Is Realism the new Liberalism in Africa? Case for the Prosecution

After the excitement of the first World Cup weekend, things appear to slowly go back to normal. Those really into World Cup politics can still get their fix from the vuvuzela debate (ban/not ban), and from considering whether South Africa will benefits from the tournament, or whether the rest of africa will also do.. My thoughts however have moved away from football, and have drifted into some interesting, if somewhat unfamiliar territory. Namely, International Relations (IR) theory. And why on earth have these thoughts done that, you may ask? Well, I am not totally sure, but I think a number of recent stories and debates around African politics have made me think that important changes are taking place (or about to take place), and I may have felt it was important to locate them within a broader framework or discourse, you may say. To step back from the more detailed, day-to-day happenings in order to gain a different perspective, perhaps (something similar perhaps, to this insightful recent post by Jason Stearns on Congo Siasa, in which he wonders about how could this era in Congo history be labelled).

So what about IR theory then? Well, aside from constructivist theory and other critical theories (which are much more elaborate and complex theories, and therefore ask extremely interesting and necessary questions), one can broadly distinguish realism and (neo)liberalism as the two main (and competing) frameworks for understanding IR. For the past few decades, riding on the back economic globalisation and growth, European integration and, especially, the end of the Cold War, (neo)liberalism has seemed to many to have had the upper hand. This theory propones that states will cooperate in seeking absolute gains (not compete for relative gains as realists suggest) and has been accompanied by an economic theory that propones free market as the best economic arrangement. On domestic political arrangements, (neo)liberalism tends to support the belief that a spread of (liberal) democracies around the world will lead to a decrease in conflict (this is the controversial argument made by the democratic peace theory).

Relatively recent events however, most notably the Iraq war and the current economic crisis that began in 2008, have shattered many of the assumptions that underpin the optimistic (neo)liberal outlook, opening the door for old-fashioned realism to come back into the picture. And this is where my thoughts have been drifting to. I have been wondering, as if it was an essay topic for a hypothetical undergraduate IR course, whether «Is Realism the new Liberalism in Africa?» and to provide a series of arguments in favour of this proposition. This is therefore shound not be read as a balanced assessment but simply as «the prosecution’s case» for thinking that this is what is happening. Counter-arguments and examples obviously exist (I just haven’t given them much space on my head yet) and you are more than welcome to post these as comments below.

Map showing superpowers (darkest blue), great powers (dark blue), and middle powers (pale and palest blue)

«Is Realism the new Liberalism in Africa? Case for the Prosecution»

In the case of Africa (broadly speaking, and generalising) one can say that (neo) liberalism’s cornerstone has been the defence of (liberal) democracy on the political sphere (regular elections, respect for human rights…), accompanied by varying amounts of development aid, depending of the different countries’ levels of compliance with the requirements of transparency, accountability and democracy. This was possible because African countries (again broadly speaking) played a minor role on the international system. For the US and Europe, Africa during the 1990s and early 2000s was most prominently «a scar on the conscience of the world». This nicely summarised the dominant charitable discourse towards an Africa for which the best (and only) thing we could do was help (for, the assumption seemed to be, it cannot help itself). This was obviously a flawed, and paternalistic, discourse, but it was powerful nonetheless. Things however appear to be changing rapidly, and this humanitarian discourse (which went hand in hand with liberal assumptions) is giving way to a more strategic thinking about Africa, more in tune with realist assumptions, around a number of key areas:

– Aid: As we have mentioned above, aid was a fundamental pillar of the humanitarian discourse. Recently however, the aid system has come under serious pressures. These have taken the shape of criticisms from aid practitioners and academics, African and Western that see the model as exhausted and in need of a rethink – Dambisa Moyo is perhaps the most mediatic critic, and blogs like Aid Watch and others, have also a number of imprtant criticisms. But the aid system is also under attack from those providing the funds and who are now on under economic pressure, Europe most notably. Governments are slashing aid budgets, asking for aid to also «aid the giver», and African countries find themselves not able to rely only on donors’ funding, and therefore seeking alternatives.

– Europe and US changing approach: «Aid», one may say, is out. And «interests» (in pure realist fashion) are in. A number of papers and news from different Western countries highlight that these countries should think hard about their relations to Africa or risk being «out of touch». Diplomacy and trade should prevail over aid on these countries relations to the continent. This is what a recent Chatam House report by Tom Cargill advocates, and what Oladiran W. Bello hints at on this paper for Spanish think-tank FRIDE, and what France hopes to continue doing despite Sarkozy’s au revoir to françafrique, according to the Economist. Even the US new National Security Strategy has a more realist tone, compared to the more ideologically driven one of the Bush years.

Charles Dharapak/AP (The Guardian)

– China and geo-political «hot-spots»: It is impossible to understand this shift towards a more strategic and realist approach to African international relations without making reference to China’s growing presence on the continent – and all the documents mentioned above make reference to this. The West is thus facing increasing competition for African resources (oil, minerals, land, etc) and also on Africa’s growing markets (from telecommunication, to tourism, food and drinks, etc) from African themselves and other external players like China and India. And this makes a careful and strategic approach a necessity. Also, some areas of the African continent are gaining special importance for geo-political reasons (access to energy and resources, fighting terrorism), this is the case in Somalia and the Horn, and also on the Sahel region (as this Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin shows)

U.S. Special Forces, help inspect Malian army soldier’s weapons at their garrison in Tombouctou, Mali, Sept. 4, 2007 (Photo US Army)

-Decline of humanitarianism and democracy promotion:This increasingly realist approach to African politics is having a number of important consequences, and can be seen on some examples. The approach to the Sudan conflict for example has (broadly speaking again, I am no expert on this) shifted from the humanitarian «Save Darfur» campaign to a more political deal-making around the past elections and next year’s referendum; similarly, the democracy promotion and demand for free and fair elections has slided on the list of priorities in cases where other interests have prevailed, like Ethiopia recently. I know even during the peak years of the liberal discourse this democracy promotion was often put aside when the situation required it, but the growth in, and international recognition (support?) for, national unity governments and coups d’etat (Guinea, Niger) may suggest democracy promotion is in fact in retreat.

This, ladies and gentlemen has been the case for the prosecution. Arguments that have tried to show how international thinking about Africa is changing as we begin the second decade of the 21st century. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts and counter arguments about this.

3 respuestas a “Is Realism the new Liberalism in Africa? Case for the Prosecution

  1. Flora Nyakiya junio 15, 2010 / 12:57 pm

    This blog post read like an undergraduate essay. Written by someone who is only just grasping the concepts. Yawn. Instead of parroting off everything you were taughy as an undergrad and trying to fit it all onto one post. You would find that your blog would be a lot more interesting if you actually understood what you were writing about.
    Have a lovely afternoon

  2. schauzeri junio 15, 2010 / 7:49 pm

    @ Flora
    Thanks for your comment (I guess…)
    I mentioned I am no expert on IR and this post is particularly generalised, touching many aspects without going into detail, as well as giving a one-sided view, but I thought I understood well the concepts I talked about.
    I may be wrong though, so I would welcome some more detailed and constructive inputs on how to improve this post/blog, and on how to understand African countries’ relations to the rest of the world…

  3. Tayo julio 4, 2010 / 12:10 pm

    Dear Manuel, thanks for this post. It’s nice to see how the World Cup in South Africa has coincided with copious literature on Africa’s resilient economy.

    China, decidedly, knows what it wants from Africa. So does India. Authoritarian China has rapidly industrialized. Offering an alternative model of governance and growth for Africa. Chinese presence is also a gambit in economic transactions. China, by pouring money into the continent’s extractive industry, investing faster and building more infrastructure than the west, is winning the hearts and minds of African leaders.

    Europe and especially the US seem clueless. Understandably so. The Great Recession has trounced these democratic economies. But does that mean democracy – political and economic freedom – has lost its appeal? America’s «soft-power»: culture et al, has global fans.

    Nonetheless, out-and-out liberals are convinced that the ‘China model’ won’t last. They say «Globalisation spreads free markets, liberal political values and collective security arrangements». And I agree. China has benefited from the «liberal triad» of unfettered commerce, political liberty (in western economies) and international cooperation. All the same, it’s policy of non-interference has buoyed resource-rich but unaccountable governments.

    My worry really is: Does Africa know what it wants? Will realism trump liberalism as we witness a new scramble for Africa? Democracy is still a sham in most African countries. If South Africa (and hopefully Nigeria) can give good example, freedom and development will uncage Africa’s lions. (Here’s hoping the presidential run-off in Guinea bucks the shambolic trend).

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