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PERSPECTIVE ON AFRICA : A Policy of Fine Words, No Action : The continent is off our national-interests map, but isn’t putting our principles to work also in our ‘interest’?

<i> Adonis E. Hoffman is an international lawyer in Washington and the the former director of African affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives. </i>

The ongoing, but not unpredictable, tragedy in Rwanda--and America’s hands-off policy on African conflicts generally--points up one of the most glaring contradictions in U.S. policy on Africa: Officially, the Clinton Administration has pledged an “activist approach to disasters in the making” by supporting the democracy movement on the continent and helping Africans to deal with problems before they became crises; unofficially, the Administration regards Africa as not important to our national interests, not even when it comes to conflict resolution and preventing loss of life.

Until a few years ago, U.S. interest in Africa was largely confined to supporting friendly--and frequently repressive--regimes as bulwarks against Soviet adventurism. As the Cold War ended, the United States took even a lesser role in African affairs. Somalia was a radical departure, and if the debacle there accomplished nothing else, it helped to crystallize the concept that U.S. policy in Africa would no longer be interventionist.

In testimony before Congress in February, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, George Moose, spelled out the Administration’s policy goals in Africa: “fostering democracy and respect for human rights; promoting peace by preventing or resolving conflicts; supporting economic growth and sustainable development; providing humanitarian assistance to alleviate suffering and hunger; increasing American private-sector involvement in Africa, and integrating Africa into the global economy.”

When measured by its own yardstick, U.S. policy toward Africa has fallen abysmally short. In practice, it has been little more than a series of adhoc equivocations, omissions and missed opportunities that accentuate America’s global myopia and aversion to leadership, especially in the developing world.

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To give just one example: Last June 12, the people of Nigeria elected their first civilian government in a decade. This achievement was promptly negated by a military takeover. Nothing about the duly elected government warrants Washington’s rejection, yet the Administration continues its dalliance with the dictators. Nigeria’s situation is remarkably similar to Haiti’s, with one main difference: The United States has pursued a policy of engagement to restore democracy in Haiti, a policy of neglect in Nigeria.

Inside-the-Beltway critics of Clinton’s foreign policy ascribe the failures to the Adminstration’s trepidation, vacillation and inexperience on most matters foreign. Foreign-policy experts, however, cite a more callous reason: Matters pertaining to Africa are deemed of no importance to our national interests.

Those who defend a posture of distance frequently cite a litany of African failures: misguided macroeconomic policies; debilitating foreign debt and fiscal dependency; incessant internecine strife; corruption; repression and human-rights abuses, and abysmal performances on developmental matters such as population control, literacy, health and the environment.

Others would explain the lack of an engaged policy in purely pragmatic terms: Except for South Africa, the United States has no significant economic, trade, commercial, military or strategic interests in any country in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Objectively, this is true--at present. Most African states have been at the margins of world trade and commerce since achieving their independence 30 years ago. For the first 20 of those years, Africa’s economic umbilical cords remained connected to the former colonial powers. Since 1980, however, Africa’s role in the world economy has become marginalized as the economies of Western and newly industrialized countries bypass African participation. The continent’s world market share for primary products other than oil dropped from 7% to 3% between 1970 and 1990.

Given these post-Cold War economic and political realities, it is clear that traditional notions of the national interest will be insufficient to base a clarion call for purposeful American participation in Africa’s trouble spots. A new model must be developed, one that transcends facile contemporary analyses that, in their construction and suppositions, always lead to the conclusion that America should continue its de facto policy of disengagement.

Inherently, U.S. foreign policy must be prospective. As it was impossible five years ago to envision the break-up of the Soviet Union or the advent of majority rule in South Africa, it is not possible to predict where the next conflagration in Africa will occur. Even so, a few projections based on fact are easy to make: Burundi is headed for the same level of ethnic turmoil as its Rwandan twin unless preventive measures are taken. Zaire’s wily Mobutu Sese Seko will fall or be tumbled, pushing Zaire into even greater anarchy and perhaps ethnic bloodshed. Repressive regimes in Uganda, Malawi and Cameroon are destined for upheaval. The suppression of a democratically elected civilian government in Nigeria is headed for a turnabout.

These and other potential trouble spots in Africa will cry out for enlightened American leadership, if not intervention, either bilaterally or in concert with a multilateral authority. Recognizing Frederick the Great’s admonition, “He who defends everything defends nothing,” it is inane to suggest that the United States intervene in every sub-national or internecine conflict that flares up in Africa or any place else in the world. But unstable political situations that portend dramatic loss of life--as in Rwanda--should vitiate any notion of American detachment or insularity, particularly when doing something would be more consistent with our principles than doing nothing.

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