What we’re reading: Changing world order

This is the right time for us to be examining the international order; its current status and outlook. On that front, noteworthy cautionary perspectives are offered by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) director Judd Devermont on the Lawfare blog. 

UNCTAD warns policy makers in countries “most integrated” with the UK to beware potentially significant loss of advantageous market access if there is a no deal Brexit (and they have not negotiated continuity agreements). UNCTAD puts figures on the conceivable loss of exports to the UK for Cameroon, Ghana and others; and they are alarming. Meanwhile, Devermont advises that “if the United States wants to treat Africa as an arena for great power competition, it needs to avoid the mistakes of the past”. He lists nine such principles ranging from “judge African governments by what they do, not what they say” to “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Essentially, the counsel for the US is “anticipate the traps” designed by African leaders to extract maximum value for their home countries without any real commitment to US priorities. 

From an African perspective however, one would hope, hope, hope that a key lesson, already learnt, would be to avoid reducing the region to an arena for US competition with third parties. And that yes indeed, the US should anticipate agency, and a normal distribution of bounded rationality and self-interest among its African interlocutors. The 19thcentury British diplomat Lord Palmerston is quoted saying “nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual…” That seems no less true today, or here. 

Salient economic interests articulated by African post-independence leaders such as Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, who Devermont references, included: industrialisation, control of locally produced natural resources and the multinational corporations that develop them, inter alia. On foreign policy, they planned for ‘positive neutrality’ and ‘non-alignment’. Today, although policy prescriptions have evolved, the structural transformation objectives of sixty years ago still permeate Africa’s strategic landscape. See for example the burgeoning continental free trade area, signed by 49 countries and ratified by 22 this month; and West African attempts to coordinate marketing and boost local processing of cocoa. Is there an Africa strategy for the US government trained on those bedrock ambitions? Even in a way that is mutually advantageous. 

Of course, there is another (perhaps inadvertent) admonition in the Lawfare Blog piece. This time for African states: Devise strategies that will extend and protect policy space in a multipolar, belligerent world as a matter of priority. It chimes with UNCTAD’s call for proactive engagement with the UK and the EU to ensure changing tariff arrangements do not cause undue pain. 

Continuing this back-then-forward looking roll, there is ‘a fistful of shells’ by Toby Green. We’re too early on in the reading to give a full review. However, thus far, it appears to be an important introduction to the political economy of West African states from the early modern period i.e. 1500s and before until the 1800s. The book is dense, but it isn’t as woolly as one might think. First, because one can still recognise permutations of the political, capital and demographic currents it describes. Second, because history often rhymes. It seems we are again in a multipolar world, where African policy makers grapple with mineral wealth, terms of trade weakness, debt sustainability and development. Turns out this is a 500-year old problem at least. 


Nana Ampofo