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Review of International Studies (2006), 32, 119–143 Copyright  British International Studies Association


Africa and international relations: a comment on IR theory, anarchy and statehood WILLIAM BROWN*

Abstract. 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. In this article I will seek both to assess this ‘Africanist critique’ and to mount something of a qualified defence of IR theory. However, I argue that in exploring the relevance of IR theory to Africa we need to distinguish between neorealism – the real target of the critics’ fire – and other strands of IR theory. Once we do this we can see that other theoretical standpoints within IR are relevant. Moreover, I argue that while trying to question neorealism, the critics in fact maintain neorealism’s conceptualisations of the state and anarchy, simply inverting the picture. I argue that this represents a theoretical step backwards. Problematic issues in IR theory do not simply appear when one moves one’s focus to Africa, they are there to begin with.

Introduction 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, and Timothy 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 who loosely share some common critical analyses of IR theory and who include scholars of Africa based in 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 that all ‘Africanists’ – analysts of Africa – would share these critics’ views on IR.



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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




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Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001). Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World (London: Macmillan, 1998). Others include Siba N. Grovogui, ‘Regimes of Sovereignty: International Morality 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 in Southern Africa’, in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 163–82; Tandeka, C. Nkiwane, ‘Africa and International Relations: Regional Lessons for a Global Discourse’, International Political Science Review, 22:3 (2001), pp. 279–90; and Cirino, H. Ofuho, ‘The Legitimacy and Sovereignty Dilemma of African States and Governments: Problems of Colonial Legacy’, in Bakut tswah Bakut and Sagarika Dutt (eds.), Africa at the Millennium: An Agenda for Mature Development (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 103–25. The prefixes vary between ‘traditional’, ‘orthodox’, ‘western’, ‘northern’ and ‘Eurocentric’, but all imply a definite and identifiable body of theory or ‘received wisdom’ in the discipline. As I go on to argue, precisely which parts of existing IR theory are being attacked is in fact rarely made sufficiently explicit. See Kevin C. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side: Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory’, Journal of Third World Studies, 17:1 (2000), pp. 61–2. Nkiwane, ‘Africa and International Relations’, p. 280. Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 2; also Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’.

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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.12

Lying 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 10


12 13

Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 3; also Swatuk, ‘The Brothers Grim’. 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. Stephanie G. Neuman, ‘International Relations Theory and the Third World: An Oxymoron?’, in Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World, p. 2. Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 4. Assis Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory: African Insights and Challenges’, in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 12–15.


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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

15 16 17 18

Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-state (London: James Currey, 1992). Ofuho, ‘Legitimacy and Sovereignty’, p. 106. Ibid., p. 107. Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 13. Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 5.

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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


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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 useful.19

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 20


Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979), p. 8. The phrase is from Justin Rosenberg, The Empire of Civil Society: a Critique of Realist Theory of International Relations (London: Verso), p. 46. Justin Rosenberg, The Follies of Globalisation Theory: Polemical Essays (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 65–85.

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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).


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relations 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 24

25 26

Rosenberg, Follies of Globalisation Theory. Craig Calhoun, Critical Social Theory: Culture, History, and the Challenge of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995); Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, Millennium, 10:2 (1981), pp. 126–55; Andrew Linklater, ‘The Achievements of Critical Theory’, in Steve Smith, Ken Booth and Marysia Zalewski (eds.), International Theory: Positivism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 279–98. Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden. The highly circumscribed scope for social change allowed for in Realism limits the extent to which it 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, ‘Transforming International Order?’, in William Brown, Simon Bromley and Suma Athreye (eds.), Ordering the International: History, Change and Transformation (London: Pluto Press in association with the Open University, 2004), pp. 523–68.

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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

28 29

Kevin Dunn, ‘MadLib #32: The (Blank) African State: Rethinking State Sovereignty in International Relations Theory’, in Kevin C. Dunn and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), Africa’s Challenge to IR Theory, p. 55. Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 15. There are too many possible citations here. To get an idea of the range of debates, an eclectic selection might include: Paul Corrigan and Derek Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985); Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: 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: a Sociological Introduction (London: Hutchinson, 1978); John G. Ruggie, Constructing the World Polity: Essays on International Institutionalization (London: Routledge, 1998); Benno Teschke The Myth 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).


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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 31 32



Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, p. 15. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, pp. 66–7. See Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher and Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1970). For example, see Tony Chafer’s excellent history, The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization? (Oxford: Berg, 2002). 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 international system around the expansion of statehood a great deal of attention. See for example, Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (eds.), The Expansion of International Society (Oxford: Clarendon).

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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 Dunn35 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’.36 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’.37

‘I would bet on the states, perhaps even on Uganda’38 I argued above that even if one accepted the view that international relations in Africa were not ‘state-centric’ one could in principle construct alternative theories of IR based on alternative units and sectors of international order. However, I do not think we need to do this, or not, at least, to the extent that the critics seem to imply. Here I want to argue that theoretical approaches from within IR remain useful starting points for analysis of Africa’s international relations. As already noted, behind the critics’ professed target of ‘traditional IR theory’ lies neorealism, the real object of discussion. The central conceptual bases of neorealism are the closely intertwined distinctions between an internal, hierarchical politics based on the state and an external, anarchic international system comprised of states. In Buzan and Little’s framework, these two define the units of the system (states) and the structure of relations between the units (anarchy structured by a balance of power). And indeed, it is these two which are seen to be most problematic for scholars of African international politics. My argument in this section and the next is as follows. The critics of ‘traditional IR theory’ implicitly accept neorealism’s definition of the state and of anarchy and then go on to point out the shortcomings of these conceptualisations once the reality on the ground in Africa is encountered. ‘IR theory’ is then dismissed as of limited relevance. Notwithstanding the cautions above (as to how far one should try to read off abstract theories in this way) this is a false move for other reasons. I will argue that the realist conceptualisation of the state and of anarchy are to be found wanting in and of themselves – the problems do not arise only once one moves to substantive analysis of Africa. With a modified understanding of the units of the international system, and of the structure of relations between them, the extent of African difference could be reduced from a difference of kind, as one side or other of a dichotomy, to a matter of degree. Africa could then be seen to exist within the 35 36 37


Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’. Ibid., citing Gourevitch, p. 1. Mahmmod Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 10. As we shall see later, the phrase is Waltz’s, ‘Theory of International Politics’, p. 95.


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same analytical and real, historical world as the West while allowing space for the particularities of the continent to be understood. However, the critics in fact retain neorealist conceptualisations of the state and anarchy but invert the picture. Far from going beyond realism, this is in fact a step backwards. I will begin my discussion with the state, and will make three main arguments. First, I argue that the rather crude historical portrayals highlighted in the previous section combine with a rather misleading realist idea of the state to enable a dismissal of the state as an essential building block of analysis of Africa’s international relations. Second, I show that a more relational understanding of states makes for a more open IR which has greater nuance in the understanding of the units of the international system, one which is potentially compatible with other theoretical traditions in IR.39 Third, I argue that thus armed, it becomes easier to judge the actual absence or not of the state in Africa and indeed to place the strictly political dimension of the international in a broader social context. I argue that state absence is overstated by the critics, a move which is in fact made possible by their acceptance of realist-Weberian abstractions as actual fact. State-centrism is ingrained in neorealism and much other international relations theory. As Waltz put it: ‘States set the scene in which they, along with non-state actors, stage their dramas or carry on their humdrum affairs . . . States are the units whose interactions form the structure of international political systems’.40 For neorealism, the centrality of states to the political structure of the international system is one of its limiting assumptions – it is the existence of multiple domestic hierarchies which defines the structure of the system and thus sets the context in which other actors, those pushed to the periphery of this analytical model, act. Yet in Africa, we are told, this centrality of the state is an assumption which is not useful – Africa is an arena where state absence demands alternative theoretical constructions. Kevin Dunn is explicit on this: I am questioning the relevance of the African state as the primary unit of analysis in understanding politics in Africa . . . The nation-state arose in Western Europe due to specific historical and societal pressures. The nation-state as an institution reflected the needs and demands of a specific time and place. Its exportation and imposition in Africa (and elsewhere) meant that traditional socio-political structures (which had emerged to meet the needs of the indigenous ‘civil’ society) were displaced and/or replaced by an alien institution.41

I have already indicated that I regard the historical portrayals contained in the above quote as seriously flawed. However, it is worth noting here that the analytical criticism is also serving broader aims. Analytically, we are told, the study of Africa’s international relations should focus on the non-state, and historically should highlight the alternative political forms on which pre-colonial African societies were based. For Malaquias, this means ‘confronting the hegemonic position of the state-centric approach . . .’ in IR theory.42 Dunn, citing Christopher Clapham,43 39

40 41 42 43

In particular I will use Moravcsik’s liberalism to offer some limited illustration of the difference this shift makes. Andrew Moravcsik, ‘A Liberal Theory of International Politics’, International Organization, 51:4 (1997), pp. 513–53. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, pp. 94–5. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, p. 76. Malaquias, ‘Reformulating International Relations Theory’, pp. 15–16. Dunn, ‘The (Blank) African State’; Christopher Clapham, ‘Degrees of Statehood’, Review of International Studies, 24 (1998), pp. 143–57.

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supports this, arguing that, because and to the extent that states in Africa have not achieved ‘domination over society’, the need to focus on other, non-state, actors to analyse Africa’s place in the international system, increases. More concretely, some argue that the contemporary political crises in Africa should not be addressed through state-centric lenses. The nation-state, according to Davidson, was a ‘curse’: ‘. . . the postcolonial nation-state had become a shackle on progress . . .’44 and crisis arises ‘. . . from the social and political institutions within which decolonized Africans have lived and tried to survive. Primarily this is a crisis of institutions . . . with the nationalism that became nation-statism.’45 Bakut criticises the fact that ‘Afrikan [sic] governments are still holding on tightly to the obsolescent state system even though it is quite clear that it has failed in Afrika . . .’.46 And Dunn claims that we should stop seeing state failure as ‘temporary aberrations rather than as alternative structures and practices to the dominant Westphalian system’.47 However, this argument goes deeper than a call for better explanations based on better theory. Here the critics are making a claim that statism in Africa was an external imposition just as theories of IR based on states are an external, intellectual imposition. By debunking state-centred IR, the critics seek to open up alternative, ‘non-state’ political futures, free of such Western impositions. As a result, directly political injunctions are made. Davidson’s argument that a reconstruction of politics in Africa should be built on deeper, pre-colonial political roots is based on a claim about the present-day relevance of pre-colonial African political systems. Bakut too, argues that ‘. . . the loyalties of individuals to tribal or national groups (arguably) is the nature of Afrikan societies, Afrikan governments are burdened with internal divisions, which hinder their attempts to create inclusive states’,48 thus the need to create different, non-state political structures (Bakut interprets the proposal for an African Economic Community as one such) which accommodate this reality. For Chabal and Daloz, most spectacularly, international aid donors’ concern with political crises in Africa is misplaced for these are not really crises at all, it is just how ‘Africa works’.49 Although linked, I will take the analytical case being made here first before offering some sceptical comments on the political futures which are entailed in this theoretical challenge. The critics’ argument – to take the state back out – rests on a series of analytical moves, all of which are at best questionable. The argument goes something like this. First, it is accepted that the state is an established fact – an ‘irreducible actor’ whose international standing is based primarily on its total domination over domestic society. Second, analysis proceeds on the basis that theoretical abstractions of such an entity look something like historical reality. Third, it is argued that there is an essentially different African reality to the European one from whence such abstractions came. Finally, it is claimed that the abstractions don’t fit an African reality which is encapsulated by the experiences of internal conflict and 44 45 46

47 48 49

Davidson, Black Man’s Burden, p. 290. Ibid., p. 10. Bakut tswah Bakut, ‘The African Economic Community (AEC): A Step Towards Achieving the Pan-African Ideal’, in Bakut tswah Bakut and Sagarika Dutt (eds.), Africa at the Millennium: An Agenda for Mature Development (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 79–100. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, p. 78. Bakut, ‘The African Economic Community’, p. 79, emphasis added. Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (London: International African Institute with James Currey and Indiana University Press, 1999).


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state collapse of countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia (two of the most frequently cited instances of state absence). The state should therefore be dismissed as the building block of international relations theories in Africa. I have rehearsed already why I think that the second and third steps in this argument are problematic, so here I will concentrate on the first and the last. If the Africanist critics were simply using the example of Africa to raise questions about the validity of realist conceptualisations of the state, then one wouldn’t have many objections other than to point out that other case studies, including European and North American ones, could also have been used. At times, this is what Dunn appears to be hinting at – in urging IR theorists to use the African experience to question their concepts and develop better ones.50 However, too often, this slips over into the position quoted above – of actually dismissing the concept of the state as in and of itself peripheral to a useful theory. Indeed, we find that an adherence to realist conceptualisations of the state is in fact necessary for this dismissal to have any plausibility. It is worth remembering that for Waltz, state-centrism is a founding assumption. In defence of neorealism, the question should therefore be whether this is a reasonable and useful assumption to make in order to generate explanation, not whether the resulting model gives an accurate, detailed description of reality.51 Unfortunately, this seems to be forgotten both by some realists as well as some of their critics. At some times, and for some analytical purposes, it may be reasonable to assume that statehood is an established fact, at other times this will leave so much out of the picture as to be misleading. But the case for taking the state back out in terms of African international politics needs to be made in rather more detail than it has hitherto, a point I’ll return to below. Furthermore, this really only tackles the neorealist strand in ‘traditional’ IR theory. Certainly, state-centrism is also present to an extent in liberal, constructivist and Marxist writings on international relations in that they all take states as key, if not the only, units in the modern international system. But for these approaches, the assumption of statehood is much more qualified and, one might add, more useful. For Moravcsik’s liberalism, for instance, the fundamental actors in international politics are not states per se but individuals and groups and it is their interests, mediated in various ways through states, which create the patterns of international interdependence which sit alongside anarchy to give us the character of the international system.52 Writing from a Marxist perspective, Rosenberg has argued that in overcoming the realist insistence on a purely international, interstate level of theorisation, by reconnecting the internal and external, it not only enables better explanations of substantive issues to be given, but allows IR theories to be reconnected with the broader canvas of the social sciences.53 There is certainly an argument, therefore, in favour of taking a more relational view of the state. Rather than accept realist assumptions as descriptions and claim that the theory doesn’t fit the facts, might it not be more profitable to explore more developed theories of the state than realism has to offer, and only then judge the extent to which states should or should not be at the centre of theories of African 50 51 52 53

Dunn, ‘Introduction: Africa and IR Theory’, p. 5. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, pp. 6–7. Moravcsik, ‘A Liberal Theory of International Politics’. Justin Rosenberg, ‘The International Imagination: IR Theory and ‘‘Classic Social Analysis’’ ’, Millennium, 23:1 (1994), pp. 85–108.

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international politics? The problems with the realist-Weberian approach were well put by the political theorist, John Dunn. He points out that the Weberian idea of the state as ‘factual entity’ defines it as an entity which ‘successfully upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force’ in enforcing its rule over a given territory.54 However, as he goes on to note: What is elusive in Weber’s conception is the proviso that the claim in question should be successful. States certainly vary today . . . in just how successfully they realize this claim in practice. Some states confront more thoroughly pacified populations than others. But no state has ever confronted a wholly pacified or subjected population.55

The difference between some Western states at particular times and some African states at particular times, here becomes a matter of degree, not one side or other of a dichotomy. The concept of the state is germane to both, however, as is the problematic of how and how far the state’s claims to legitimacy and capacity to control are realised, and the form of political rule they exercise over society. As Rosenberg put it, ‘before the state is a thing it is a social relation’56 and that: . . . if one cannot look at those social relations [which compose the state], then one must treat the state as an irreducible actor. And to do this is to invest the specifically modern Western form of the state with an elemental status which abstracts it from its social and historical reality.57

If one then transposes this ‘elemental state’ onto Africa, it is not surprising that the fit is imperfect! Realists and their critics should take note. We might be better, therefore, bringing into our theory an idea of the state-society relationships which inform what statehood means in the international system. That means paying some serious attention to the particular ways in which political authority is constructed, the particular claims to sovereignty which are extended within and without, the relationships between political order and economic interests and the ways in which the legitimacy of political rule is sought to be upheld. However, we must also bear in mind that each of these features are relational, not elemental. We can therefore be attuned to the idea that in actual instances under consideration, in Clapham’s terms, statehood may be a matter of ‘degree’ rather than present or absent,58 but also that statehood will mean and entail different things in different historical and social settings – forms of state will vary. This is something which realism necessarily leaves out of its model. Bearing in mind John Dunn’s assertion above, we also need to keep present the idea that this is true whether we are looking at Africa or Europe: these are not features which only pertain to Africa while Europe adheres to a Weberian ideal-type. The issue of how to understand Africa’s international politics and the kinds of futures which are possible, then becomes a matter of more serious study. It might be that in some circumstances and for some analytical purposes, realist assumptions might be a useful starting point. But it is also clear that other traditions in IR theory also have different claims on our attention and that the usefulness or not of one 54

55 56

57 58

Weber, cited by John Dunn, The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics (London: Harper Collins, 2000), p. 67. John Dunn, Cunning of Unreason, pp. 67–8, emphasis added. Justin Rosenberg, ‘A Non-Realist Theory of Sovereignty?: Giddens’ The Nation State and Violence’, Millennium, 19:2 (1990), p. 251. Justin Rosenberg, ‘The International Imagination’, p. 94. Clapham, ‘Degrees of Statehood’.


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approach should not be used to dismiss them all. By moving away from realist assumptions about the state we actually have to be a bit more circumspect in judging how far statehood is or is not a relevant factor in theorising Africa’s international relations and how far non-state political forms really offer an alternative. Let us consider the celebrated cases of state collapse in west Africa as an illustration of this discussion. For many writers on Africa, the images which inform discussions are often the weak states, disintegrating regimes and social conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s. Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy article59 sets the tone here in what Chris Allen rightly called an ‘inglorious wallow in prejudice and misinformation’.60 However, perceiving social breakdown within the state is not in itself a reason to jettison consideration of the international nor sideline the state as a crucial component of the political landscape. In the case of Liberia, the civil war initiated by Charles Taylor’s invasion in 1989 came after a prolonged process of social and economic change which weakened the existing relationships through which state power had previously been consolidated.61 However, this process was both internal and international. Throughout the 1980s the regime of Samuel Doe struggled to patch up a declining support base through the manipulation of inflows of foreign investment and support from Liberia’s US backers.62 With the decline of the latter, as Cold War priorities in US policy waned, the regime set in train a restructuring of the state which ultimately failed to provide Doe with the political backing he needed and in fact empowered his rivals. However, Taylor’s rebellion was frustrated by a lack of international recognition and by the intervention of outside powers, notably the Economic Community of West Africa Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), led by Nigeria. And it was international pressure, and military intervention, which contributed to Taylor’s exile in 2003 and the start of a process of political reconstruction. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, the ability of Presidents Momoh and Strasser to reorganise political and economic relationships within and outside of the country for a time frustrated the efforts of rebels of Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to seize control of the country in the early 1990s.63 However, again it was the intervention of other states and organisations – ECOMOG, the UN and Britain – which played an important role in eventually bringing warfare to an end in 2002 and in rebuilding the state. The critics of traditional IR would be on fairly safe ground if they argued that the analytical tools of neorealism would give us a very limited explanation of these events. However, once we relax our assumption of statehood and instead perceive the state as a social relationship which faces both inwards and outwards, then the canvas opens up considerably. For instance we can see how, for both of these countries, statehood is based on a combination of both domestic and international relationships and that shifts in these had profound consequences for the stability of the state. Looked at the other way around one can see that what both of these states sought to ‘do’ in the international arena – for example Doe’s courting of US backing in the 1980s, or the diplomatic initiatives of Sierra Leone’s President Kabbah in the late 59 60

61 62 63

Robert Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, Atlantic Monthly (February 1994), pp. 44–76. Chris Allen, ‘Understanding African Politics’, Review of African Political Economy, 22:65 (1995), p. 318. William Reno (1998), Warlord Politics and African States (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998). Reno, Warlord Politics, ch. 3. Ibid., ch. 4.

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1990s – can be explained by looking at their domestic political relationships and the way these dovetailed (or failed to dovetail) with the preferences of powerful external actors (both state and non-state). So long as one is prepared to integrate an understanding of ‘what goes on within states’ with ‘what goes on between them’, it would be possible to knit together a variety of accounts of these and other developments which get beyond the idea simply that the state doesn’t ‘fit’ in Africa. Indeed, it is not just that it is hard to see how an account could be given which doesn’t have the state as one of its building blocks, but in many ways the nature of statehood and the control of the state are what these conflicts are actually about. The analytical focus on the state is therefore not simply an academic affectation. Both of these cases also seem to show that, rather too often, the worst cases of political breakdown are cited as if they are permanent characteristics of the countries concerned and representative of the entire continent. Neither should be assumed to be the case. Kevin Dunn argues that ‘. . . IR observers tend to treat the development of ‘‘warlordism’’ in countries such as Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone as temporary aberrations rather than alternative structures and practices to the dominant Westphalian state system’.64 However, we might in fact be better seeing warlordism as ‘final manoeuverings in the dying years of a type of political system’ than as a viable and enduring form of politics.65 We should not assume that the political and economic relationships which emerge in conditions of social breakdown are more solid and enduring than the forms of organised politics which preceded them, nor those which may succeed them. In this context we might also do well to remember that in defending the state-centrism of his theory, Waltz claimed: ‘Who is likely to be around 100 years from now – the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Egypt, Thailand, and Uganda? Or Ford, IBM, Shell, Unilever, and Massey-Ferguson? I would bet on the states, perhaps even on Uganda’.66 Of course, at the time he was writing, conditions inside Uganda were, as far as Waltz could see, approximating something of a Hobbesian nightmare.67 Yet not ten years later Uganda was on the road to a fairly remarkable process of political reconstruction.68 Many other African states, for all the economic and political crises that may have occurred, appear to be fairly durable entities. For every Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia, there is a Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya. Not only do the critics overstate the irrelevance of the state, they also underestimate the magnitude of what is being proposed. For it is the very particularity of state authority and sovereign recognition as a unique form of power which gives statehood its power and presence in the international system. Yet, in Africa, we are told, seemingly alone out of the continents of the world, modern statehood does not exercise this unique role in politics. Of course it is an open question as to whether the efforts at state reconstruction in Sierra Leone and Liberia do in fact overcome the political dynamics which led to breakdown in the first place. But it does raise a rather important normative question 64 65

66 67 68

Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, p. 78. Chris Allen, ‘Warfare, Endemic Violence and State Collapse in Africa’, Review of African Political Economy, 26:81 (1999), pp. 381–2. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 95. Ibid., p. 103. Of course, it is not the African states, not even Uganda, one of the more solid examples of state reconstruction in Africa, which have given us reason to doubt Waltz’s certainty, but one of the great powers, the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist.


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as to what kind of political forms one would want to see created. Buzan has expressed scepticism of the value of exploring ‘the arcadian mine of social and political constructions that existed before European imposition’69 but the prospect of present-day warlordism is rather more sanguinary. For if warlordism ‘fits’ Africa better than statehood, as the critics claim, it is a bleak future indeed. In fact, away from the safety of academia, few see this as a desirable outcome, as is witnessed by the considerable and ongoing struggles by Africans, and Western powers, towards state reconstruction. These actors would seem to agree with Christopher Clapham who, even while arguing for the state to be brought into question analytically, concluded that ‘. . . there has been little in the experience of failed states to cast doubt on the proposition that statehood remains an essential prerequisite for order, representation and the improvement of human welfare within the present international order’.70

Misunderstanding anarchy Moving away from a simple dichotomy of state/non-state in the manner suggested above, we can also gain a better perspective to judge the other key claim of the critics of traditional IR, namely that the image of an international anarchy in the external relations between states and an internal hierarchy within states, is inapplicable in Africa. I argue that, like the existence or otherwise of statehood, a hard and fast distinction between anarchy and hierarchy – either within or between states – is rather more problematic in practice than the critics acknowledge. Attempts to theorise the international system which recognise the mixes of anarchy and interdependence between states allow both more nuance in our understanding of the character of relations between the units, and a more sensible grasp of the internal and external dimensions of international order. Neorealism is based on a clear distinction of types of political system defined by their ordering principles: hierarchy or anarchy. Political orders may in practice show mixes of these two, Waltz argues, but there remain only two options for ordering principles.71 For theories which seek to explain rather than describe, that is theories which are based on abstractions which are ‘some distance from reality’ rather than ever more detailed descriptions of reality, a choice has to be made as to whether the system under consideration is structured by anarchy or hierarchy: ‘. . . our expectations about the fate of those areas differ wildly depending on which answer to the structural question becomes the right one’.72 It is an assumption of neorealism that politics within states is hierarchical while politics between states is anarchic. This distinction also provides the dividing line which separates the internal from the external, domestic politics from international. It is this assertion that draws the critics’ fire. For instance, Neuman argues, ‘For many LDCs, then, the realist focus on a sharp boundary between domestic ‘‘order’’ and international ‘‘anarchy’’ may be applicable, but in reverse. It is the hierarchical 69

70 71 72

Barry Buzan, ‘Conclusions: Systems versus Units in Theorizing about the Third World’, in Stephanie G. Neuman (ed.), International Relations Theory and the Third World, p. 219. Clapham, ‘Degrees of Statehood’, p. 156. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, pp. 114–16. Ibid., p. 116.

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structure of the world that provides them with an ordered reality, and a ‘‘condition of un-settled rules’’ that afflicts them at home’.73 Similarly Ayoob claims, ‘Neither the clear-cut distinction between anarchy outside and order inside the state correspond to the reality in much of the international system outside of North America, Western Europe, and Japan’.74 Notice that the claim here implies that this distinction does correspond to reality in the global North. However, the critics here make two errors. The first is to confuse a distinction between anarchy and hierarchy on the one hand with the distinction between order and disorder on the other. This allows them to claim, given the existence of violence within African states, that politics within those states is anarchic. The usefulness of neorealism’s assumptions (and those of other IR theories which view international politics as anarchic) is seemingly put in question. But this is to make a fundamental mistake. Buzan is surely right to argue that in neorealism, anarchy is defined in formal political terms as a product of the equality of multiple sovereign claims and mutual recognition, while order may or may not exist internationally arising from the distribution of power between states.75 In fact Waltz is quite clear that for him the distinction between hierarchy and anarchy is not determined by the level of violence. Indeed, he points out that the struggle to maintain and uphold hierarchical rule within states may well be bloodier and more violent than conflicts between units in a state of anarchy.76 The presence or absence of violence therefore cannot be used to distinguish between the domestic and international, the hierarchical and the anarchic. Instead it is the ordering principle which gives the context in which violence is used which distinguishes the two: in the domestic arena there is a legitimate authority which seeks to police the use of violence, in the international sphere there is none. ‘If anarchy is identified with chaos, destruction and death’ Waltz maintains, ‘then the distinction between anarchy and government does not tell us much’.77 For Waltz, so long as there is a legitimate authority attempting to uphold its right to monopolise legitimate force, then the assumption of domestic hierarchy may still be useful. The critics here miss their mark by some distance. Violence within African states does not necessarily mean that the ordering principle of that society ceases to be hierarchical. However, the second error is that the critics still cling to a fairly rigid dichotomy of anarchy and hierarchy, simply inverting it. In place of hierarchy within states, we have an African anarchy. But internationally, it is maintained, there is a hierarchy created from the massive power imbalance between north and south. Thus Kevin Dunn argues that: There is strong evidence to suggest that the international system is hierarchically ordered . . . For Africa, the hierarchical state system was produced by European materialism and is currently maintained through the continued economic oversight of Western interests and hegemonic institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. Therefore, including African experiences into the discussion illustrates how the current state system was and remains hierarchically ordered.78

73 74 75 76 77 78

Neuman, ‘International Relations Theory and the Third World’, p. 3. Ayoob, ‘Subaltern Realism’, p. 37. Buzan, ‘Conclusions’, pp. 215–16. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 103. Ibid., p. 103. Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, pp. 66–7.


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Yet he goes on to argue that such international order is contrasted with the cases where ‘. . . African countries have collapsed into domestic anarchy’.79 It is a mark of the confusion that prevails that while claiming that the state has all but disappeared as a significant actor, leaving a ‘domestic’ anarchy, it is then claimed that internationally, in relations between states (some of which have all but disappeared, remember) there is a hierarchy! Quite what the subordinate units of this hierarchy are, therefore, remains rather opaque. To be able to do this while also claiming to question the internal/external dichotomy is indeed puzzling. In fact, the anarchic/hierarchic dichotomy is more troubling than the critics, or neorealists, recognise, as Milner has argued.80 Milner begins with a point alluded to above, that while many take international politics to be anarchic, there is some confusion as to what anarchy means. Rather than disorder, Milner argues that ultimately anarchy refers to the absence of centralised authority and legitimacy in the use of force and rule enforcement.81 However, Milner points out that the extent to which authority is centralised, and the extent to which legitimacy exists, vary to a considerable extent both within states and internationally – there exist examples of internationally-legitimated uses of force and internationally-authoritative rules, and of decentralised systems of domestic governance. Instead of a rigid dichotomy of anarchy and hierarchy, Milner maintains that viewing each as ends of a continuum is more useful. As with the discussion of statehood above, this relaxing of the rigid categories of neorealism may provide both a more fruitful basis for characterising international order, and allow us to have theoretical approaches which can accommodate more easily the African experience. Indeed, we might go further. Milner also argues persuasively that the international system should be seen as both anarchic and interdependent. Dismissing the idea that anarchy and interdependence are opposites, Milner maintains that ‘While anarchy is an important condition of world politics, it is not the only one. Strategic interdependence is at least as important’.82 Like other writers,83 Milner points out that even in systems which tend, as the international system generally does, towards the anarchic end of the spectrum, order can still be generated within an anarchy by patterns of interdependence between the units. This claim is used by IR theorists who do not share all of neorealism’s assumptions to build alternative models of international order. In this regard, Moravcsik has argued that recognition of how international order is shaped by different patterns of interdependence, combined with a liberal perspective on the formation of state preferences, allows us both to reach beyond an image of international politics as simply anarchy plus the balance of power, and to break down the internal/external dichotomy.84 Surely, here we have potentially better explanations of the critics’ claim that African states exist in an ‘orderly’ international environment. Such order at the international level between north and south is not a signal of the absence of anarchy, nor is it product of a hierarchical, centralised authority, so much as patterns of often 79 80

81 82 83 84

Ibid., p. 68. Helen Milner, ‘The Assumption of Anarchy in International Relations Theory: A Critique’, in David A. Baldwin (ed.), Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 143–69. Milner, ‘The Assumption of Anarchy’, pp. 152–3. Ibid., p. 167. In particular see Moravcsik, ‘A Liberal Theory of International Politics’. Ibid.

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highly asymmetric interdependence, particularly in the economic field. The criticism that an asymmetric distribution of power in favour of the imperial states creates a hierarchical system, defined as an opposite of anarchy, is thus to confuse two distinct sources of international order (formal hierarchy and interdependence). It would be hard to maintain that, however uneven, the power preponderance of the northern states has created a legitimated authority at the international level vis-à-vis the developing world. In sum, while Dunn maintains that ‘bringing African experience into the picture’ highlights the problems of central notions of IR theory’85 in fact, as Buzan notes, the ‘anarchy-hierarchy distinction is not just troubling to those interested in the third world. It is also one of the main bones of contention between neorealists and several other schools of thought in IR.’86 Recognition of this fact allows space to remain for some of the key theoretical approaches of ‘western’ international relations to be used in analysing Africa’s international politics. The liberal approach alluded to already can be used to illustrate this point. The relationship between African states and international aid donors is perhaps one of the most important aspects of African international politics. In formal terms, there seems little reason to question the notion that this is based on interstate relations in an anarchic international system. Nevertheless, the preferences of African states who seek inward flows of funds, and those of external states who seek to promote particular kinds of economic and political change in Africa, coincide, providing the basis for ‘development cooperation’. Note here that these state preferences do not sit easily in a realist account based on the overriding importance of a zero-sum pursuit of state survival.87 Furthermore, the international order which exists in this field is shaped also by the existence of inter-governmental institutions (primarily the World Bank and the IMF, although the European Union also plays a significant role in Africa) and by the asymmetry of this interdependence of preferences which allows the donors largely to dictate the terms of cooperation. However, while other sources of international order are therefore important to explaining this relationship, we should not go so far as to argue that anarchy and hierarchy cease to be important. Hierarchy within states is important to the authorisation of aid donors’ activities in African states, indeed such involvement exists on the basis of the authority of both the African state concerned and the donor states. And anarchy without plays a role alongside interdependence, particularly in how it limits the extent of global governance – it is precisely because IMF and World Bank power is not seen as the product of a legitimated hierarchical order, that their actions are so contested. This discussion of different understandings of anarchy also raises an interesting irony. As noted, even if the Africanist critics define anarchy as chaos instead of the absence of centralised authority, they nevertheless maintain the neorealist hierarchy/anarchy dichotomy, merely using it to argue for African difference. Yet as Sampson has persuasively argued, Waltz’s own distinction between anarchic and hierarchical political systems is in fact based on ideas drawn from British, 85 86 87

Dunn, ‘Tales from the Dark Side’, p. 67. Buzan, ‘Conclusions’, p. 216. Though see Stephen D. Krasner, Structural Conflict: The Third World Against Global Liberalism (Berkeley, CA: California University Press, 1985) for a realist account of this relationship and a counter to the charge that realists always ignore the ‘Third World’.


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colonial-era anthropological studies of African political systems.88 Sampson argues that Waltz imagines the anarchic international system as a ‘primitive’ political system. While others89 have also done this, with Waltz it goes deeper. For Waltz’s understanding of structure is, Sampson maintains, taken directly from S.F. Nadel’s structural-functionalism. Sampson highlights how anthropological studies in the interwar years shifted away from the approach of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, whose definitions of structure had mainly been applied to small population, Oceanic island communities, and had as a result been ‘only a little way removed from reality’.90 Instead, in studying the much larger population African communities, Fortes, Nadel and Evans-Pritchard redefined social structure in much more abstract terms – likening the contrast in approaches to that between ‘grammar and syntax, not the spoken word’.91 For Nadel, social structure was to be specified in positional terms, of relationships between abstract roles rather than individuals. Two contrasting principles of structure are then developed, one in which roles are dependent – the role is defined in terms of relationships to actors in other roles – the other in which there is no dependency and in which different roles relate to each other on the basis of differential command over resources.92 Here, as Sampson illustrates, we have Waltz’s hierarchical and anarchical systems: one in which ‘some are entitled to command, others are required to obey’;93 the other in which no such requirements obtain and in which command over material capabilities rather than role functions determine the structure. Here too, we have the three elements of structure used by Waltz: ordering principles, functional differentiation and distribution of material capabilities.94 And here too we have a ‘purely positional’ picture of society focusing not on ‘how units relate to one another’ but ‘how they stand in relation to one another’, the first being a property of the units, the latter a property of the system.95 As Sampson concludes: Not only is Waltz’s definition of structure derived from Nadel, but the structure Waltz employs is Nadel’s . . . By setting up international politics as an anarchic system of functionally undifferentiated units governed by the principle of self-help and the distribution of material capabilities, Waltz’s system mirrors social anthropology’s representation of primitive African political systems.96

Fortes, Evans-Pritchard and Nadel used this approach to divide African political systems into two kinds: ‘Group A’ which had some kind of government (occasionally extensive), and ‘Group B’ which were stateless, anarchic societies.97 To illustrate the similarities of this approach to Waltz’s, consider for example Evans-Pritchard’s characterisation of the Nuer of southern Sudan, a Group B society, as an ‘ordered 88

89 90

91 92 93 94 95 96 97

Aaron B. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy: Waltz, Wendt, and the Way We Imagine International Politics’, Alternatives, 27 (2002), pp. 429–57. Roger D. Masters, ‘World Politics as a Primitive System’, World Politics, 16:4 (1964), pp. 595–619. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 436; Radcliffe-Brown, ‘Preface’, in M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (eds.), African Political Systems (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. i–xxiii. Fortes, cited in Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 437. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, pp. 437–8. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 88. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 440. Ibid., p. 438. Ibid., p. 444. M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘Introduction’, in Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (eds.), African Political Systems, pp. 1–23.

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anarchy’98 resting on the right of self-help and ‘sustained by the distribution of the command of force . . .’99 However, this approach to African political systems meant that social change in this schema could only be registered in terms of either the maintenance or transformation of system. Indeed, to reinforce the point that theories are never value-neutral, Sampson maintains that Waltz chooses social anthropology as the basis for his theory of international politics precisely because it fits with the policy predilections for maintenance of the status quo already present in realist theory.100 For Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, African Political Systems also had a practical aim – to help inform British colonial rulers embarked on the policy of indirect rule, a policy which emphasised the maintenance of order in African colonies above the transformation of them.101 And just as the British became obsessed with ‘holding the line’ and creating order, in place of transforming colonised societies within an empire of liberty,102 so the great powers are entrusted with system maintenance in Waltz’s theory in place of liberal ideals of system transformation. There may be a host of theoretical and methodological problems with Waltz’s structural-functionalist approach. However, for our purposes, the key is that it represents the international political system as a primitive political system and operates with a clear dichotomy of anarchic/hierarchic which is in turn based on anthropological dichotomies of primitive/civilised. Yet this very approach had been abandoned decades earlier by the very social anthropology on which Waltz’s theory is based.103 In fact what Sampson demonstrates are the theoretical origins of the very weaknesses in neorealism which Milner’s discussion identifies. It is a supreme irony that in arguing that African international politics are characterised by international hierarchy and domestic anarchy, the Africanist critics are actually re-importing into African polities dichotomous interpretations of political systems dating from the days of the British empire! The irony is all the more revealing given that the work of Nadel, Evans-Pritchard and Fortes was, as Sampson maintains, applied anthropology, seeking to understand African political systems in order to maintain or establish order in the context of indirect rule. In this sense, the criticisms of ‘traditional IR’ thus represent a real step backwards. In theoretical terms, they seemingly ignore many of the developments which have sought to take theories of international relations beyond neorealism. However, perhaps as worrying, we seem to have gone backwards in terms of the characterisation of African societies. It was, after all, British colonial officials who, as a justification of indirect rule and as an excuse for the maintenance of the authoritarian forms of power on which it rested, argued that Africans were innately ill-suited to the modern world.104 In a parallel of colonial officialdom seeking to ‘protect’ supposedly 98


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E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘The Nuer of the Southern Sudan’, in Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (eds.), African Political Systems, pp. 272–96. Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, ‘Introduction: African Political Systems’, pp. 14–15; also see Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 437. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 452. M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (eds.), African Political Systems (London: Oxford University Press, 1963 [1940]). Mamdani, Citizen and Subject. Sampson, ‘Tropical Anarchy’, p. 452. Mamdani, Citizen and Subject; Michael Havinden and David Meredith, Colonialism and Development: Britain and its Tropical Colonies 1850–1960 (London: Routledge, 1993).


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authentic African societies (‘developing the African along his own lines’),105 safe from modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation, we have today’s critics of IR seeking to protect an African autonomy from the ravages of ‘western’ statehood and international relations theory.

Conclusion From the colonial encounter to the present day’s Commissions, Partnerships and Initiatives,106 through conquest, independence, developmentalism and adjustment, the relationship with Western states has been of crucial importance to social change within Africa and for the continent’s position in the international system. And while perspectives vary on whether the history of that relationship is interpreted as essentially top-down, or bottom-up, or some mix of the two,107 it is hard to see how it can be properly conceived without some working notion of the nature of the system of which it is a part. I have argued above that the state, anarchy and interdependence should remain key elements in any such conceptualisation. A more thorough exposition of how an IR account of this relationship could be developed is simply beyond the scope of this article. However, let me give three indications as to what might be possible, drawing on three different traditions within IR. In a claim to which I have alluded to above, Morvacsik argues that one can analyse patterns of conflict and cooperation in an interdependent international system within a liberal theory of international relations.108 Not only might this notion provide some interesting lines of explanation and research relating to the initial colonial encounter,109 but it also provides a useful basis for analysing the struggles over aid and conditionality and the wider governance of Africa’s insertion into the world economy, as I indicated above. Such an account would not only need to incorporate an explanation of the social origins of preferences over economic policy and regulation on each side, but also an account of the nature of the institutions governing development cooperation. From a different standpoint, the nature of the colonial relationship, and in particular the prevalent norms operating among the colonial powers which served to justify it, has been the focus of writing associated with the English School, as has the transformation of those norms as independence replaced empire.110 In a world where military and humanitarian intervention is a central political issue both within Africa and more generally, consideration of the 105 106


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Havinden and Meredith, Colonialism and Development, pp. 168–9. See: Commission for Africa; New Partnership for African Development; Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. As well as the critics cited above, Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Nairobi, Kenya: EAEP, 1989) is an example of an essentially top-down approach; while Jean-Francois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London: Longman, 1993) is more bottom-up; and Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject, is more mixed. Andrew Moravcsik, ‘A Liberal Theory of International Politics’. And an account which might support Robinson and Gallagher’s characterisation of the course of colonialism as a product of the interaction between Europeans and the societies with which they came into contact – Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher and Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians. Hedley Bull and Adam Watson (eds.), The Expansion of International Society; Robert H. Jackson, Quasi States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

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content and meaning of state sovereignty, as well as the extent to which international norms mitigate a formal international anarchy and constrain or empower Western states, is a crucial issue.111 Finally, one might wish to ask in what ways the social transformations within Africa – democratisation, political reform, economic growth, urbanisation – can be interpreted as one part of an international process of modernisation.112 Does the encounter between Africa and the West demonstrate the continuing spread of capitalist modernity, the failure of Europe to transform Africa, or the successful resistance to globalisation? And how will such social change remake the relationship between Africa and the international system as Africans seek to overcome the legacies of colonisation and subordination? It seems to me that neither neorealism, with its emphasis on an invariant effects of anarchy and system-only approach, nor the critics’ inversion of this into an African anarchy, can really offer useful starting places to pursue these and other questions. Other characterisations of the international system and associated concepts of state, anarchy and interdependence must, however, play some role.



See, for example, Robert H. Jackson, ‘Armed Humanitarianism’, International Journal, 48:3 (1990), pp. 579–606. Justin Rosenberg, ‘The International Imagination’.


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