African agency in international politics: an introduction

Brown, William and Harman, Sophie (2013). African agency in international politics: an introduction. In: Brown, William and Harman, Sophie eds. African Agency in International Politics. Routledge Studies in African Politics and International Relations. London: Routledge, pp. 1–15.



The study of Africa’s international relations has for a long time been dominated by a concern to explain how the continent has been governed, shaped and mar­ginalised by external actors. In periods of economic crisis and political upheaval (much of the 1980s and 1990s), in which powerful outside actors were prom­inent, this approach was perhaps understandable, if misguided. Even in those years, the portrayal of Africa as the inert victim of exogenous forces bound by immovable structural constraints was always a limited understanding of inter­ national relations in the region. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, when African actors established a sustained track record of assertive, high­ level diplomacy and during which the continent has seen long­ term economic growth, this approach has started to look ever more anachronistic. For this is an era in which African states, leaders and diplomats have been centrally engaged in global negotiations over climate change, world trade, aid disbursal and interven­tion norms, in which African politicians have made strategic choices in how they reshape existing relations with Western donors and fashioned new relationships with rising powers, and one in which African non­ state actors have been critical both to the definition and implementation of policies in fields as diverse as gov­ernance, security, health, environment and migration. It is high time that we approach Africa’s international relations from a different perspective. This book seeks to open up such a starting point for the analysis of Africa’s international relations by turning the established approach on its head. Rather than asking how do external actors determine African realities, we ask how far, and in what ways, African political actors are impacting on, and operating within, the international system? What are the key sites and sources of agency in Africa? What does African agency look like and how can we understand it? The shift is an important one. But it is not an effort to deny the very obviously tight corners which constrain Africa’s choices within the international system.1 These constraints, whether in the form of great powers, structures of economic dis­ advantage or disabling discourses, are real and persistent. However, analysis that begins with such constraints always struggles to articulate any real engagement with the political actions of those operating within these tight corners. A new starting point is, therefore, more of a signal of intellectual intent. It is an intention to take African politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously, to get beyond the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimised, chaotic, violent and poor. It is also an intent to focus on interaction, rather than one­ way domination; tensions between reproduction and transformation of structured relationships, rather than recurrence and repetition. The content of this book, and the beginnings of such analysis, stems from a series of seminars sponsored by the United Kingdom (UK) Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) in 2011.2 This series of seminars sought to approach Africa’s international politics from the standpoint of how African actors exert agency in international negotiations; in peace, conflict and intervention processes; in transnational security issues; as well as reflecting upon the implica­tions of African agency for international relations (IR) theory and Southern African perspectives on this. This book presents a range of research arising from different perspectives on African agency and on a diverse set of issues. These are all motivated by a desire to look at Africa’s international relations from a new perspective, to break away from the important, yet determinist, structural accounts of Africa’s international relations to question how African actors impact on the international system.

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