B. E. Whitaker u.a.: Africa's international Relations

Africa's International Relations. Balancing Domestic & Global Interests

Whitaker, Beth Elise; Clark, John F.
418 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institute of African Studies, Leipzig University

As an expression of the renewed interest in “African agency” in recent years, increasing attention is also being paid to the role of African countries in international relations and global politics. The title of this textbook already indicates the scope and ambition of this remarkable book: to give justice to the foreign policies of 55 African states and develop a coherent narrative at the same time is not an easy one. Yet, and to forestall my conclusions, the authors manage quite well to take up the gauntlet.

Beth Elise Whitaker is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where she is teaching since 2002. She has worked on African migration, comparative refugee policy and diaspora engagement in homeland politics. Her field work was mainly carried out in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. This is her first co-authored monograph. John F. Clark is professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University, Miami FL, which he joined in 1992. He is co-editor of Political Reform in Francophone Africa (Westview Press 1997, with David Gardinier), editor of The African Stakes of the Congo War (Palgrave, 2002), author of The Failure of Democracy in the Republic of Congo (Lynne Rienner, 2008) and co-author of the Historical Dictionary of Congo (Scarecrow 2012, with Samuel Decalo). Both authors have been active in the African Politics Conference Group, a network of political scientists who study Africa.

This volume on Africa’s International Relations is structured into five parts and 15 chapters. At the beginning the authors emphasize the importance of historicity. Following the introduction on “Understanding Africa’s International Relations” in Part 1 on the historical context the focus is on how African societies related to others from the times of precolonial kingdoms to colonialism, with an interest in how the contemporary system of states has emerged over time. One of the legacies of colonialism highlighted in this book are borders and their meaning (although unfortunately the work of the African Union Border Programme is not discussed). Like in every other chapter to follow there is an illustrative case study, in here on the durability of borders in South Sudan. Chapter 3 addresses Africa’s international relations during the Cold War with a case study on Angola. Alignment of newly independent states with one of the two world powers, or delicate policies of explicit non-alignment, competition between the West and the East over providing foreign aid as well as “development models” and forceful superpower interventions characterised this period.

In part 2 on the pursuit of freedom and development, the three chapters focus on foreign aid and economic conditionality (with a case study on reforms in Ghana), external pressures for political reform and human rights (the case study is on Kenya) and African unity and regional integration (with a case study on Nigeria as a regional power). Part 3 on the challenges of security addresses the regionalisation of violent conflict (case study: the Congo wars), humanitarian assistance and peace operations (case study: Liberia) and politics of migration (case study: South Africa). And in part 4 Africa’s relations with external actors are revisited, including chapters on the United States, Europe and emerging powers. The related case studies cover US policies in Somalia, the French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire and Sino-Zambian relations. This is followed by conclusions which emphasizes how much domestic politics and international relations are intertwined.

Any thematical selection on Africa’s international relations, clustered in 15 chapters, will be contentious – it is indeed a “daunting challenge” to write a textbook on this topic (p. 1). In fact, while there are a number of monographs and edited volumes on Africa’s international relations, the genre of textbooks is an extremely rare species.1 So, one could easily argue that important policy areas are under-represented or even missing in this particular book, such as the role of the African Union or African politics at the United Nations, both UNSC and UNGA (and many other international fora). And, of course, also relevant thematic fields such as climate change, energy and environmental politics, but also the role of new powers such as Turkey and some of the Arab states may be inadequately represented. But, still, the selection presented in this textbook is reasonable. Examples provided in the chapters may be sketchy, but they are suited for inviting student readers to develop a deeper interest and stimulate further reading. The book certainly makes a great start for graduate and post-graduate students into the wide, wide landscape of Africa in the world, and the world in Africa. (For a textbook, though, more use could have been made of maps, figures, graphs and tables).

The one critique, however, one may highlight though relates to the theoretical choices the authors have made. In their introduction Beth Elise Whitaker and John F. Clark engage with a number of theoretical approaches which has been tested in the study of Africa’s international relations in the past (pp. 5–16). They revisit these approaches in chronological order as they have developed in general political science IR debates – from realism to liberalism to constructivism to neo-Marxism (as it is framed by the authors). Yet this discussion does not do justice to the diverse and rich scholarship on Africa, its institutions and the way the continent’s entanglements have been discussed in IR, international studies and other academic fields – both in the West, but also on the African continent. Hence, a detailed analysis of the state of the art is somewhat missing (and competing scholarship on Africa’s international relations is rarely acknowledged). At the end, the authors settle for a “mid-level concept”, rather than a grand theory – which, no doubt, does make sense for a textbook. They favour a “regime security” approach which they somewhat associate with the work of the British grand seigneur of Africa in IR, Christopher Clapham.2 As a consequence, Whitaker and Clark remain within the confines of methodological nationalism. This means that they are looking through the state, African leaders’ interests and the “state system”. Conceptually, anything “trans-” gets lost, in particular transborder and transregional dynamics. Or, in other words, this book favours territorialised “stability” over the dizzying fluidity which can be observed in so many policy fields on the African continent. In all fairness, however, at least in the conclusions the importance of a perspective beyond the nation state is acknowledged (p. 365f.).

1 See, for instance, Patrick J. McGowan / Scarlett Cornelissen / Philip Nel’s Power: Wealth and Global Equity. An International Relations Textbook for Africa, University of Cape Town Press 2007.
2 See his seminal book “Africa and the International System. The Politics of State Survival” (Cambridge University Press 1996)

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