Agricultural development in Africa from a geopolitical perspective

foodFIRST Vijverbergsession - 18 December 2019

In 2017, Brookings has published a series entitled ‘Order from chaos - The new geopolitics’. For Brookings, it is a foregone conclusion that: 1) the world is an arena where the battle between the two hegemons, the US and China, is decisive (the rest is subordinate and all other conflicts derived from this); and 2) that in that power struggle everything is permitted, all means are deployed - "all measures short of war".

Geopolitics is about sovereignty, power and hegemony. It is about using economic power to position yourself politically, militarily and strategically; and about using political-military-strategic power to strengthen your economic position. Take grain, for example. In everyday thinking it is food and it involves nutrition and health (metrics: welfare). In economic thinking, on the other hand, grain is a commodity, something you can buy and sell, or with which you can speculate in financial markets (metrics: money or capital). Lastly, in geopolitical thinking, grain is a power tool in international relations and a geopolitical, strategic or military asset (metrics: power).

For a few decades, the world we lived in was regarded as one big marketplace, where capital and goods moved freely without being disturbed by distances or borders. Many states’ economic, foreign and development policy is based on that image, whereby development policy had the ambition to correct market failure. As an exporting and trading country, the Netherlands has every interest in such a world, with open borders and a functioning international legal order (rule-based order).

However, the quote from Brookings signals that this world is over: the world is no longer a marketplace, but an arena; and a battle for life and death is fought in that arena, so that no rules apply but everything is permitted, all measures short of war.

Of course, we as the Netherlands can try to continue to focus on openness and the rule of law (that is even stated in our Constitution), but at the same time the rapidly changing reality requires exploration of that other geopolitical track. Geopolitics implies a general reframing of policy thinking.

FoodFIRST organized a brainstorming session where the importance of geopolitical thinking of food was discussed.

The three guest speakers of the day came in to further explained why we, in the Netherlands, should concentrate more on the geopoliticalization of the world and what role the Netherlands could take up. Two perspectives can be adopted when determining this role: a defensive perspective, aimed at protecting our interests; and an offensive perspective, aimed at identifying opportunities and benefits. Therefore, geopolitical thinking implies that we redefine the value or meaning of everything we have (or could have) in order to determine our position in relevant international geopolitical-economic power configurations. First of all, it is vital that we develop geopolitical sensitivity and install geopolitical capacity in order to monitor the Dutch position in relevant configurations and that we develop geopolitical-strategic (foreign) policy.

The importance of geopolitical thinking was underlined by the presentation of Haroon Sheikh, senior scientist at the WRR. Sheikh did not only provide an academic, but also a philosophical perspective to geopoliticalization. He spoke about the return of geopolitics and the characteristics of the new world order, which is, among other things, multi-polar, more ambiguous than the past and neither multilateral or unilateral in nature.

The second presentation elaborated on the food dimension of geopolitics. Julia Rijssenbeek, senior researcher at FreedomLab, spoke about the impact of geopolitics on food and vice versa and why food has become a more urgent geopolitical issue. The new geopolitical struggle with regard to food was discussed and Rijssenbeek message was very clear: we must think geopolitically again. Several developments has led to the geopoliticalization of food. The presentation clearly reflected the manifold dimensions these issues have and their connections with such topics as society, agriculture, climate change, food prices, health care, conflict, migration and trade. Furthermore, Rijssenbeek explained how a new scramble for Africa is forthcoming due to the continent’s great agricultural potential. China’s Belt and Road Initiative puts stress on the power dynamics between China and the United States. Finally, Rijssenbeek described the role of the Netherlands in this complex matter and how it needs to change; the Netherlands will not be able to maintain the food export relationship it now has with the world in the future. Rijssenbeek called for stronger cooperation between the ministries, especially between the ministry of economic affairs and climate policy, the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of agriculture, nature and food quality, to develop a common strategic vision on the geopoliticalization of food.

The final speaker of the day was chief economist and director of Knowledge Development Rabobank, Menno Middeldorp, and his presentation focused on the trade battles between the two largest economies of the world, the United States and China. He gave a clear overview of the current trading situation between the two superpowers, explaining the implications of a possible escalation and eventual decoupling of the two economies, albeit partially. Middeldorp presented that the escalation scenario would harm China's GDP but the US is more dependent on China's supply chain. Middeldorp sketched a good picture of the current power relations in the field of trade policy and he underlined the urgency of the Netherlands to seek its role in this power struggle. Relationships between countries are deteriorating due to protectionism and the trade war between the U.S. and China.

The brainstorm session suggested that geopolitical thinking in the new world order is inevitable and maybe even vital to adopt in (foreign) policy. To not be at the mercy of the battle between China and the United States, it could be beneficial for the Netherlands to seek its role in this new arena, also in connection to the EU. The new developments hold opportunities for the Netherlands to approach Africa in a different manner, to not look at it merely as a development aid project but to work together on the basis of reciprocity. However, this new role and different outlook on Africa and geopolitics needs more reflection and dialogue; so another brainstorm session or mini conference on this topic will be organized later this year.