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Africa Needs to Break Away from Liberal Internationalism

The struggle to understand the Anglo/Eurocentric nature of international relations continues to be a challenge for African foreign policy makers and leaders. Modern international relations has primarily been a struggle between power and cooperation.

However, in practice since the end of the Second World War, power has always had primacy in the international order created by the United States. Since many African states gained independence, policy makers on the continent have yet to come to terms with the primacy of power over cooperation. The separation of ethics and values from international power politics and the acceptance of concepts such as ‘might is right,’ preservation, primacy of national interest continue to evade policy makers on the continent on a daily basis as Africa rises from the ashes.

Unfortunately for African decision makers, the world still runs on a power centric paradigm rather than a value, universalist and liberal based wishful inter-state relations system.

This means that more often than not leaders and policy makers continue to fiddle in a minefield of liberal co-operative international politics while the rest of the world operates, lives and negotiates in an international system dominated by realism. This further means that at best African diplomats and policy makers show up on the world stage ill equipped and misinformed on the real nature of our existing international order.

Tellingly, the recent history of Africa’s liberal interaction with the rest of the world has left the continent holding the short end of the stick on important issues such as trade, environment, security, law and finance.

Africa losing sovereignty

Although African states are now critical of the International Criminal Court and have in the recent past adopted a number of resolutions reflecting dissatisfaction with the direction of the court, a lack of understanding of the larger issues, initially led many African states to join. The ‘liberal delusion’ unfortunately led many African states at one time to strongly support the court. African states were at one time very active in the negotiation of the Rome Statute. African governments under a grouping named as the International Coalition for the ICC successfully pushed for ratification believing in a mutual beneficial and just legal international system.

The turning point of the actual realist nature of the international political and legal systems occurred soon after the prosecution of Abdoulaye Ndombasi, and later, Omar Bashir, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto signaling trouble and souring relations between Africa and Europe over the issue of sovereign immunity. Unlike a realist United Sates, China and India who did not join in the liberal delusion, Africa began to realize power and survival were more important than cooperation. Interestingly, the United States had long realized and consistently opposed the creation of an international court that could hold political leaders to a uniform standard of justice. Initially the United States actively participated in negotiations towards the International Criminal Court treaty, seeking UN Security Council screening of cases.

If adopted, this would have enabled the US to veto any dockets it opposed. When other countries refused to agree to such an unequal standard of justice, the US campaigned to weaken and undermine the court. In later years as the Court neared implementation the United States began to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries, insuring immunity of US nationals from prosecution by the Court. As leverage, the US threatened termination of economic aid, withdrawal of military assistance, and other painful measures. To date in spite of pushing for Africans to remain in the ICC and to cooperate with it the United States has no intention of joining the ICC and Africa now grapples with the problem of withdrawing from an ICC that exclusively targets Africans.

Killing the Kyoto Protocol

Another sad example is on the environmental front. The Kyoto Protocol reinvigorated the resolve of the global community to face climate change, and to continue to work towards lasting commitments to reduce environmental degradation. As African countries took stock of progress thereafter in making the protocol operational, major concerns about its role came to the fore. A number of meetings promoted by the United Nations discussed the progress of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in Africa, including one organized by Malawi that emphasized the major challenges facing the region.

The Clean Development Mechanism, one of several mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has as its objective to help developed countries meet their agreed emission reduction targets through certified emission reductions in developing countries. The emission reductions achieved in a developing country are traded to a developed country. In this process, the CDM activity would contribute towards sustainable development in the host country, while enabling the buyer of the emission credits to meet its targets.

The rationale was that the activity would not normally be implemented if it were not a CDM project. Any relaxation of this condition would dilute the intentions of the Kyoto Protocol. However, soon after the ratification of Kyoto the United States and its European allies decided to slowly weaken the Kyoto Protocol allowing it to expire. Once again on a global issue Africa had cooperated but the powers that be had backstabbed the continent.

Power will always trump cooperation

As Africa continues to rise its leaders and policy makers must recognize that power always trumps cooperation. Throughout history liberal internationalism has been weakened by the threat of dominant and influential powers in the international system. The world still runs on a power centric paradigm and as a result it is crucial that African governments and policy makers abandon the impractical liberal internationalist theory of foreign policy, altogether. The result would lead to not only to a more coherent ‘African’ foreign policy, but the stabilization of Africa as it consolidates its gains.