No place for benign inactivity says Blair

There are some holes in British foreign policy that need clarification, especially where Africa is concerned.



tish Prime Minister, Tony Blair last week presented his case for intervention in the affairs of a foreign country. There are two types of intervention, he said: “activist” and “diplomatic.” In the case of Zimbabwe, where British government efforts were directed at applying “political pressure” on President Robert Mugabe’s regime, Blair admitted that Britain’s intervention has not been effective.

Blair is strongly in favour of nurturing what he calls an “international community” – based on “shared values, prepared actively to intervene and resolve problems” – to serve as the foundation of future global peace, prosperity and stability. According to Blair, who delivered his speech to the Foreign Policy Centre on March 21, Africa so far has reaped mostly diplomatic, not activist efforts. This is a telling confession from a government which, in 2005, put Africa at the top of its foreign policy objectives.

Blair poured scorn on the foreign policy practices of the past 50 years in which a strictly non-interventionist approach was widely adopted. In the case of Africa, and its many conflicts, this ‘old’ policy view, “has its soft face in dealing with issues like global warming or Africa; and reserves its hard face only if directly attacked by another state, which is unlikely”.

This “benign inactivity” approach to foreign policy has no place in today’s world, Blair continued. Yet Britain’s stance on Africa remains just that: benign, plus an overriding interest targeted particularly at its own economic interests. Blair did not spell it out, but there are many who would argue the case for ‘active’ intervention: military intervention in Rwanda would have been an appropriate response, where the genocide of a million people took place. The failure of the West to intervene in Rwanda’s case raises the question: in what circumstances would the West intervene: do economic interests outweigh humanitarian concerns? Is Africa regarded as being so “hopeless” – to use that famous phrase of the Economist’s – that “activism” will always give way to the pursuit of other interests? This would seem to be the case.

Interestingly, it was Nelson Mandela who offered the view, just a few years ago, that “tyrants” (he clearly included African tyrants among them) should not be allowed to shelter behind the concept of “sovereignty”. Was this the first time an African leader put forward an argument for ‘active’ intervention – and when will some other African leaders make the same appeal? The case of Zimbabwe and its rapid decline under the presidency of Robert Mugabe has proved that so far many African leaders remain supportive of tyrannical behaviour or lack the stomach for intervention of any kind, whether militarily or meaningful diplomacy.

Britain’s policy towards Africa often has been criticised, and although Africa gained a certain prominence in the Labour government’s foreign policy agenda, there is little evidence so far that much will transpire from this policy. The Royal African Society accuses the British government of concentrating on Africa’s relationship with the outside world: “trade, aid and debt, but it neglects the deeper, internal causes of Africa’s failures: its politics.”

The RAS repeatedly has offered the studied view that it is Africa’s leaders who are responsible for Africa’s dire plight. In an article, Richard Dowden, executive director of the RAS, published in the Independent, wrote: “In Africa all politics are local and personal, rarely about ideas or principles.”

The hope of intervention in Africa by Britain is becoming dimmer by the day. Britain is closing three diplomatic missions in Africa and it has lost three important Africanists at the Foreign Office.

So, what future is there for Africa becoming part of that interdependent world on which Blair says future policies should be based? Certainly, it suggests that relationships with African countries will focus more on economic and commercial interests than on coordinating a coherent policy that will facilitate Africa’s entry into global interdependency. As Dowden observed, Britain’s approach to Africa has resulted in “grotesque contradictions such as Jack Straw (British Foreign Secretary) denouncing the evil Harare regime while the Home Office deports failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers telling them it is safe to go home.”

In the case of Zimbabwe, some commentators believe that Britain has in fact contributed to the mess in which Zimbabwe now finds itself. A RAS article says “trying to browbeat Mugabe with threats and condemnation played straight into his hands as he turned every insult back on his accusers, supercharged with anti-colonial rhetoric.” The RAS accuses the British foreign office of not merely mishandling Zimbabwean politics, but of apathy.

So far then, British foreign policy towards Africa can be said to be non-interventionist policy a policy which Blair only recently said had no place in today’s global politics. So there are still some holes, it seems, in British foreign policy that need clarification, especially where Africa is concerned.

Post published in: Opinions

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