From the ACS in Liberia to Trump in the White House: America’s Engagement with Africa and why it Must Persist

In 1821, the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded a settlement at Cape Mesurado on the West African coast, with the express intention of populating it with free-born black slaves from the USA.

Established in 1816 by a group of politicians and other notable citizens, the ACS was unique in American history in that it drew support from both pro-slavery and abolitionist proponents. Several of the organisation’s founders were Quakers vehemently opposed to slavery, who believed that their black brethren would stand a better chance of prospering within a ‘free’ African society. For many slave owners, meanwhile, an African exodus of many potentially troublesome and agitating blacks could reduce the risk of slave rebellion.

Henry Clay: ACS founder and 1824 Presidential candidate, who held conflicting views on slaves. He would also state: ‘The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it’.

Not only was the make-up of the ACS unique, but so was its core aim; directly engaging with Africa. Whilst American plantation owners had indirectly benefited from the Atlantic slave trade for over a century, neither they nor their political representatives – often one and the same – had taken any interest in the African continent itself. 1821 therefore stands as a seminal moment in US-African relations.

In 1822, a Methodist minister named Jehudi Ashmun became the first governor of the new colony which would soon be renamed Liberia. By the middle of the 19th century, more than 13,000 black Americans had emigrated to West Africa with the assistance of the ACS, determined to embrace this new land of liberty and freedom.

1839 map of Liberia…with some familiar names

Liberia’s first non-white governor Joseph Jenkins Roberts – born in Norfolk, Virginia – declared independence in 1847, creating Africa’s first republic. Ironically, given the origin of the majority of its settlers, Liberia drafted a constitution in line with that of the USA.

Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts

Therefore a project both noble and opportunistic in nature signalled the start of American engagement with Africa. Indeed, the so-called Americo-Liberians would remain in control of the ACS-inspired state until a 1980 military coup led by indigenous Army sergeant Samuel Doe ushered in two decades of bloody repression and civil war, culminating in the barbaric leadership of Charles Taylor.

As with the more gluttonous European colonies in Africa, the influx of outsiders unbalanced a delicate tribal framework that would lead to trouble. At least in the case of Liberia, succour was provided to thousands of black families that would otherwise have been subjected to decades of discrimination and persecution in the land of their birth.

Nevertheless, the adverse affects of early American policy in Africa can be further demonstrated by the recognition granted by the Chestur A Arthur administration to Belgian King Leopold’s ‘philanthropic’ Congo Free State. As history shows, this became one of the most brutal and exploitative states in history, a fact ultimately revealed by another American, George Washington Williams.

The victims of King Leopold’s Congo Free State

The 20th century saw engagement intensify as the geopolitical map of the world became increasingly condensed by the onset of modernity. Cold War intrigues would undermine the American image in Africa, the CIA-directed murder of democratically-elected Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba one of the nadirs of post-WWII US politics. 

In recent decades, however, the US role in Africa has become increasingly constructive and supportive. Development aid has helped drag millions from poverty, created job opportunities aplenty and led to a wholesale improvement of regional infrastructure. Meanwhile, American military expertise and technology have been used to combat extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram which, though they remain undefeated, have been constrained in recent years. American training provided to African Union missions and joint exercises with national militaries have further developed the security apparatus of many states.

A U.S. soldier trains a Chadian soldier in a mock ambush during Flintlock 2015, an American-led military exercise, in Mao

This positive trend may soon end. Though the Obama administration failed to live up to weighty expectations  – prompted in large party by the President’s Kenyan heritage – American financial and technical commitments to African remained undiluted.

Now, President Trump desires to slash the aid budget to Africa. Not only will this jeopardise the lives of the millions already battling impoverishment but it will undermine the President’s core foreign policy goal of combating global terrorism. It is a well proven discourse that poverty, and a lack of opportunity to escape it, drives young men (and some women) into the arms of terrorist groups. Reducing military support for the continent will only further degrade the capability to fight the urelenting extremist groups that wreak chaos and misery.

Al-Shabaab continues to make Somalia a war zone

And what of unpredictable crises such as the Ebola outbreak or the droughts that spread devastating famine? Will these now be considered irrelevant to the American national interest?

As America threatens to withdraw, China is eagerly bolstering its African footprint, securing wide-ranging economic, energy and military deals with desperately poor countries in need of investment and, crucially, strategic partners in their bid to improve the lives of their citizens.

Almost 200 years after the establishment of Liberia, American engagement with Africa is at a critical juncture. Unencumbered by the contentious colonial histories of the European powers, Africa is a continent America should look to exert its influence over for mutual benefits.

Withdrawing development aid and military assistance is not going to achieve this and it is hoped that US legislators will not allow it to happen.

The Trump administration, however, seems to have made clear the importance Africa commands in its horribly narrow worldview. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s refusal to honour a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union Commission smacks of the arrogance and short-sightedness of the most repressive colonial regimes of a century ago.

Sadly, it looks like Africa must continue to suffer.

Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.

Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.

In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.

Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.

Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.

In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.

Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.

America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.

Korean Nuclear Crisis vs Taiwan Missile Crisis: the greater threat to East Asian security?

North Korea’s decision to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor is the latest development in a seemingly escalating crisis in Northeast Asia which has led to grave words of warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Ban has tried to avoid direct interference in the North Korean nuclear crisis, given that his South Korean nationality would likely lead to calls of impartiality from the North and its allies. Therefore, for Mr Ban to speak out is testament to the growing concern felt by the international community regarding events on the Korean Peninsula.

Similar concerns were felt during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-6, also known as the Taiwan Missile Crisis.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Chiang’s Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan where they re-established their government. The CCP has viewed Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province ever since, despite the island’s separate development and well-entrenched democratic political system. After normalising relations with China in 1972, the Americans had implicitly accepted the CCP as the rightful representatives of China, not the Kuomintang of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the American government of Bill Clinton infuriated the Chinese by accepting a visit from Taiwan’s head of state, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995. Allowing the visit of Lee, an outspoken leader who called for greater moves towards outright independence, was adjudged by the CCP as an American statement of support for an independent, democratic Taiwan.

Lee Teng-Hui's visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations
Lee Teng-Hui’s visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations

The Chinese responded by conducting a series of missile tests and live firing exercises in the Taiwan Strait, less than a hundred miles from the Taiwanese mainland. Not only was this a signal that China would resist any efforts by a Taiwanese leader to break the “one-China policy” the CCP holds so dear, but it was an attempt to call America’s bluff. The latter failed and in the Spring of 1996, Bill Clinton authorised the sending of two US Carrier Groups to international waters off Taiwan.

The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression
The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression

America had shown itself willing to counter any potential Chinese aggression, although the Clinton administration refrained from throwing its full support behind an independent Taiwan. Whilst Chinese military capabilities were far inferior in 1996 than they are today, there was nonetheless global concern that a Sino-American war might erupt, dragging in to any conflict the other states of East Asia.

North Korea’s current belligerence is concerning but the fact that the country’s aggressive rhetoric regarding nuclearisation is not linked to any specific policy makes it little more than scaremongering. Possibly an attempt by Kim Jong-un to prove himself as a strong military leader, possibly part of an internal power struggle within the upper echelons of the People’s Army, possibly an attempt by the North Koreans to draw significant aid concessions in return for de-nuclearisation, the current bluster is unlikely to lead to war. Only a gross miscalculation by one of North Korea’s enemies or a sudden collapse of the Kim dynasty could force this eventuality. Quite simply, for North Korea to engage in a “first strike” scenario (which it may not even be capable of) would be tantamount to state suicide. Realistically, Kim and his generals will know this and are likely to avoid all-out-war at any cost.

American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric
American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric

The Taiwan Strait Crisis was slightly different. China has been consistent in pursuing the “one-China policy” which determines Taiwan as part of the mainland. This will not change and had Lee Teng-hui not calmed his own rhetoric regarding Taiwanese independence – largely forced upon him by US influence and a dramatic fall in Taiwanese stocks – it is conceivable that China would have conducted military strikes against Taiwan. This in turn could have prompted a response by a resolute US and such a scenario could be repeated in the future.

The US retains strong arms ties with Taiwan as a means to hedge against the rising military might of China in the region. The current Taiwanese administration of Ma Ying-jeou is pro-Chinese and will not upset Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland. Should a future administration adopt Lee’s pro-independence stance, however, or nationalist elements within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agitate for a takeover of Taiwan, the potential for a Chinese attack on the island is not inconceivable. The subsequent possibility of a Sino-American war, either fought directly or through opposing allies, would therefore greatly increase.

With the Chinese always able to act as a final check on North Korean aggression, and the North’s leaders not stupid enough to risk the destruction of their own country, the potential for the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into conflict is low. It is the potential consequences of increasing Chinese confidence and aggression, coupled with American desire for regional superiority, that offer a greater long-term security threat for the East Asian region.