Looking Beyond Spring for the Season: The West, The African Union, and International Community

This is the third part in a series of five posts from Siba Grovogui, Professor of International Relations and Political Theory at John Hopkins University. The first part is here; the second here. The series considers the character and dimensions of the tension between the African Union and ‘the West’ over interventions in Africa. As before, responsibility for visuals adheres solely to Pablo K.


The oblivion of commentators to these possible African objections has been less than helpful to understanding the actualized Western intervention itself; emergent African ideas on democracy and security; and the actual place of international morality in international affairs. Underlying the African apprehension to military intervention is a long-standing tension between international organizations that represent Africa, on one hand, and self-identified representatives of the West, on the other, over the meaning of international community as well as the source, nature, and proper means of implementation of the collective will. The dispute over the meaning of international community and the collective will has been particularly salient in Africa because, as a political space, Africa has been more subject to military interventions than any other geopolitical space in the modern era. These interventions have reflected contemporaneous relations of power, permissible morality, and objects of desire: from proselytism to fortune-seeking, trade, extraction of raw material, and the strategic pursuit of hegemony. Indeed, it is hard to remember a time since the onset of the slave trade when there was no open conflict between the majority of its states and the West over some dimensions of global governance that implicated the notion of the commons or international community.

The postcolonial era has not brought about any change to this situation. Since the end of World War II and the institution of the United Nations system, the plurality of African political entities have confronted self-appointed representatives of the West over the ethos of UN procedures (involving transparency and open access to the channels of decision-making) and the mechanisms of dispute mediation (including the determination of the principles and applicability of humanitarian interventions in a number of cases). One need only recall the political, legal, and military confrontations between African states and former Western colonial powers over Apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West (which involved the legality and morality of colonial trusteeship); the French war on Algeria (which involved the legality and legitimacy of settler colonialism); the wars of decolonization in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Guinea Bissau, and Mozambique (which involved the principles of majority rule through open elections which communists might win); the unilateral declaration of independence by the white minority in Southern Rhodesia (which involved the principle of white-minority rule in postcolonial Africa); and the legality and morality of apartheid (which involved the principle of self-determination and majority rule). The underlying antagonisms contaminated deliberations throughout the UN system (particularly General Assembly proceedings) and involved all major issues from the Palestine Question to the Law of the Sea to other matters of trade and intellectual property. They reached a climax at the time of exit of the US and Great Britain from UNESCO, which was then directed by Ahmadou Mathar Mbow, a Senegalese diplomat and statesman.

These and other contests have shared a few singular features. One is a Western insistence on representing the essential core and therefore will of something called international community. In any case, the label of international community has often been reserved for Western entities in relations to others, who remain the object of intervention on behalf of the international community. This is to say that the term ‘international community’ has had political functionality in relations of power and domination in which Europe (and later The West) subordinated ‘Africa’. The relevant tradition can be traced back to the opening moments of the modern era, particularly during the ascension of The West to global hegemony. While it has undergone changes over time, the embedded imaginary of international community and its will have been built around artificially fixed identities and politically potent interests. Accordingly, the identity of the West, and therefore the international community, flows from a theology of predestination, formally enunciated as the Monroe doctrine in the US or the Mission Civilizatrice in France.

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