Joseph Conrad, the Polish-born writer, aptly portrayed the moral outrage of the Western colonial presence in Africa in his novel “Heart of Darkness.” His modern successors would have a wider canvas and a richer palette.
A big new element is Russia’s African adventure. On the surface, this seems to be stalling. Only 17 leaders from the continent attended last week’s summit in St Petersburg, against 43 who attended the previous inaugural event four years ago in Sochi. But the no-shows reflect Western arm-twisting rather than revulsion at the war. Ukraine’s story of colonial oppression finds few echoes among African countries that mostly see the conflict as an east-west power struggle.
At the Lennart Meri security conference in Tallinn, Estonia, in May, an African delegate — personally sympathetic to Ukraine — summarized views of the war among many of his counterparts with this mocking version of stereotypical Western attitudes to conflicts in Africa: “It’s just one lot of Europeans killing another lot of Europeans. They’ve been doing it for centuries and will continue to do so for decades. It’s just not our business.”
On one level, Russia is not a significant trade partner or aid donor. The Kremlin has no interest in a stable global order in which poor countries can get rich. What it can do is exploit anti-Western sentiment and appeal to the self-interest of ruthless local leaders who want power and money rather than the constraints imposed by foreign donors. The Wagner Group, with its “dictatorship in a box” services for putschists and dictators, has enjoyed booming business in African countries. The pro-coup demonstrators in Niger who waved Russian flags last week may not be paid-up Putinists. But someone must have given them the flags, and the political upheaval there will be easy for the Kremlin to exploit, just as it has done in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic. The head of Wagner, Evgeny Prigozhin — a lurid character worthy of Conrad’s pen — gladhanded representatives of Niger at the St Petersburg summit.
On the surface, the result is a dilemma for the West. If we take human rights and democracy seriously and penalize those who misbehave, we push these unpleasant regimes closer to Russia and China. If we try and outbid our geopolitical rivals, we betray our values and encourage the view that geopolitics is simply a power struggle with some cosmetic touches that fool nobody.
Yet the truth is rather different. Seen from many low- and middle-income countries (not only in Africa but in Latin America and Asia), the problem is not the West’s preachiness but its hypocrisy. Decades of laundering the proceeds of kleptocracy through London, New York, and other financial centers, for example, hardly help the anti-corruption message. Nor does our forgetfulness about past oppression and indignities. This applies not only to the former colonial powers but also to all the carbon-spewing advanced economies. The burden of adapting to climate change now falls hardest on the yet-to-industrialize countries that did least to create the problem. The covid emergency could have reminded the rich world that pathogens do not respect borders and that vaccination programs should be rolled out accordingly. Perhaps the next pandemic will have a more salutary effect.
These resentments, at worst, create fertile ground for Russian (and Chinese) influence operations. More often, they create a climate of hostile indifference to what seem to be narrow Western concerns. The immediate price for this, as with many other Western failings, is paid by Ukrainians, who have done least to deserve it.
This ghastly mess may baffle our politicians. But it might at least inspire a novelist.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.