Africa-China relations have a parallel with the Cold War
In 1956, then-Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev executed an abrupt but largely forgotten reorientation of his country’s foreign policy. During the long decades under Josef Stalin, with the exception of its support for communist China, Moscow had focused almost all of its energy abroad on bolstering client states in Eastern Europe. But with a major speech, Khrushchev announced that the era of investing only in Russia’s “near abroad” was over.
Drawing inspiration from the 1955 Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in Indonesia that launched the Non-Aligned Movement and anticipating the huge wave of new sovereign nations that would begin with Ghana’s independence from the Great Britain in 1957, the Soviet leader announced that the USSR was determined to help the emerging countries of what was then called the Third World in their quest for political and economic independence from the West.
It’s one thing to deliver a speech and another to quickly steer the ship of state in a radically new direction, but the Khrushchev government wasted no time in turning its new policy into reality. Under his leadership, the so-called developing world quickly transformed from an afterthought in Soviet foreign and economic policy to a mainstay of its global strategy. In fact, from 1950 to 1975, trade between Comecon, as the Soviet-led economic bloc was called, and the Third World grew seventeen times.
Khrushchev offered modern agricultural equipment to his country’s new partners, as well as economic advice and management expertise. Along with this, the Soviets offered low-interest loans and barter deals that allowed poor countries to pay for goods with their primary products or by allowing the Russians to run joint management companies that paid the loans. on business operating profits. Rather than having to beg for crumbs from their former colonizers, these states could benefit from real reciprocal advantages, or vzaimnaya vigoda, which only the Russians – as Moscow boasted – could offer them.
There is much about the take-off of Soviet relations with the newly independent nations of the world – and particularly with Africa, where these countries’ greatest harvest was – that resembles China’s growing global engagement these years, starting with the closeness—the hysteria that has taken hold across the West about the geopolitical dividends the Soviets would reap from these advances.
Although it took far longer for the West to sit up and pay attention to China’s recent advances than it took for it to notice the breakthroughs of the USSR at the height of the Cold War, the world has recently witnessed the same kind of alarmed responses from Europe. and the United States to the rapid growth of China’s engagement with Africa over the past two decades. It is also remarkable to note how some of China’s actions have been similar, if not identical, to those of the Soviet Union in bygone times, right down to Beijing’s frequent use of the phrase “win-win”. winner”, which aims to highlight the unique reciprocity it claims for its flourishing economic activity on the continent.
Equally remarkable, however, is what is missing in the Western response to China’s perceived advances, compared to how it reacted to those of the USSR decades ago. Washington and Western Europe were deeply shaken by Khrushchev’s new policy. Access to Africa’s resources at bargain prices combined with a stranglehold on its consumers as a captive market were key drivers of Europe’s post-war economic recovery. Washington, meanwhile, although less obsessed with Africa’s economy than with the Cold War, suddenly became concerned that unless it found positive new ways to engage the continent, Africa could turn “red,” or at least pink, tipping the scales in the raging East-West geopolitical competition in favor of the former.
In the pages of Foreign Affairs in 1956, Henry Kissinger wrote that the Cold War had suddenly turned into “a contest for the allegiance of mankind”. French politicians began to push the idea of treating Europe and Africa as an economic condominium, which they went so far as to call Eurafrique, by which Africa’s newfound independence should be defined more by interdependence than through true sovereignty. Even in West Germany, a country that had not been as deeply involved in the colonial exploitation of Africa as some of its European peers, the newspaper Die Welt asked in June 1960: “Africa is moving away from Europe? Here, the echoes of today’s banal but false Western cries about China’s recolonization of Africa are hard to miss.
Remarkable as the similarities are, what is missing in the West’s response to China’s perceived advances in Africa, compared to how it reacted decades ago to Russia.
In the United States, the perceived Soviet advance led to a series of new political initiatives focusing on Africa and the Third World more broadly. What is most remembered from this era is the creation of the Peace Corps, but in fact the Kennedy administration gave a major boost to economic aid to Africa, and pushed Europe and Japan to do the same. , albeit with mixed success. “No economic subject attracts attention more quickly than the rescue of the people of poor countries from their poverty,” economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his 1979 book, “The Nature of Mass Poverty. “. All this, alas, would collapse. In the 1970s, the United States and Western Europe swapped stances on Africa, with Washington reducing its short-lived economic engagement, while Europe saw renewed interest for the mainland. Nowhere in the West, however, was economic policy toward Africa more a matter of serious urgency.
Although the Soviet push to engage the world’s less economically developed countries continued well into the 1970s, already in the early to mid-1960s serious signs of difficulty were apparent. On the one hand, the Comecon bloc possessed nothing comparable to the wealth of the West, and therefore always struggled to find the means to pursue its ends. Second, the Russians, having never been an imperial power outside the Eurasian continent, lacked the longstanding European connections, soft power influence, and historical and social familiarity with many parts of the world with which Moscow suddenly got involved. Nowhere was this truer than in Africa. As Sara Lorenzini writes in her recent book, “Global Development”, according to a report written for the Soviet Central Committee in 1959, the USSR had 48 specialists abroad at that time, “none of whom knew the local language”. . By comparison, London had 1,143, Washington 924 and Paris 683.
For these and other reasons, the Soviet Union’s learning curve in the Third World was extremely steep, and it was not long before the blossoming faded for many of its once exuberant new partners. Complaining about the slow implementation of projects as well as the quality of certain goods and services, Guinea, a newly independent former French colony which had broken with Paris, expelled a Soviet ambassador in 1961.
An even more important reason why the Soviet Union’s push into Africa and its broader efforts to engage with the developing world slowed dramatically is that few of those countries wanted to be forced to choose between partners. strangers. As then Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere said in 1965, in response to Western pressure to keep communist countries – in this case China – at bay, “we will not allow our friends to choose our enemies”.
At that time, countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America jealously guarded their own independence and were quite eclectic about accepting funding or other forms of economic assistance from potential partners who offered them, as long as they seemed to meet their needs.
After drawing a parallel between the Soviet Union of more than half a century ago and the China of today, what does all this tell us? First of all, China will not replace anyone in Africa or anywhere else in the so-called Third World. Beijing also faced a steep learning curve and will make many mistakes along the way. At present, it is in the midst of a major adjustment to its economic engagement with Africa, for example, reducing the easy money approach it had followed in terms of lending to many countries. a decade or two ago, and focusing more soberly on longer-term viability and safer bets on economic returns.
Second and more importantly, governments in Africa, as in the rest of the third world, want viable foreign partners who are willing to invest to help create better infrastructure, both physical and human. In another era, the West briefly responded to its perceived challenge from the Soviet Union both with its imagination and by dipping into its pockets. Everyone today is totally lacking in their response to China’s active engagement in Africa and elsewhere. Instead, all you hear is taunts from the touchline.
Finally, there can be only one true criterion of success among Africa’s foreign partners, and that is their long-term impact on measurable economic development, and especially on poverty reduction. And so far, the jury is out on all of them.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and writer on global affairs, and the author of five books, including the recent “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World.” You can follow him on Twitter at @hoffrench. His weekly WPR column appears every Wednesday.