"In spite of all the rhetoric about change, American foreign policy has been consistent over the years. It has been more of a gardening exercise than an act of bulldozing; a phenomenon described as the "change and changelessness" of US foreign policy."
President Obama's admonishment of those leaders "who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" during his inaugural address has been widely interpreted in Africa to mean that, unlike previous US administrations, the Obama administration will go after leaders who oppress their people, violate human rights and prevent the growth of genuine democracy. In fact, in the past week, African newspapers, blogs, and internet forums have been replete with gleeful commentary announcing the impending discomfiture of those African dictators who refuse to "unclench their fists".
As I watch the unfolding euphoria, I cannot help but think back to an era long gone when another generation of Africans placed so much hope on another American president who embodied Hope and Change (history really does repeat itself…). That president was Bill Clinton. That generation of Africans who witnessed the end of the cold war and the coming of the "East wind" believed that the Clinton administration would be unrelenting in the establishing democracy, the rule of law and good governance in Africa. Alas! 16 years later, the democracy which many hoped for has been a fleeting reality only in a handful of African countries since then.
Recently, I stumbled across a contribution that I made in a special January 1993 issue of Cameroon Post dedicated to the Clinton Inaugural. It is uncanny how the expectations that Africans have of the Obama administration today are exactly the same ones that they had of the Clinton administration in 1993. Here are excerpts of the 1993 article which we can now read with the benefit of hindsight:
Will US Policy Change After George Bush? Cameroon Post, Special 42nd Inaugural, January 13-20, 1993, p. 15
On November 3, 1992, the American people put an end to the twelve-year Republican control of the American executive by electing Bill Clinton and Al Gore as President and Vice President respectively... Most Africans, particularly those craving for genuine democracy, expect the new administration to launch an uncompromising campaign against those regimes still holding out against political liberalism on the continent...
Can the forces of change on the continent safely rely on the new team in Washington?
In a recently published book on US foreign policy, Michael Clough says that “the Bush administration... failed to provide and leadership on African issues”… Clough says that while middle level officials involved with Africa had a relatively free hand on the continent, they nonetheless had to respect three State Department injunctions: “Don’t spend much money, don’t take stands that might create domestic controversies, don’t let Africa complicate policy towards other more important parts of the world”.
Today, Africans expect a more aggressive policy from Democrats. In fact, their November victory is looked upon with much relish because Democrats are generally credited with a more humane approach to Third World issues, particularly towards human rights issues – one of the most important legacies of the Jimmy Carter era.
Is Drastic Change Possible?
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once pointed out that "one of the most unsettling things for foreigners is the impression that our foreign policy can be changed by any new president on the basis of the president's personal preference".
This is the reason behind the widespread belief that the "new Kennedy" whose entire campaign was based on the need for "change" will change things for the better. But in spite of all the rhetoric about change, American foreign policy has basically been consistent over the years. It has been more of a gardening exercise than an act of bulldozing; a phenomenon described as the "change and changelessness" of US foreign policy. Clinton seems to have espoused this view when in his first post-election statement on foreign affairs he reminded the world that "... America's administrations change, America’s fundamental interests do not".
As Desler, Gleb and Lanike have underlined in Our worst enemy: Unmaking of American Foreign Policy, "serious nations do not redefine their national interests every few years... Foreign accomplishments generally come about because a nation has been able to sustain a course of action over a long period of time"...
Secretary of Sate John Foster Dulles usually argued that "A consistent and dependable national course must have a base broader than the particular beliefs of the those who from time to time hold office", and the young Turks in the White House will definitely adhere tot this cautious policy, particularly in a continent that is more of a liability than an asset on all counts.
The Likely Scenario
Thanks to the new team in the White House, there will definitely be renewed lingering interest in African affairs in general, but natural areas of American interest like... Kenya, South Africa...will drain most of America's energy and imagination.
In other parts of the continent, particularly in areas within the French sphere of influence, the US, while frowning at the anti-democratic antics of the rulers, will avoid moves that might be interpreted as going against French interests. The radical shift in American policy expected by African masses will rarely take place...
Roger Hilsman in to Move a Nation is of the opinion that "Rather than through grand decisions and grand alternatives, (foreign) policy changes seem to come through a series of slight modifications of existing policy with the policy emerging slowly and haltingly by small and usually tentative steps, a process of trial and error in which policy zigs and zags, reverses itself and then moves forward in a series of incremental steps".
That holds for US policy of the next four years. There will be a lot of high-sounding political rhetoric and grandiose slogans promising new courses of action in Africa, but the changes will affect more the shadow than the substance and will be more symbolic than real. The low cost, low profile, no controversy policy of the Bush years will be maintained, albeit under a new banner.
Fast Foward 2009
A decade after Bill Clinton left office, the predictions in that 1993 article turned out to be generally true. The Biyas, the Bongos, etc., who were around when Clinton became president are still around. And with regards to promoting democracy on the continent, the US promised more than it could deliver. The Clinton administration made the right noises about Africa, but there was no dramatic change in America's Africa policy.
The lesson from all this? It is very difficult, and in some cases virtually impossible, to change American foreign policy significantly, especially in those regions where American interests are marginal. Having an American President with a direct connection to and an apparent heightened interest in Africa will not automatically lead to African strongmen tumbling down like dominoes.
The fact that so many Africans, from all walks of life, are counting heavily on President Obama to "bring" democracy to Africa is a clear signal that we have failed to grasp the real significance of Obama’s political story, and are therefore unable to appropriate and adapt the Obama playbook to African realities. The message from Obama's improbable presidential run and his equally improbable victory is a fairly simple but not very obvious one for Africa; change activists on the continent must start working towards creating inclusive and vibrant grassroots political coalitions that will be able, in the long run, to successfully take on the political establishment. As one observer noted on the eve of the November 2008 presidential elections:
the importance and relevance of a likely Obama election as president of the most powerful state in the world lies in the lessons that could be drawn by the new generation of Africans who aspire for leadership positions on the continent. This is largely with respect to how Obama has been able to build a machinery that took on the establishment and, against all odds, emerged victorious… how he's been able to inspire the youth to have an interest in the electoral process.
There are invaluable lessons of organizational and transformational leadership here, and those who aspire to take on the dinosaurs in Africa will do well to study carefully. Obama's greatest contribution to Africa will be, if his campaign succeeds, in catalysing - like in the late 1980s and early 1990s - a new wave of, but this time a more sustained, democratic reawakening on the continent.
Sure, this is a tall order in a continent replete with authoritarian regimes with little or no democratic traditions and which are only too anxious to crush all forms of dissent. But it is not an impossible task. It is time for Africans to fold up their sleeves and go to work, rather than waiting for the miracle solution from Big Brother Obama. If change is going to come to Africa, it will be primarily, if not solely, due to the efforts of Africans themselves.Get 10 Free International Minutes - PINLESS