Realist Bibliophile. Looking to Africa for Answers

It is a sad truth that Africa receives far too little coverage in international affairs journals (other than those specifically devoted to African affairs)--unless there is a crisis.

Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (New York: Reed Press, 2004)

It is a sad truth that Africa receives far too little coverage in international affairs journals (other than those specifically devoted to African affairs)--unless there is a crisis. Then, Africa is thrust into the spotlight, but usually with little appreciation for the continent's historical, economic and political development, as if these sudden explosions were sui generis.

There has also been a tendency to assume that African precedents don't apply in other parts of the world, even though the region is littered with failed attempts at nation- and state-building and the wreckage of "humanitarian interventions."

John-Peter Pham, a contributor to In the National Interest, is seeking to remedy these deficiencies, with his new work Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (New York: Reed Press, 2004). This work is relevant not only for those concerned with developments in West Africa, but should be read carefully for the lessons it contains for the future success or failure of Western interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Its conclusions, highlighting the inherent instability in any state where the ruling class has few deep roots within the population and must rely upon foreign support to maintain itself and warning outside powers to resist the siren call of intervention for intervention's sake, need to be carefully studied as the United States commits to undertaking a "generational" commitment to reshape the Greater Middle East.

Pham's book begins with an excellent yet accessible history of Liberia. From its inception, Liberia has had a strained relationship with the United States; envisioned as a refuge for U.S. African-Americans (both free blacks and freed slaves) as well as for Africans intercepted on the high seas, the U.S. government nonetheless declined to take Liberia under its tutelage as a colony (preferring, in essence, to let the private sector take the lead in this case) and then declined to offer recognition to the Liberian state for several decades.

One cannot help but draw parallels with Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of the challenges faced by Liberia in creating an effective central government that nonetheless could respond to the needs of the "indigenous" populations as well as the Americo-Liberians. Liberia chose to set up a hyper-centralized state that had little legitimacy in the peripheral areas; the end result, after civil war and devastation, is that the country today, as he concludes in the postscript, is a "bazaar of spoils" to be divided up among warlords.

Pham also discusses how, "in the vacuum of a failed state … it was almost inevitable that the neighboring states would be drawn in. And once they were involved, any discussion of restoring the peace to Liberia required taking into account the regional situation." So Liberia's civil war - which began in December 1989- drew in the surrounding states and became a factor in their own domestic and foreign policies. Not only did refugees pour across the border - nearly 1/3 of the country's population fled in the first year of the civil war- but a "friend of my enemy is my friend" cycle developed where leaders in surrounding countries such as Sierra Leone or Ivory Coast who supplied aid to one faction or another found the favor returned when Liberians provided aid and assistance to their political enemies.  In addition, Nigeria wanted to assert its regional primacy and saw the civil war as a way to establish its hegemony in West Africa. (Again, shades of Iraq; how its internal political workings are of intimate concern to Iran, Syria and Turkey).

Pham's book is an excellent case study of what went wrong in Liberia and also a warning to those who feel that interventions can solve anything. "In the end, every political community must accept responsibility for assuring its own viability." This is sound advice to consider as the United States and its partners unveil grandiose plans to reconstruct and renovate states around the world.