Thursday, June 14, 2007

Africa and International relations

It has become rather commonplace to read that, what is referred to as ‘traditional, western IR theory’, is problematic when taken to the African continent. At best, we are told, ‘IR theory’ misrepresents or misunderstands African reality, at worst it participates in an exercise of neo-colonial theoretical hegemony. The claimed inappropriateness of traditional IR to the African experience thus reinforces the marginalisation of the continent in the international system with a marginalisation within the discipline.1 In this article I will seek to both assess this ‘Africanist critique’2 and to mount something of a qualified defence of IR theory. However, I argue that some clarification and rethinking is necessary for us to get a proper perspective on the potentialities of IR in studies of Africa. In this regard I make three related points. First, that we need to be clear that what is under attack is neorealism and not some generic body of ‘IR theory’. Second, by differentiating neorealism’s specific approach
* An earlier version of this article was presented at the BISA annual conference, London, LSE, 16–18 December 2002.
1 Kevin C. Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and International Relations Theory’, in Kevin C. Dunn, andTimothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory (Basingstoke:Palgrave, 2001), pp. 1–8.
2 I use the label ‘Africanist critique’, inadequate as it is, to characterise this group of critics wholoosely share some common critical analyses of IR theory and who include scholars of Africa basedin the West as well as African IR scholars. I realise that some might object to the term ‘Africanist’,though I am at a loss to think of an alternative label. I certainly do not mean to imply by this thatall ‘Africanists’ – analysts of Africa – would share these critics’ views on IR.
it is possible to see not just the limitations of that approach, but the potential of other theoretical approaches within IR. Finally, by exploring the concepts of the state and anarchy I argue that the critics in fact maintain neorealism’s conceptualisations, simply inverting the picture. I argue that this represents a theoretical step backwards. Of necessity, the centre of gravity of this article is one of debunking (or at least a partial debunking) of what I argue is a misdirected critique. However, I endeavour to offer some illustrative examples to demonstrate the potential relevance of other approaches within IR once one moves beyond the constraints of neorealism. The problems of theories of IR do not simply appear when one moves one’s focus to Africa, they are there to begin with.
The idea that ‘Western’ social theory is inappropriate to understanding the non-Western world is hardly new or novel, although the variant of this critique which focuses on the relationship between Africa and IR theory has only fairly recently come to prominence. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw’s volume Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory3 is an important marker in the debate although the contributions to Stephanie Neuman’s earlier collection International Relations Theory and the Third World cover many shared ideas.4
The criticisms of ‘traditional’ or ‘western’ IR5 that I am concerned with operate on a number of levels but perhaps the most general idea is an assertion that traditional IR theory, and the models of the international system which it uses, when taken to the African continent, fail to explain much about the continent’s international relations, nor help us understand the key problems and issues which are deemed to be central to Africa’s international politics. This misapplication of theory means that ‘. . . the dominant IR theories [are] not adequate in explaining what was actually happening on the African continent . . ’.6 The claimed results are several. One is that Africa is simply ignored in mainstream IR discussions. Nkiwane maintains that ‘. . . the ‘‘canon’’ of international relations has been consistent in its dismissal of Africa’.7 To illustrate the point, Kevin Dunn asserts that Antarctica gets more of a mention than Africa in many undergraduate IR courses.8 There would indeed be something awry if the analytical models used by the discipline meant that Antarctica, as the only large piece of territory not the property of a sovereign state, can show
3 Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).
4 Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World (London:Macmillan, 1998). Others include Siba N. Grovogui, ‘Regimes of Sovereignty: InternationalMorality and the African Condition’, European Journal of International Relations, 8:3 (2002),pp. 315–38; Larry A. Swatuk, ‘The Brothers Grim: Modernity and ‘‘International’’ Relations inSouthern Africa’, in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge toInternational Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 163–82; Tandeka, C. Nkiwane,‘Africa and International Relations: Regional Lessons for a Global Discourse’, InternationalPolitical Science Review, 22:3 (2001), pp. 279–90; and Cirino, H. Ofuho, ‘The Legitimacy andSovereignty Dilemma of African States and Governments: Problems of Colonial Legacy’, in Bakuttswah Bakut and Sagarika Dutt (eds.), Africa at the Millennium: An Agenda for MatureDevelopment (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 103–25.
5 The prefixes vary between ‘traditional’, ‘orthodox’, ‘western’, ‘northern’ and ‘Eurocentric’, but allimply a definite and identifiable body of theory or ‘received wisdom’ in the discipline. As I go onto argue, precisely which parts of existing IR theory are being attacked is in fact rarely madesufficiently explicit.
6 See Kevin C. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side: Africa’s Challenge to International RelationsTheory’, Journal of Third World Studies, 17:1 (2000), pp. 61–2.
7 Nkiwane, ‘Africa and International Relations’, p. 280.
8 Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 2; also Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’.
students something fundamental about the nature of the anarchic international system, that Africa, home to some 800 million people, cannot. Another claimed result is that when Africa is analysed it is misinterpreted through highly suspect conceptual lenses that try to squeeze an ‘African reality’ into ‘European’ models. The seemingly obvious misfit of the latter produces analyses and concepts – such as failed, or quasi-states – which it is claimed conceptually and theoretically marginalise the continent from the mainstream. Africa becomes the subordinated ‘other’ to the western ‘self’.9 Such marginalisation is reinforced by the professed focus of many of the most influential writings in IR on the great powers. Ayoob goes as far as to claim that ‘. . . both neorealism and neoliberalism share a neocolonial epistemology that privileges the global North over the global South . . .’.10
Although a variety of different specific criticisms about IR theory are made in these contributions, the core of the problem is claimed to be that the conceptual basis of IR theory is the product of Western experience and is therefore inapplicable to Africa, and as a result, IR theory fails to acknowledge the historical specificity of the African experience – analyses of Africa are produced by ‘reading through’ European history. The argument is encapsulated by Neuman who writes:
Even central concepts such as anarchy, the state, sovereignty, rational choice, alliance and the international system are troublesome when applied to the third world . . . mainstream IR theory . . . is essentially Eurocentric theory originating in the United States and founded, almost exclusively, on what happens or happened in the West.11
In a similar vein Dunn maintains that:
Africa’s pseudo absence in IR theory is exacerbated by the continued privileging of concepts that help maintain that invisibility. Basic concepts that are central to traditional IR – anarchy, sovereignty, the state, the market, the international/domestic dichotomy – become problematic, if not highly dubious, when applied to Africa. Rather than use African experiences to revise their theories, most IR scholars simply continue to ignore the
continent.12Lying behind many of these arguments is a concern with the differences between the emergence of the ‘Westphalian’ state system in Europe and the states system in Africa. Here, it is claimed that whereas in Europe, the state system emerged with an almost innate coherence between the boundaries of territorially-defined political authority and various other social groups and processes – nation, secularisation, religion, industrialisation and so forth – in Africa the formation of states was somehow more artificial.13 This artificiality, this imposition of an alien form of rule, it is argued, leads to the weakness or absence of the state in African societies today. A host of claims are then made about the ethnic diversity of the populations within African states, the ‘misfit’ between patterns of trade and state boundaries and the
9 Dunn,
‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’
, p. 3; also Swatuk, ‘The Brothers Grim’.
10 Mohammed Ayoob, ‘Subaltern Realism: International Relations Theory Meets the Third World’,in Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World (London:Macmillan, 1998), p. 37.
11 Stephanie G. Neuman, ‘International Relations Theory and the Third World: An Oxymoron?’, inStephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World, p. 2.
12 Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 4.
13 Assis Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory: African Insights and Challenges’,in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International RelationsTheory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 12–15.
seemingly consequent lack of control exercised by the state domestically. Where domestic sovereignty in the West is therefore presented as an unproblematic issue, providing the basis for theories of international relations, in Africa it is highly problematic rendering those theories useless. The historical experiences of the two continents here points to the need for difference to be recognised in the theories of the international that we use, and we are asked to look back to pre-colonial Africa to pinpoint the building blocks of new theoretical departures. In a manner reminiscent of Davidson,14 Ofuho argues that, ‘Long before the imposition of the state structure, the African peoples had their modes of organising society, which were phased out because the continent did not have any choice but to adopt the Westphalian structure designed by European powers in Berlin’.15 This meant it was ‘moulded in the European frame but lacked the ethnic or cultural congruence that most of Europe followed’.16 Or as Malaquias puts it, ‘. . . Africa’s political development in the pre-colonial era differed from the European experience in important respects. Therefore, attempts to explain uniquely African phenomena by using essentially European models are inadequate.’17 In such circumstances, to prioritise an IR theory based on European historical experience over analysis of a different African reality is to subordinate the study of Africa’s international relations to European experiences. Flowing from this questioning of statehood is a dismissal of a host of other elements of IR theory – the division between the domestic and the international, of hierarchy within and anarchy without, and of a clearly demarcated political realm of interaction between states.
The implications of these claims could in fact point in several directions. They could be read as a call for a refined conceptual basis for IR theories, which rethought the concepts of state, sovereignty, anarchy and the international, and which could produce models of international order based on different assumptions which are more flexible and historically open. It would be, in effect, a call for theoretical approaches which allow Africa to be analysed as a serious historical subject. In places this is what Dunn appears to be arguing for.18 However, the way in which both he and others frame their critique also seems to imply something different – not the further development of IR theory per se, but the development of new IR theories for Africa because it is Africa, not Europe or North America, which these authors tell us makes existing IR theories problematic. In this latter sense, the claim is not just that Africa be taken seriously analytically, but that this can only happen via a radical theoretical divorce from what are seen as oppressive Western ideas. Both options demand that we at least reconsider what is and is not assumed in our theoretical models of the international system, and on what units and relationships such models are built, as well as what our theories are for. However, the danger is that a total dismissal of the relevance of existing IR theories in Africa, while implicitly accepting their applicability to the developed world, risks undermining one of the chief aims of the critics (to challenge Africa’s marginalisation in the discipline of IR) by demarcating the continent into a relativist isolation. I will argue that we need not,
14 Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-state (London: JamesCurrey, 1992).
15 Ofuho, ‘Legitimacy and Sovereignty’, p. 106.
16 Ibid., p. 107.17 Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 13.
18 Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 5.
and should not, go this far. Such a move misidentifies the problem being discussed. For, many of the issues which critics cite as problems of ‘IR theory’ in Africa, are in fact problems in IR theory wherever it is applied.
In what follows I will first make some general and fairly broad comments about some of the uses of theory in the study of international relations. I will then advance three lines of counter-critique to the challenge to IR theory: the historical narratives on which the critique of IR theory is based; the idea of statelessness in Africa; and the understandings and criticisms of the concept of anarchy. This falls somewhat short of a full defence of the applicability of ‘IR theory’ in Africa for, as I hope to show, IR theories are in some senses in question everywhere.
Theory and international relations
The case against ‘traditional IR’ is an important one as it presents a challenge to the discipline of IR, dominated as it is by scholars from the North Atlantic. It challenges its pretensions to be a discipline of the international as a whole, and to its existing efforts to provide theoretical frameworks within which to conceptualise and analyse different, and particularly non-Western and post-colonial regions of the international system. If theories of the international system are hidebound by the dominance of the North Atlantic, then of what use is the discipline to analysts of, and those living in, other parts of the world? However, as currently formulated, it is unclear in what direction critics would wish to see IR theory develop in order to meet the challenges they raise. In part, this lack of clarity is a result of the absence of any explicit consideration of what the uses of theories of international relations could or should be, nor of the relationship between abstract models of the international system and more focused, concrete analysis of particular issue areas or geographical regions within it. The bulk of this article will assess the rather more focused problems of history, anarchy and statehood which the critics raise. However, I will offer here a few broad, general, and incomplete considerations on the role of IR theory in analysing the international system.
The first point to make is that there needs, at times, to be a lowering of expectations as to what IR theories can do. Africanist critics of IR do not present any explicit discussion of the desired uses of IR theory, but implicitly their arguments appear to assume that for theory to be useful, a theoretical model should ‘look like’ the reality to which it relates. Because African reality doesn’t look very much like the images of international order received from the mainstream of the discipline, then the theories must be faulty: if IR theory presupposes functioning states and these don’t exist in parts of Africa, then the IR theory can’t apply; if IR theory is focused on relations between states, and there are international social processes crossing state borders that are in some sense non-state, then alternative theories are needed, and so on. There is indeed some mileage in this approach, but it is badly overstated.
The key problem with this starting point is that it risks mistaking theories for exact descriptions of reality. Given, as I argue below, that the critics’ main target is in fact neorealism, it is interesting to note that this very point is made by Waltz himself. Waltz argues that in constructing theories that seek to explain reality, the theory itself
is necessarily at some remove from reality and involves some necessary simplification of reality:
A theory is a picture, mentally formed, of a bounded realm or domain of activity. A theory is a depiction of the organization of the domain and of the connections among its parts . . . In reality everything is related to everything else, and one domain cannot be separated from others. Theory isolates one realm in order to deal with it intellectually . . . The question, as ever with theories is not whether the isolation of a realm is realistic, but whether it is
Notwithstanding some caveats about Waltz’s methodology (introduced below), and without getting diverted into a more far-reaching methodological discussion, this seems a reasonable point to make. While theories of the international system should bear some relation to the reality of the subject matter (otherwise how can they be useful?) we cannot expect theories to include everything that we observe. Indeed, that is partly why theories are useful as well as why their usefulness is inherently limited: they reduce the complexity of the world in order to highlight certain important features above others, they rely on conceptual abstractions such as ‘state’ and ‘anarchy’ to refer to real aspects of the world but in a necessarily imperfect, generalised way. Theories then go on to identify relations among these elements based on limiting assumptions about the real world. They necessarily take some things for granted in order to explore others. The test of the usefulness of theory therefore lies more in questions such as whether the abstractions on which it is built generate interesting insights, whether it is a coherent formulation, whether the assumptions on which it is based are reasonable, whether it can explain significant issues, and whether it generates interesting hypotheses for future research. In this respect, theories are only ever starting points for analysis. We should not be surprised if neorealism fails to provide everything we need to know about west Africa, or western Europe for that matter. The question is, does it provide some useful insights? Of course, if the conceptual abstractions and assumptions on which a theory is built are so distant from what is known about a particular region, then its usefulness is commensurately more limited. Perhaps this is what the critics are getting at and I will come to whether this argument holds for two conceptual abstractions – the state and anarchy – in later sections. To claim that mainstream IR theory doesn’t account for all the actors, processes and interactions which occur in Africa, is rather to miss the point.
It is worth remarking here that I do not go along with those who argue that a specifically ‘international’ theory is redundant either due to a general process of ‘globalisation’ or, in African guise, of state collapse. As will be discussed further below, some discussions of African politics, particularly focusing on the state and state collapse, proceed as if all practical borders between the internal and the external had broken down. In such a circumstance, the role of any specifically ‘international’ theory would indeed come into question and international relations would ‘disappear into sociology’20 or some kind of global social studies. If, following Justin Rosenberg,21 international relations refers, in its most general abstraction, to
19 Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 8.
20 The phrase is from Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society: a Critique of Realist Theory ofInternational Relations (London: Verso), p. 46.
21 Justin Rosenberg, The Follies of Globalisation Theory: Polemical Essays (London: Verso, 2000),pp. 65–85.
relations between politically-organised societies, then I see no reason to doubt its continuing relevance in either the African or global context. While this definition does indeed reaffirm the centrality of the political, it neither necessitates a radical separation between the internal and the external, nor between the political and other – economic, cultural, ideational – aspects of social life in any particular histori­cal example. If we thus define ‘international system’ as referring to more or less regularised patterns of political, economic, cultural interaction between coexisting politically organised societies, then the question of what might be included in theoretical formulations or models of the international system, or sub-regions of it, comes to the fore.
The problem of how to define the pertinent content of any particular international system has been addressed by Buzan and Little who have provided us with a useful framework.22 Because they are concerned to define an approach to international systems which is open enough to encompass a wide historical range of different systems, Buzan and Little’s is an approach which is particularly relevant to my current discussion of critics who argue that African international relations are somehow different from the Western norm. I do not need to go into Buzan and Little’s framework in any depth for the purposes of the current discussion, suffice to note that it endeavours to encompass a range of ‘levels’ (systems, units, subunits); a range of ‘sectors’ within which systems might be said to exist (military, political, economic, sociocultural and environmental); and a range of sources of explanation (processes, interaction capacity and structures). With this toolkit, it is argued, a wide array of different historical systems can be analysed. Put in terms of the above discussion, there is a wide range of aspects of reality which can be selected in order to construct theories and models of different systems of international relations.
Two key points flow from this. First, it becomes obvious that some kind of international theory which can offer useful explanations of Africa’s international politics is at least possible. Even if we were to accept the critics’ claim that the traditional focus of ‘Western’ IR on states and anarchy is misplaced, alternative constructions of a theory of the international for Africa should be possible focusing on ethnic groupings as ‘units’, for example, or transboundary migration
as ‘process’. In contrast to those who argue that there is almost no discernible international dimension at all, other critics, such as Dunn, seem to imply that some kinds of political organisation remain, just that they are not like Western states. The implica­tion of this latter argument is either that Africa would be seen to be removed from the modern, state-based, Western international system into some kind of system or sub-system of its own, or that our conceptualisations of the modern Western system need to be made considerably more complex and all-encompassing to accommodate African difference. I will argue below that I think we only need to go part way down this road, although such opening up may also carry with it an explanatory price.
Second, these considerations, and Buzan and Little’s framework, also highlight the fact that what is being criticised is not some single, generic body of thought called ‘western IR theory’, but actually one approach within it – neorealism. It soon becomes clear that when critics argue that IR theory is inadequate for Africa – because it focuses on states and not other actors, that it limits itself to interstate
22 Barry Buzan and Richard Little, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
and ignores other transnational processes, or that it operates as if there were no connection between what goes on within states and what goes on between them – they are actually talking about neorealism and not some of the other theoretical approaches in the IR canon which question some or all of these dimensions of realism. In discussions of IR theory and Africa, this fact is too often hidden behind reference to a target labelled ‘western IR theory’ as if that were a single, unified body of work. In this the critics are in fact accepting neorealism’s hegemonic claims within the discipline. It should hardly need saying that ‘western IR theory’ amounts to rather more than this. While Rosenberg may be right to argue that because realism sits on the political foundations of international relations ‘there is no way beyond realism by going around it’, this does not mean we have to accept its transhistorical claims, nor its overly limiting assumptions.23 Other theoretical approaches, all with their own traditional, Western credentials, remain very much in the game.
We might make one further note here. Consideration of critical social theories alerts us to the fact that the selection and construction of theories, and their impact in the real world, is never an entirely neutral or value-free exercise.24 Implicit in the Africanist critique is an idea that ‘western IR’ helps to reinforce Western dominance in the international system through, for example, aid donors’ insistence on the adoption of particular political reforms in Africa, centred on Western conceptions of the nation state. It is perhaps one of the more laudable aims of the Africanist critique to seek to break free from what are perceived as self-serving Western theoretical constructions and to open up discussion of alternative political futures for the continent. This aim is most explicit in Davidson’s writing.25 However, I will argue below that we should retain a strong dose of scepticism as to whether an analytical or normative focus on the non-state (whether that be ‘ethnic’ identifications or ‘warlord’ political formations) really offers a viable or desirable way past the state, although a questioning of an exclusive focus on the state as established fact certainly is useful. In addition, once one moves away from neorealist assumptions of statehood to a more relational understanding, a greater opening up of the potential for change becomes possible in any case.26
In the following sections I am going to take issue with two of the claims which are used to reject traditional (that is, realist) IR theory – statehood and anarchy – and argue that a recognisable theory of international politics can still be a valuable starting point for analysis of Africa’s international relations. However, first I want to offer some comments on the damage to historical understanding to which this misuse of theory leads.
23 Rosenberg, Follies of Globalisation Theory.
24 Craig Calhoun, Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference (Oxford:Blackwell, 1995); Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond InternationalRelations Theory’, Millennium, 10:2 (1981), pp. 126–55; Andrew Linklater, ‘The Achievements ofCritical Theory’, in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (eds.), International Theory:Positivism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 279–98.
25 Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden.
26 The highly circumscribed scope for social change allowed for in Realism limits the extent to whichit can be viewed as a critical theory – a comment which does not apply to other ‘western’approaches such as Liberalism and Marxism. Simon Bromley and Mark Smith, ‘TransformingInternational Order?’, in William Brown, Simon Bromley and Suma Athreye (eds.), Ordering theInternational: History, Change and Transformation (London: Pluto Press in association with theOpen University, 2004), pp. 523–68.
Essentialising histories
In implicitly assuming that theoretical models of international relations can provide accurate, detailed descriptions of the real world of international relations, rather than simplified metaphors of reality to be used as a starting point for analysis, the critics of traditional IR are guilty of gross misrepresentations of history. Indeed, perhaps one of the most glaring inadequacies of the ‘Africanist critique’ of IR theory is the historical parallel which it uses to promulgate its argument. Far from using the contrasting and complex histories of European and African participation in the international system as a way to open up avenues to a more historically-oriented theory of the international, the critique actually ‘essentialises’ both European and African history.
The first essentialisation relates to the claimed compatibility of notions of the state and state system taken directly from realist theory with the actual historical reality of state formation and interaction in Europe. For the claim that IR theory is inapplicable in Africa in fact accepts with a breathtaking complacency the idea that such abstractions easily accord with the European experience and shows a grossly oversimplified portrayal of Europe. While it may indeed be correct to argue, like Dunn, that to take an ‘unproblematised’ notion of the state and hold it up to African reality will necessarily produce a distorted picture, the implication is that this is not so in the case of Europe.27 Apparently, the Westphalian ideal, ‘. . . worked well for Europe . . .’.28 As I have noted above, the assumption is that in Europe there was some kind of simple, natural affinity between the emerging nation-states and the communities, cultures, identities and territories around which they were constructed. The history of the European states system, and the scholarly debates within and without IR about it, show this notion to be absurd. Yet it goes almost unremarked that the complex reality of the European states system might raise questions about the formulation and use of theories of international relations which take states for granted, as if these problems only arise when the apparently more difficult issue of Africa is addressed.
Indeed, in this respect, the critique of IR seemingly ignores the very real debates about the origins and nature of the European states system and the place within it of the Peace of Westphalia, and of the social processes of war, revolution, industrialis­ation, modernisation and capitalist transition which accompanied and shaped state formation.29 A passing knowledge of the history would alert us to the fact that the Western state has neither been ‘unproblematic’ nor ‘taken for granted’ at virtually
27 Kevin Dunn, ‘MadLib #32: The (Blank) African State: Rethinking State Sovereignty inInternational Relations Theory’, in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challengeto IR Theory, p. 55.
28 Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 15.
29 There are too many possible citations here. To get an idea of the range of debates, an eclecticselection might include: Paul Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formationas Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985); Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Stephen D.Krasner, ‘Rethinking the Sovereign State Model’, Review of International Studies, 27 Special Issue(December 2001), pp. 17–42; Gianfranco Poggi, The Development of the Modern State: aSociological Introduction (London: Hutchinson, 1978); John G. Ruggie, Constructing the WorldPolity: Essays on International Institutionalization (London: Routledge, 1998); Benno Teschke TheMyth of 1648: Class, Geopolitics and the Making of Modern International Relations (London: Verso,2003); Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).
any point in its history. It is perhaps useful to remind oneself that what might be taken for granted as the ‘European state system’ today was, as recently as 1945, in a condition of near total collapse. Indeed, the rebuilding of it involved the creation of entirely novel forms of international political, economic and security apparatuses – the EU, NATO, Warsaw Pact and Communist bloc, and the like – which themselves do not easily fit into received theories of IR, as the debates over the nature of these very institutions amply shows. The characterisation of traditional IR which is offered by the Africanist critique would be pretty limited in explaining much about international relations anywhere in the world, including North America and Europe.
The second essentialism is the other side of this coin, that is, an ‘African reality’ which is contrasted with the ‘western ideal’. Thus while European history is essentialised as fitting the ideal types offered by IR theory, African history is portrayed as essentially different from them. While it is unquestionably correct to point out that the African situation was and is different to Europe, this is hardly news. What is much more problematic – and requires a good deal more justification than it receives in much of the literature – is to argue that there is something so essentially different about Africa in the modern world as to make core concepts like the state (which may indeed originate in Western thought) irrelevant. That is, not only is it claimed that there are contradictions and conflicts around and arising from state formation in Africa, and that the easy use of distinctions such as domestic and international is problematic, but that these will not, indeed cannot, be overcome and statehood, and the associated concepts used by realism and other IR theories which flow from it, are therefore redundant.
Joining these two essentialisations, many of the critics operate with a simplistic notion of a one-way process of imposition of the Western ideal-state onto Africa as if Africans themselves had little to do with it. Thus: ‘The state-centric model . . . worked well for Europe [while] the grafting of the Westphalian system onto Africa brought war and conflict . . .’ because it ‘represented European ideas, not the wishes and aspirations of African peoples’.30 Or as Dunn puts it, ‘African states had no authorship in the construction of the international state system . . . The international system was born in Westphalia and exported across the globe by Western coloniz­ation and hegemony.’31 In fact, not only was the course of colonisation shaped by the interaction between Africans and Europeans32 but decolonisation and the foundation of independent states was a process in which Africans were actors, not simply acted upon.33 The critics’ account also grossly over-simplifies the complex processes which have gone to shape the international system. It is as if the basic structure of the system was erected in seventeenth century Europe and has remained untouched and unchanged by the passing years of war, revolution, social transformation, state collapse and formation, international expansion and revolt.34
30 Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 15.
31 Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, pp. 66–7.
32 See Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher and Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The OfficialMind of Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1970).
33 For example, see Tony Chafer’s excellent history, The End of Empire in French West Africa:France’s Successful Decolonization? (Oxford: Berg, 2002).
34 With respect to the charge of ignoring Africa, it is worth noting here that some strands of‘traditional IR’ such as the English School have in fact given the changes in the internationalsystem around the expansion of statehood a great deal of attention. See for example, Hedley Bulland Adam Watson (eds.), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Clarendon).
Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the critique in fact fails to achieve one of its key aims – to undermine the marginalisation of Africa in IR. The double act of a portrayal of Europe as essentially in accord with received theories, and of an African reality which is essentially different, cannot help but to exoticise Africa and only widens the gulf between the IR mainstream and Africanist writings. The theoretical pluralism hinted at by Dunn is all very well, but if it leaves ‘traditional IR’ untouched in its North Atlantic heartland and emphasises its non-applicability to Africa, then it is unlikely to garner any greater attention to the continent in mainstream IR teaching or theory. Indeed, Africa will be left outside of such scholarly arenas in a relativist isolation, dismissed as it so often is, as ‘devoid of meaningful politics’. As Mahmood Mamdani put it in a slightly different context, both the uncritical adherence to ‘western’ universals and the assertion of an essential African particularism leaves both Europe and Africa ‘robbed of their history’.

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