) and that three of the five largest banks in the world are Chinese, was further proof of the shifting global balance of power.
With China stumping up $40bn to help refinance the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the London summit was forced to agree to discuss an end to the 65-year system of "global apartheid" in which an American always heads the World Bank and a European the IMF. The weighted voting that allows mostly rich western countries to dominate both Bretton Woods institutions should also come to a speedy end with emerging heavy-hitting G-20 countries such as China (and surely others such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, and South Korea) increasing their influence within these institutions.
Despite the energy of Britain's Gordon Brown and the verbosity of France's Nicolas Sarkozy, the G-20 summit may actually come to be seen as having exposed the weakness of these medium-size Western European powers. Both have lost empires and struggled to find a role in an increasingly multipolar world in which geo-economic power is rapidly shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. London and Paris have used their vetopowered seats on the United Nations (UN) Security Council to try to mask this diminishing power. Japan and Germany, however, already pay dues to the UN that are more than those contributed by Britain and France.
Despite overblown depictions of Brown as "the world's chancellor of the exchequer", his country is $1,5-trillion in debt, and unable to intervene directly to play a global funding role, relying on others like the Americans and the Chinese to pay for his grand visions. The British premier's impressive energy and grasp of detail could not mask the fact that Brown was effectively acting like Old Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard to find it bare.
Sarkozy, the frenetic, often uncouth, French president, continued the unconvincing Gaullist politique de grandeur (politics of grandeur), condemning "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism and threatening, like a petulant schoolboy, to walk out of the summit if he did not get his way. Sarkozy is, however, presiding over a country that suffers from high unemployment and incredible social discrimination against Maghrebi and African immigrants -- in an earlier incarnation as interior minister, he infamously described rioting youths from these groups as "scum". Despite his Gallic posturing, the reality is that the economy of France is about the size of America's "Golden State" of California, and the country has long fallen off the first rank of great powers.
For his part, SA's President Kgalema Motlanthe appeared to have had a quiet summit in London. Former president Thabo Mbeki's intellect, vision and energy had earned the widespread respect of world leaders, and Mbeki would have thrived at this summit, which, if he had not been prematurely removed from office last September, would have been his swan-song on the international stage.
At a press conference after the summit, Motlanthe reportedly told journalists that SA was not representing Africa at the meeting, but was there as a result of being an emerging market. This reflects a continuing schizophrenia in SA's continental role: the country wants to occupy an African permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council, but does not seem to want to represent African interests in international financial forums . The statement may, however, also reflect sensitivity to criticism by African countries at the World Trade Organisation negotiations that SA -- with a much more developed agricultural sector and more industrialised economy -- appeared to be negotiating for its own parochial interests while pretending to be speaking on behalf of Africa.
The one issue that had dominated global headlines before the G-20 summit -- and underscores the seemingly inexorable rise of China as the world's next superpower -- was SA's denial of a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for a meeting with his fellow Nobel peace laureates in SA. This decision was apparently taken after political pressure from Beijing. Despite SA having become China's largest trading partner in Africa, this action would have been more befitting a dependent, resource-poor "banana republic" than one of Africa's powerhouses and its richest country. SA could simply, as Nigeria -- China's second-largest trading partner in Africa -- did last year, let the Dalai Lama visit, but not offer any official recognition to the private meeting of laureates.
Like the Nigerians, Sarkozy also stood up to the Chinese when he met recently with the Dalai Lama. At the London meeting, the French president pushed for Chinese financial havens such as Macao and Hong Kong to be better regulated.
Perhaps rumours of the death of arrogant white men -- like that of Mark Twain -- have, after all, been grossly exaggerated.
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.