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date: 29 October 2020

African Foreign Policiesfree

  • John James QuinnJohn James QuinnDepartment of Political Science, Truman State University


Studies on African foreign policies, and the process involved with their formation, have received much less attention compared to other aspects of African studies. Most have been in-depth case studies illustrating how foreign policy decisions are centered on common concerns for the region, such as decolonization, nation building, economic and political autonomy, and Cold War competition. As such, most diplomacy is conducted with close neighbors, former colonial powers, or the super powers. Much is also conducted within intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Interactions with multilateral institutions—the World Bank and IMF—also feature prominently. Most analyses indicate that foreign policy has been in the hands of a president, who has conducted it primarily as a means of consolidating or maintaining domestic rule. African foreign policies also tend to reflect the reality that most are small and weak states. A strand of empirical comparative foreign policy literature on Africa does exist, examining things such as UN voting or level of diplomatic activity. Finally, much literature on African foreign policies is embedded in African international relations and focuses on the choices of leaders within larger historic, material, ideological, and international contexts. Most scholars, but not all, eschew an analysis using a single paradigm: eclectic, historical approaches seem to be more common than either cross-national empirical studies or paradigmatically pristine approaches. With this in mind, African foreign policies must respond to, and evolve with, changing international and regional contexts, especially any with significant shifts in geopolitical power.


  • Foreign Policy

Updated in this version

Fully revised, with new references and links to digital materials; ‘Chronology’ section omitted.


Compared to other aspects of African studies, much less has been written directly on African foreign policy formation or the comparative foreign policy of Africa (Wright, 1999a, p. 1).1 In fact, foreign policy analyses often ignore the developing world all together and focus on strong states (Sekhri, 2009). Where the foreign policies of Africa are examined, the focus tends to be on the constraints facing state leaders and the outcomes themselves, rather than on the decision-making process itself (Aluko, 1977; Clapham, 1996; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Shaw & Aluko, 1984; Taylor, 2010; Wright, 1992, 1999a). Given the nearly region-wide personalization of power, and given the inability to peek behind authoritarian curtains, especially until recently (Clapham, 1996; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982), these approaches seem quite logical (Wright, 1992). Nonetheless, some analyses do examine processes within particular countries (Aluko, 1987; Bischoff & Southall, 1999; Venter, 2001), but they tend to be the exceptions.

Excluding studies written primarily from the perspective of external and powerful international actors, most studies of African foreign policies have been deep case studies illustrating how these decisions were limited, shaped, and constrained by international, regional, and domestic economic, political, and military factors, but often within the frame of the ideology or political self-interests of the leader. Most of these studies have taken one of several forms: single case studies, a collection of case studies within an edited volume, a comparative study of a few countries within a subregion, a study of a subregion itself, and discussions of the whole region of Africa—selecting evidence from various nations to make general points (Adar & Ajulu, 2002, 2018; Adar & Check, 2011; Adar & Schraeder, 2007; Aluko, 1977; Bender, 1987; Clapham, 1996; Harbeson & Rothchild, 2000, 2017; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Kornprobst, 2002; Pinkney, 2001; Reed, 1992; Warner & Shaw, 2018; Wright, 1992, 1999a).

Occasionally, there have been works looking at one African country’s foreign policy, but these usually involved a regional hegemon such as Nigeria or South Africa (e.g., Babarinde & Wright, 2002, 2012; Chan, 1990; Grundy, 2002; Okon, 1998; Serapião et al., 2001; Taylor & Williams, 2001; Wallensteen, 1971; Woodward, 1984). Most single case studies include an analysis of both regional and international contexts. However, some works on African foreign policies have been cross-national quantitative studies that isolated one foreign policy behavior (United Nations [UN] voting behavior) and looked for regularities in foreign policy outcomes and/or their causes (Clark, O’Leary, & Wittkopf, 1971; East, 1973; Moon, 1983, 1985; Newcombe, Ross, & Newcombe, 1970). This article emphasizes comparative studies, regional studies, or collections of cases written from African countries’ perspectives, though it also includes a few major works outlining international and regional constraints facing African foreign policy decision makers.2

Generalizations About African Foreign Policies

The region-wide similarities of colonial heritage and the ensuing economic and political weaknesses have permitted appropriate and meaningful generalizations about African foreign policies (Clapham, 1979; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Shaw & Aluko, 1984; Shaw & Okolo, 1994; Wright, 1992). Early common problems associated the region that have informed foreign policy objectives have included nation building, stability, poverty, decolonization, Cold War competition, and the dominance of the great powers (Thiam, 1965). Nearly all African countries have also suffered from weak and porous borders, often involving issues of cross-border rebels and refugees. These commonalities have helped create the conditions for African leaders to seek regional collective action. Common collective responses have concerned or included pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism and African nationalism, unity against apartheid-era South Africa, struggles vis-à-vis former colonial powers, economic development, political autonomy, nonalignment during the Cold War, regional security, inter-African conflicts, regional economic development, and securing national sovereignty (Aluko, 1977; Clapham, 1996; Copson, 1978; Gitelson, 1974; Harbeson & Rothchild, 2000; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Martin, 2002; Wright, 1999a; Young, 2017).

Another important factor shaping African foreign policy is that nearly all of Africa is comprised of small and weak states (Black, 1988; Clapham, 1996; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Quinn, 2016; Reno, 1998, 2000; van de Walle, 2001; Zartman, 1995). African foreign policies have been consistent with the predictions of East (1973), who described small state foreign policies as exhibiting “(a) low levels of overall participation in world affairs; (b) high levels of activity in intergovernmental organizations; (c) high levels of support for international legal norms; (d) avoidance to the use of force as a technique of statecraft; (e) avoidance of behaviour and policies which tend to alienate the more powerful states in the system; (f) a narrow functional and geographic range of concern in foreign policy activities; (g) frequent utilization of moral and normative positions on international issues” (East, 1973, p. 557).3 These characteristics are apparent in most studies of African foreign policies and foreign relations.

Another clear motif in African foreign relations is collective responsibility for economic development. Regional economic communities (RECs) have been formed for this purpose (Babarinde, 2003; Bach, 1999). For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was created in 1975 to promote cooperation and economic integration in West Africa (Adibe, 2001). Similarly, the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) was begun in Southern Africa as a regional response to apartheid South Africa in 1980. It would become the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1992 and align with the economic integration goals of the continent. In fact, the Lagos Plan of Action called for a continent-wide common market (Lancaster, 1995). RECs were envisioned to be the building blocks of a larger African market (Babarinde, 2003; Bach, 1999; Lancaster, 1995). However, such goals are often viewed more as rhetoric than reality. Africa has many regional organizations and low intraregional trade (Bach, 1999; Khadiagala, 2013; Lancaster, 1995). Although RECs were created primarily for economic integration, some play important roles in regional peace keeping. These include the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), ECOWAS, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) (Zartman, 2000).

With the end of both the Cold War and apartheid, two main pillars of common foreign policy concerns ended (Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a). Nonetheless, continued significant shared issues remain—especially vis-à-vis the survival of weak states (Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a). In fact, the increasing political and economic liberalizations witnessed with the end of the Cold War (e.g., democratization and the “Washington consensus”) could change foreign policy processes and outcomes. Early indications are, however, that most African polities still show the personalization of foreign policy (Clapham, 1996; Harbeson, 2009; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Wright, 1999a). Political power has partially fragmented, but most states are still ruled by a one-party dominant system (Bratton & van de Walle, 1997; Ishiyama & Quinn, 2006; Lindberg, 2006; Quinn, 2016; van de Walle, 2003), allowing ample amounts of political space for the leader of the dominant party to set foreign policy. Significantly, the imperatives of state survival still result in the search for international sources of resources (Clapham, 1996; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Wright, 1999a). However, intermixed with this overarching foreign policy goal, the issues of interfacing with the global economy, adapting to changes in liberalization in the economic and domestic spheres, and providing regional security remain key regional concerns (Wright, 1999a). Rising concerns for the future will likely include the war on terrorism (Deng, 2017), global warming and climate change (Brown, Hammill, & McLeman 2007), and sustainable development (Clapham, 1996; Matthew & Hammil, 2009).

Nonetheless, some variance in regional foreign policy outcomes and procedures may increase in the new period. Schrader (2007) suggests that the end of the Cold War and the rise of democracy, however partial, along with increased great power competition, should have significant impacts on African foreign policies (also, Wright, 1999a). First, some countries, such as Senegal, have been able to decrease their dependence upon the former colonizing countries. Second, societies could become less dependent upon external sources of support and more reliant upon domestic ones, including their military. Third, legislatures do have the possibility of standing against the foreign policy wishes of the president. In Benin, the legislature refused to rubber stamp a presidential preference (Schrader, 2007, p. 160). Finally, public opinion may come to matter more as civil society becomes stronger.

In this new era, the region has seen more failing or collapsing states as well as the “privatization of state relations” (Clapham, 1997; Englebert & Dunn, 2013; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Reno, 1998, 2000, 2009; Wright, 1999a; Zartman, 1995).4 The rise of nonstate combatants and refugees are a key aspect of failing or collapsing states and add to the difficulty of resolving their problems (Clapham, 1996, 1998; Deng, 2000; Herbst, 2000b; Mortimer, 2000; Quinn, 2004, 2014; Zartman, 2000). Region-wide responses to these issues have led to peacekeeping efforts through newly adjusted RECs and the African Union (AU), especially with the rise in prominence of the Peace and Security Council of the AU (Engle, 2017; Mortimer, 2000). We have also seen a deepening of regional attempts to improve African economic conditions, such as the creation of the African Economic Community and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) (Chabal, 2002; Hope, 2002; Taylor, 2005). Finally, given the poor level of governance in some countries facing failing and collapsing governments, some scholars have begun calling for the reconsideration of the norm of sovereignty (Deng, 2000, 2009, 2017; Deng et. al., 1996; Englebert, 2000, 2009; Herbst, 2000a).

Moreover, China has recently become a more important actor, shaping African foreign policy opportunities and constraints. Its rise has led to significant discussions of how foreign policies of African countries may have changed (Alden et al., 2018; Taylor, 2010). African leaders now have access to aid and investment unattached to Western economic or political conditionality (Brautigam, 2010; Harman & Brown, 2013; Tull, 2006; Tuman & Shirali, 2017; Woods, 2008). In fact, according to Englebert and Dunn (2013), the engagement of China with so many African countries is the most important post-Cold War change in African foreign relations. Some suggest that China’s successful economic approach may offer a nondemocratic model for development, lending legitimacy to African authoritarianism, as China has been known to support African nations with questionable human rights records (Sun, 2014; Taylor, 2010). Strong ties between China and more authoritarian regimes could be beneficial for China, with increased access to markets and possible support in IGOs, such as the UN (Sun, 2014).

Venues for Diplomacy

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and regional IGOs have been among the primary venues for African foreign policy decisions and diplomacy (Bach, 1999; Clapham, 1996; Keller & Rothchild, 1996; Okolo & Wright, 1990; Zartman, 2017), with the United Nations, the OAU, and the AU being the most obvious examples. This is consistent with East’s (1973) view of small-state behavior. The most frequent regional diplomatic endeavors have been in the domains of economic integration and conflict resolution. Among IGOs, African diplomacy and intraregional foreign policy have increased with the rise of the RECs (as part of the pan-African/African Union project) (Babarinde, 2003; Bach, 1999), which have addressed security and economic concerns (Engel, 2017; Khadiagala, 2013).

When regional conflicts have emerged, African countries have attempted regional responses (Mortimer, 2000; Zartman, 2000, 2009, 2017) through their RECs as well as through the OAU/AU. ECOWAS was the first regional organization to become involved in peacekeeping (Omoragbon, 2014) when it sent troops to Liberia through its wing, the Economic Community Monitoring Groups (ECOMOG) (Mortimer, 2000). Also, SADC was the vehicle to justify the involvement of Zimbabwe in the Congolese War (Lemarchand, 2000). Importantly, the involvement of RECs and OAU/AU in conflicts has grown over time (Falola & Thomas, 2014). In 1993, the OAU established the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution (Touray, 2005). In 2004, the AU’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government adopted the new Common African Defense and Security Policy (CADSP) (Touray, 2005). Similarly, the African Union adopted the Peace and Security Council (Engel, 2017). Thus, collective security and a move to supranational duties have been emerging through the AU and the OAU before it. These new venues for multilateral African diplomacy aimed at conflict resolution have furthered institutionalized this behavior.

Given African challenges with development, it is not surprising that African states have significant and prolonged interactions with, and dependence upon, international and multilateral IGOs, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other international financial institutions (IFIs). The European Union (a supranational IGO) also plays a significant role in Africa (Brown, 2006; Callaghy, 1998; Clapham, 1996; Gordon, 1993; Jackson, 1990; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Khadiagala, 2009; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Korany, 1986; Mosley, Harrigan, & Toye, 1991; Reno, 1998; Taylor, 2010; Taylor & Williams, 2004; van de Walle, 2001; Wright, 1999a).

African diplomacy and foreign policy have included involvement with ad hoc multilateral treaties as well, such as the Lomé treaty and later, Cotonou (Khadiagala 2000, 2009). These provided privileged access for certain African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) agricultural goods and commodities to European markets. African foreign policy interests have also included specifically subregional issues, such as how to share the water of the Nile (Adar & Check, 2011). Moreover, region-wide development plans, such as the Lagos Plan of Action, have been put forth (Clapham, 1996; Ravenhill, 1986; Taylor, 2005).5 Later, NEPAD would represent a similar African attempt to create an interaction with foreign donors and IFIs. It was initiated by South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda, and others as a regional attempt at economic development, but in conjunction with donors (Chabal, 2002; Hope, 2002; Taylor, 2005).

The other most obvious important venues for African foreign policy decisions and diplomacy have been bilateral, especially with immediate neighbors (Clapham, 1996; Copson, 1978), or with “great powers,” such as France (Bourmaud, 1995; Chipman, 1998; Quinn & Simon, 2006; Schraeder, 2001; Young, 2017), former colonizers (Aluko, 1977; Clapham, 1996; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Shaw & Aluko, 1984; Wright, 1992; 1999a), the superpowers of Europe (Clapham, 1996; Laidi & Baudoin, 1990; Olsen, 2015; Schraeder, 1994; Wright, 1999a; Taylor & Williams, 2004), or more recently, China and other BRICS members (BRICS = Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) (Alden, 2007; Alden et al., 2018; Olsen, 2015; Taylor, 2010, 2017). Individual OECD countries also provided significant sources of bilateral aid, with understandings of how best to maintain aid flows (Lancaster, 2007).

Paradigms and Foreign Policy in Africa

Most scholars seem to have used an eclectic mixed of paradigms along with historical context to empirically describe African foreign policies, rather than trying to analyze by pursuing paradigmatic purity (Clapham, 1996; Harbeson & Rothchild, 2000, 2009; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001b; Schraeder, 2004; Wright, 1999b). Outside of a dependency approach, most analyses have seen some relative autonomy for African leaders, relative to domestic institutions and social forces, though African leaders have had limited power to project regionally or internationally (Clapham, 1996; Harbeson, 2009; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Wright, 1999b). Nonetheless, some scholars adhere more closely than others to particular paradigms.

The Decider

Within Africa, foreign policy formation has normally been within in the wheelhouse of the chief executive given the personalization of power so common throughout the region (Clapham, 1996; Collins, 1973; Jackson, 1990; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Korany, 1986; Reno, 1998; Wright, 1999a; Zartman, 1966), though some leaders face more constraints than others (Quinn, 2000). In fact, Clapham argued that “African leaders characteristically conducted much of their foreign relations themselves” (1996, p. 58). As such, examining bureaucracies or legislatures would not have shed much light on the foreign policies of most African governments heretofore.6

Although the end of the Cold War opened up the possibility of more societal input into foreign policy, much still remains in the hands of the leader, especially as most countries are not listed as free. Only nine countries have been so rated as free (Freedom House, 2019). Even in recently “democratic” South Africa, scholars do not agree as to whether or not democracy has really changed the larger public’s access to foreign policy formation (Nel & van der Westhuizen, 2004), though van Wyk (2012) suggested no effective role for the public exists in foreign policy formation in South Africa. Warner (2018) argued that we should expect to see more variegated African approaches to foreign policies with the rise in number of geopolitical actors and the lessening of power of African leaders. Nonetheless, the autonomy of establishing foreign policy by the leader does not seem to have changed very much since the end of the Cold War for most countries—at least outside of economic foreign policy (Adar & and Schraeder, 2007).

Foreign policy has been seen as one of several venues or opportunities for leaders to engage in the politics of “state survival” (Clapham, 1996). The leader and the leader’s circle extract resources to maintain rule from both domestic and international sources. The existence of juridical sovereignty created opportunities for these leaders to obtain resources with which to remain in power as well as to play one patron against the other (Callaghy, 1983; Clapham, 1996; Englebert, 2009; Quinn, 2001, 2004). Clark (2001) argued that the domestic needs of leaders dominate the foreign policy arena. Those who write about neo-patrimonial or personalist rulers hold this position, either empirically or as a stylized fact of the subcontinent (Bayart, 1993; Bratton and van de Walle, 1997; Callaghy, 1984; Chabal & Deloz, 1999; Englebert, 2000; Englebert & Dunn, 2013; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Quinn, 2002, 2016; Tangri, 1999). For example, Callaghy illustrated how Mobutu skillfully played various external constituents against each other to maintain his patronage system (1983). Others have suggested that the dependency of leaders limits their autonomy in this area. Adogame (2003) tried to unite decision making with a political economy (dependency) approach. Daddieh and Shaw (1986) also merged dependency and decision making in their comparison of African foreign policies and alignments on the recognition of Biafra as well as the recognition of the two competing political parties for power in Angola.

Realism (and Reactions to Realism)

Few foreign policy or international relations (IR) analyses concerning Africa have been written from a strict realist theoretical viewpoint. African countries have often been considered only quasi-states, lacking Weberian stateness or de facto sovereignty (Jackson, 1990; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982). Thus, much of the ability of leaders to stay in power emanated from international recognition itself. This de jure sovereignty often came along with resources that propped these leaders up, rather than threatening their rule (Clapham, 1996; Englebert, 2000, 2009; Herbst, 2000a; Jackson, 1990; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Quinn, 2001; Reno, 1998; Rothchild & Harbeson, 2000). This would make realism, especially the neo-realist version, a poor explanatory fit under such conditions (Brown, 2006).

In fact, Jackson and Rosberg argued, “Black Africa challenges more than it supports some of the major postulates of international relations theory” (1982, p. 24). Rather than increasing domestic state power, as realists would have it, African elites have often undermined their own state's economies or structures to deprive potential domestic rivals a potential domestic base of political power (Callaghy, 1984; Clapham, 1996; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Reno, 1998). Dunn (2000) argued that African realities are not consistent with either neo-realism or realism because distinctions between internal and external sources of power and legitimacy are less important in Africa. Similarly, Dunn and Shaw (2001), Henderson (2015), Lemke (2003), and Reno (1998) argued that Africa's key realities occur at the nonstate and sub-state levels—which can be seen as a challenge to realism. The poor fit between realism and African foreign relations has been attributed to the fact that this set of theories was constructed with only the West in mind (Ayoob, 1995, 2002; Henderson, 2015).7 In fact, Henderson argues that mainstream IR is partially racist in how it ignores the international relations of Africa (2015).

Important sources of African access to international power and influence are ignored by realism. For example, Zartman (1967) argued that realism ignores the power available through voting in IGOs or the norms governing interstate and intrastate African relations. Because some realists have argued that institutions do not matter; the idea of independent African power within IGOs would again put this approach at odds with strict realism (e.g., Mearsheimer, 2002).

In addition, many scholars have argued that hierarchy is a better description than anarchy of the relations between African states and the great or superpowers—a major challenge to realist assumptions. Dunn (2000) argued that hierarchy, and not anarchy, more accurately describes African relations. Most dependency theorists start with this assumption (see section “Dependency”). Quinn (2016) argued as well that relations between advanced and less advanced countries are better viewed as hierarchical than anarchic, though he argues for much more agency on the part of African leaders than would dependency thinkers.8 Moreover, the imposition of economic and political conditionality, bilaterally and through the nonstate actors, clearly limits the policy space of African leaders (Callaghy, 1998, 2009; Callaghy & Ravenhill, 1993; Clapham, 1996; Taylor, 2010; van de Walle, 2001)—especially those without oil or mining exporting sectors (Clapham, 1996; Quinn, 2016).

Despite most Africanist scholars seeing realism as a poor fit for the region, Akinsaya (1976), Akinyemi (1982), and Gambari (1989) argued that realpolitik was the key to understanding Africa's foreign policies in the 1960s. Herbst suggested that African “international relations” began with the Congolese war (2000b). Others suggest tweaking realism can make it more useful in Africa. Henderson (2015) argued that, by adding the ideas of “inverted legitimacy” and “neo-patrimonial balancing theory,” realism can explain many regional conflicts. Lemke (2003, 2011) argued that the application of mainstream IR goes awry in Africa only because it studies the wrong units of analysis. Autonomous political entities (APE) can balance and act to defend territory and to engage politically in fluid situations, which is more consistent with realist predictions (Lemke, 2011). Ayoob (1995, 2002) argued that “subaltern realism” is a better description of African realities to explain security issues—once the assumption of hierarchy is brought in. However, subaltern realism is distinguished additionally from standard realism as it forswears claims of scientific knowledge. Brown (2006) wrote that the critiques of IR are really about neo-realism and that, with some softening of boundaries (internal and external sources of support) and with a softening of what constitutes hierarchy and anarchy, realist approaches to IR can be helpful in explaining African foreign relations.

In fact, much African foreign policy or international relations literature has indeed examined sub-state/domestic actors and their impact on foreign policy and has normally looked to rival armed guerrillas, warlords, military factions, ethnic groups, or companies as important players in the foreign policy drama (Clapham, 1996, 1998; Henderson, 2015; Lemke, 2011, 2003; Reno, 1998, 2000; Zartman, 2000). For example, early African foreign policies supported liberation movements (sub-state actors) aimed at overthrowing colonial and white regimes (Adigbuo 2007; Young, 2017). Moreover, most scholars examine how relations with superpowers can shape the nature of the competition of domestic rivals for power (Callaghy, 1983; Clapham, 1996; Clark, 2001), and this necessarily unpacks the state.

General awareness of broader geopolitical power is not missing in the study of African foreign policies. Most case studies on African foreign policy have analyzed how alignment vis-à-vis the superpowers and former colonial powers (i.e., great powers) are determinative of much of African foreign policies and foreign relations (Aluko, 1977; Clapham, 1996; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Quinn, 2016; Taylor, 2010; Taylor and Williams, 2004; Wright, 1999a).9 In addition, some see African countries perhaps playing the role of regional hegemons (Herbst, 2000b). However, where strong discussions of super or great powers emerge, they tend to be written from the perspective of these great powers or institutions and their relations with Africa (Chipman, 1998; Schraeder, 1994; Taylor and Williams, 2004). Few serious analyses of the international constraints of African foreign policy would exclude the superpowers, past colonial powers, or (more recently) China (Payne & Veney, 1998; Taylor, 1998, 2010; Tull, 2006).

Liberalism and Liberal Political Economy

Although many African scholars have found realism lacking, traditional liberalism (aka pluralism) is not commonly used to explain African foreign policy. In fact, most scholars have looked at the leader or leadership as the most significant source of foreign policy—as opposed to domestic interest aggregation or articulation. Importantly, African civil society has been weak, and an indigenous business class virtually nonexistent (Clapham, 1996; Gyimah-Boadi, 1996; Lemke, 2003, 2011; Quinn, 2002, 2016; Reno, 1998). Normally, the literature on sub-state actors in foreign policies has been about contestation over who would administer the state and less so about the contestation to form policy itself (Clapham, 1996; Clark, 2001; Reno, 1998).

However, portrayals of increasing globalization and interactions among international nonstate economic actors (e.g., IFIs, NGOs, and MNCs) are standard fare and are included in most analyses (Callaghy, 2009; Clapham, 1996; Jackson, 1990; Jackson & Rosberg, 1982; Khadiagala & Lyons, 2001a; Korany, 1986; Reno, 1998; Wright, 1999b). Liberalism’s willingness to “unpack the state” to see sub-state actors as well as its emphasis on the importance of institutions and the broader economy in influencing or shaping behavior, makes it a potentially useful approach to understanding African international relations and foreign policy (Brown, 2006). With the increased, though partial, political and economic fragmentation of institutions in the region following the end of the Cold War (Clapham, 1996; Quinn, 2016; Schraeder, 2007; Wright, 1999a), more and more research should look to domestic sources of foreign policy, even though civil society continues to be weak (Bratton, 1990; Gyimah-Boadi, 1996; Lyons & Khadiagala, 2001; Quinn, 2016; Schraeder, 2001; Wright, 1999a).

Nonetheless, societal-based foreign economic policy has been a fruitful venue for the liberal paradigm: this approach can be compared to endogenous tariff theory (Magee, Brock, & Young, 1989; McGillivray, 1997) or open economy politics (OEP) (Lake, 2013). This approach looks to leaders, sectors, elites, farmers, importers, exporters, parties, classes, and other economic and political actors to pursue their economic self-interest through the establishment of trade policy. Although not usually pitched as foreign policy per se, perhaps one of the best known theories for so many African countries following inward-oriented trade policies from the 1960s through the 1980s is the urban–rural bias theory (Bates, 1981; Lipton, 1977).10 Urban political elites preferred inward-oriented development policies, as they benefited the importers and urban dwellers, while the exporters were mainly politically powerless, rural dwellers. The difference in power emerged as agricultural (countryside) interest groups were unable to overcome their collective action problems, but city groups could (Bates, 1981). The urban elite established policies in their own economic self-interests.

The cause of inward-oriented policies has also been attributed to African neo-patrimonial political structures: this approach requires looking at domestic social relations (Joseph, 1983; Lewis, 1996; van de Walle, 2001). Resource redistribution systems require significant levels of patronage to operate, and inward-oriented policies create rents (Chabal, 2002; Chabal & Deloz, 1999). Similarly, Easterly and Levine (1997) suggested that Africa’s high level of ethnolinguistic fractionalization required politicians to pursue more protectionist and redistributive policies to paper over potential domestic conflicts over resources—though this choice meant forgoing more growth oriented policies which ultimately resulted in lower levels of economic growth.

Some scholars saw more heterogeneity in economic foreign policy during the Cold War period and proffered explanations as to why. Lofchie (1989) compared Kenya to Tanzania and found that agricultural policies were the reason for agrarian success in Kenya (which was more outward) and agrarian failure in Tanzania (which was more inward). He attributed the cause of the more outward agricultural policies in Kenya to the ownership of land by its political elites. Widner (1993) suggested a similar mechanism at work in Côte d'Ivoire. Even Bates (1981) agreed that the existence of large landowners could lead to the pursuit of more outward-oriented policies, as the case of Kenya illustrated (though sometimes they were coopted). Young (1982) suggested that the ideology of the regime was the best predictor of economic foreign policy. Englebert (2000) argued that African countries with more endogenous legitimacy had less severe policy distortions, and that legitimate leaders have better policy, institution, and governance outcomes. The lack of legitimate state authority, emerging from poorly drawn colonial boundaries, has been mentioned as the source of many African post-colonial difficulties.

Using an international political economy/endogenous tariff approach, but with an OEP approach to discover interests, Quinn (1999, 2002, 2016) argued that sub-Saharan Africa countries that had majority state ownership (MSO) of most capital-intensive industries, or a significant mineral or oil exporting sector, pursued more inward-oriented development policies than did other similar countries. Through the nationalization of, or state investment in, capital-intensive, or technology-intensive, industries or sectors, and with Africa having no comparative advantage in capital or technology, African political leaders became owners or managers of sectors which used relatively scarce factors of production intensively. As such, they assumed a strong interest in protectionism and overvalued currencies. According to Rogowski (1989), owners of economic sectors which employ scare factors intensively seek protectionist policies, while owners of economic sectors which use abundant factors intensively support more outward-oriented trade policies.11 Inward-oriented policies protect sectors which use scarce factors intensively by sheltering them from potentially withering international competition. In sub-Saharan Africa, majority state owned sectors were routinely used as a basis for patronage during the Cold War period (Bates, 1981; Chabal & Deloz, 1999; Clapham, 1996; Englebert, 2000; Quinn, 1999, 2002, 2016; van de Walle, 2001), and open policies would have undermined this system.12 The owners of sectors which use more abundant factors intensively, such as land owners, could not compete with the political elite in the establishment of economic policies under these circumstances.13 By contrast, countries without majority state ownership of capital- or technology-intensive sectors were less likely to have had such high levels of inward-oriented development policies—though this was partially dependent on the relative power of different social forces holding either abundant or scarce factors of production and/or ideologies of the leaders (Bates, 1981; Young, 1982). Nonetheless, even here economic foreign policy choices were strongly constrained by the political imperatives of patronage-based political systems, and these tendencies were often impacted by ideological considerations (Quinn, 2002, 2016). So many of this latter also had inward-oriented policies, though those with MSO had statistically higher levels of protectionism and trade distortion.

However, African foreign economic relations became more constrained by IFIs, like the World Bank and the IMF by the mid-1980s (Callaghy, 2000, 2009; Callaghy & Ravenhill, 1993; Clapham, 1996; Gordon, 1993; Rapley, 2007; Taylor, 2010). Given the need for developmental aid and rising World Bank and IMF conditionality, many African countries came to lose control over important aspects of their economic foreign policy (Callaghy, 1998, 2009; Callaghy & Ravenhill, 1993, Clapham, 1996; Gordon, 1993; Reno, 1998; van de Walle, 2001). Structural adjustment was often perceived in the region as externally imposed and therefore lacked domestic constituent support and was not successfully adopted in most cases (Callaghy, 1993; Gordon, 1993; Herbst, 1998; Nelson, 1989; 1992). This made externally imposed economic policies potentially politically destabilizing to political elites, who could lose access to rents and face domestic backlash by adopting them (Bienen & Herbst, 1996; Callaghy, 1993; Herbst, 1993; Quinn, 2002, 2016; van de Walle, 2001).

Given the ever-increasing requirement of economic conditionality for international loans by the late 1980s, scholars tended to study instead what leads to “good governance” rather than endogenous sources of economic foreign policies (Hyden & Bratton, 1992; Taylor, 2010). In fact, many felt that it was not a question of whether African elites would adopt these liberal policies, rather it was a question of when. However, with recent changes in the international order, especially with the rising power of China, this may become more relevant again, and we may see African leaders with more space to establish economic foreign policy (Payne & Veney, 1998; Sun, 2014; Taylor, 1998; Tull, 2006).

Constructivism (or Ideas and Norms Matter)

Few scholars on African foreign policies or international relations would disagree with the proposition that ideas and norms helped shape African foreign policies.14 Pan-Africanism, decolonization, African nationalism, the sanctity of colonial boundaries, sovereignty, regional integration, regional security, anti-apartheid policies, and collective diplomacy have all been very strong norms and ideas impacting African foreign policy formation and outcomes (Aluko, 1977; Jackson, 1993; Mazzeo, 1984; Okolo & Wright, 1990; Quinn, 2016; Schraeder, 1996; 2004; Wright, 1999a; Zartman, 1967, 2017). Nonetheless, one can find a few self-described constructivist works on African foreign policy.15 Williams (2007) used constructivism to explain the AU’s development of a security culture. Serrão and Bishoff (2009) held that South African foreign policy is best understood using a constructivist approach. Role theory could also be viewed as a form of social construction of identity of leaders or states that impact and shape foreign policy outcomes (Hermann, 1987; Singer & Hudson, 1987; Walker, 1987). Adigbuo, (2007) too, discussed the case for using role conception in understanding African and Nigerian foreign policy. Ashley (1987) suggested that all foreign policy is best understood as “political performance.” In fact, he suggests that the boundaries necessary for understanding foreign policy (internal vs. domestic and political vs. economic) are as much produced by foreign policy as they are reflected in them. Murithi (2013) suggested that uniting Pan Africanism with International Relations can lead to a new paradigm for the field.

Importantly, these ideas must reside in clear tension. For example, at its core, pan-Africanism as a normative idea extends politics and foreign policy to the whole region, while sovereignty is limited to a state (Khadiagala, 2013; Ojo, Orwa, and Utete, 1985; Young, 2000). Nonetheless, the regional and international norm of uti possidetis (which protected the colonial boundaries as inherited) was enshrined in the OAU; this allowed African elites to be less concerned about external aggression associated with their borders (Englebert, 2000, 2009; Herbst, 2000a; Quinn, 2001; Young, 2000). Nationalism and sovereignty are also quite strong norms in African relations (Jackson, 1993; Harbeson & Rothchild, 1995, 2009) that reside in tension. For example, when nationalism appears as sub-nationalism (as expressed in a secession movement), it has been strongly opposed (Englebert, 2009; Englebert & Hummel, 2005). Few African nations recognized Biafra upon its declaration of independence, and fewer still have recognized either of the Somali breakaway entities (Schraeder, 2004). Nonetheless, nationalism was the driving ideology behind the decolonization movement of Africa (Gifford & Louis, 1982, 1988; Hargreaves, 1988).

Africa also has a history of regional, multilateral attempts at crisis resolution, which is linked to the pan-African idea of African solutions for African problems (Keller & Rothchild, 1996; Khadiagala, 2013; Zartman, 2000, 2017). The OAU was partially built upon the premise of having a regional IGO to go to before going to the UN (Foltz, 1991). Also, Africans have long viewed regional self-reliance as a preferred means of achieving economic and political development. Moreover, through the AU, and the idea of regional development, RECs have been established to create the initial part of a larger free trade zone—the African Economic Community. Despite strong normative calls for regional cooperation, Africa has experienced relatively low levels of intra-regional trade (Bach, 1999; Khadiagala, 2013; Lancaster, 1995). NEPAD, too, can be seen as another regional attempt at economic development (Chabal, 2002; Hope, 2002; Taylor, 2005).

Ideas have also clearly shaped regional development approaches (Goldstein & Keohane, 1993; Lancaster, 2007; Quinn, 2002, 2016). Pan-Africanism, dependency thinkers, development economists, and economic nationalism were all ideas that clearly have impacted how African leaders have pursued economic foreign policy. Many early leaders viewed capitalism as being part of colonialism (Hargreaves, 1988; Kennedy, 1988; Rapley, 2007) which led many to nationalize their economies (Quinn, 2002; Rood, 1976; Rapley, 2007; Tangri, 1999). Also, the predictions of dependency and world systems theory were widely accepted by African leaders in the early years of independence, and this clearly shaped their economic foreign policy orientations (Killick, 1978; Quinn, 2002; Rapley, 2007). Ideological leanings of African leaders and countries could help predict international economic policies (Young, 1982).

With growing evidence of stalled development, many in the World Bank and other IFIs called into question the effectiveness of state-led, inward-oriented development approaches. One seminal work, often called the Berg Report (World Bank, 1981), signaled a shift in World Bank thinking on African economic policy (Lofchie, 1994). With the new view that policies themselves were mostly to blame for poor performance, loans became tied to policy adjustments (e.g., Callaghy, 1998; Callaghy & Ravenhill, 1993; van de Walle, 2001). Importantly, most of Africa has experienced at least some time under “structural adjustment” (Clapham, 1996). This trend of forced liberalization became stronger with the end of the Cold War. Change in ideas, as well as the relative ascendant power of the United States at the end of the Cold War, helped foster a major (outward) transformation of the political and economic institutions of Africa, based upon shifts in ideas and changes in access to international resources (Quinn, 2016).

Even the strong norm of sovereignty has come under pressure since the end of the Cold War (Deng, 2000, 2017; Deng et al., 1996; Englebert, 2000, 2009; Herbst, 2000a). Given the dreadful misrule in some parts of Africa, some have called for the end of sovereignty per se and have argued that international actors should certify a state as being sound or not (Deng, 2000; Englebert, 2000; Herbst, 2000a). Genocide or state collapse in Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan have helped create and sustain the idea of a rising international obligation to intervene in states where the leaders cannot provide minimal security for its citizens (Deng, 2017; Engel, 2017). The AU even put aside strict nonintervention by passing a resolution condemning coups and refusing to seat representatives from nations that had an extra-constitutional change in government (Engel, 2017; Piccone, 2004; Williams, 2007). Some suggest that the AU adopted provisions tantamount to supporting the norm of the responsibility to protect (R2P) (Biersteker, 2013; Deng et al., 1996), further undermining strict sovereignty.


Perhaps the most self-consciously concerned paradigms used in African foreign policy studies include dependency, world systems theory, and/or structuralism (Kegley & McGowan, 1981; Nweke, 1980; Shaw, 1975; Shaw & Okolo, 1994; Wendt, 1987). Shaw and Aluko (1984) referred to any of these as a political economy approach, though it is only one branch of (international) political economy (see section “Liberalism and Liberal Political Economy”). Building on the ideas of Baran (1957) and Wallerstein (1974), African countries are viewed as similar in their dependency and weakness vis-à-vis advanced industrial countries; as such, foreign policy outcomes in Africa are reduced to the effects of the system (Wendt, 1987, p. 345). Here, hierarchy is the assumption of the system and the analyses, not anarchy as per realism.

Most of this literature describes the ways in which African foreign policies are consistent with these realities. Importantly, differences in foreign policy outcomes do not falsify the theory; the methodology is, therefore, illustrative theory more than theory infirming or confirming. For example, Shaw (1975) argued that inequality in power between African countries and “Northern” countries results in dependency through trade and attempts to integrate with global state capitalism, in dependency through “trade, investment, and technology” (p. 370), or in attempts to reject the system by adopting socialist domestic policies. Scholars in this tradition also study how Africa and other third world countries attempt to bargain collectively within the IGOs on economic and political issues (Nweke, 1980).16

In contrast to the standard neo-Marxist dependency theory, postimperialism suggests that when third-world countries interact with multinational corporations (MNCs), the latter are not negotiating on behalf of the “North” or the core, but rather from their own transnational class interests (Becker & Sklar, 1999). Postimperialism argues that third-world foreign policies are highly nationalist, while those of MNCs are transnational. Postimperialist thinkers would not limit their thinking to Africa, but they would extend their analysis to the whole third world. Quinn (1999) showed how actions taken by African leaders, such as the nationalization of industry, mining, and oil, are more clearly consistent with a postimperialism paradigm than a dependency perspective.

Comparative Foreign Policy Analysis: Africa in the Third World

Many works on the comparative study of foreign policies of Africa have been conducted in the larger context of third-world foreign policies and were more empirically based and case based. In fact, a brief flurry of quantitative studies emerged following a comparative foreign policies approach advocated by Rosenau (1966) or Holsti (1970, 1982). Areas of study included predicting UN voting trends using such variables as membership in regional bloc, Cold War alignment, type of ideology, change in regimes, trading patterns, and other structural variables (Armstrong, 1981; Clark et al., 1971; Gitelson, 1974; Hagan, 1989; Holloway, 1990; Holloway & Tomlinson, 1995; Hveem & Willetts, 1974; Imai & James, 1996; Kegley & Hook, 1991; Khapoya, 1975; Kim & Russett, 1996; Martin, 2002; Meyers, 1966; Moon, 1983; 1985; Newcombe et al., 1970; Rai, 1980; Richardson, 1976; Richardson & Kegley, 1980; Wang, 1999; Wittkopf, 1973).

Some studies using a comparative foreign policy approach centered only on Africa and emphasized voting patterns in the UN (Ellis & Salzberg, 1966; Meyers, 1966; Vengroff, 1976), or general African foreign policy behavior, such as levels of diplomatic activity or alignment (McGowan & Gottwald, 1975). McGowan (1968) analyzed how active nations were relative to the levels of foreign aid they received. Elsewhere, he examined African countries to determine how economic development was correlated with foreign policy outcomes (McGowan, 1969). He found that level of development as well as levels of dependence in foreign policy predicted activity level. Weigert and Riggs (1969) found that African nations with greater economic and military capabilities were more likely to hold major offices at IGOs. Johns (1972, 1975) sought to explain the level of official diplomatic activity among African countries: ex-Belgian, militant, North African, Maghreb (ex-French), coastal, and contiguous countries had the highest levels of diplomatic activity. Ironically, countries that housed established regional organizations had lower levels of “diplomatic” normalization. Also, aside from GDP per capita, measures of power correlated positively with higher levels of diplomatic activity.

A few scholars used data from the African Foreign Relations and International Conflict Analysis (AFRICA) database to test hypotheses concerning African foreign relations within large-N studies. It included event data from 32 African countries as well as their foreign policy actions or utterances from 1964 to 1966. Tomlin and Buhlman (1977) examined intra-African diplomacy to test relative status field theory explanations for foreign policy. McGowan and Johnson (1979) used this data to outline the goals of comparative foreign policy in Africa.17 McGowan and Purkitt (1979) used this data to create factor-analysis variables common to black African foreign policy (i.e., participation, conflict, political independence, economic dependence, state building, formal diplomacy, and centralized decision making). They then tested these variables with several independent variables (i.e., size, modernization, cultural pluralism, ethnic pluralism, religion, and language pluralism). They found that their variable of capacity, as well as cultural variables, explained many foreign policy outcomes. Boyd (1979) and Dolan, Tomlin, Molot, and von Reikhoff (1980) also studied foreign policies using this data.

Other large-N studies include Bienen’s study (1985) of military regimes to see if they had unique foreign policies. His meta-analysis of the previous literature found that military regimes were not distinctive in foreign policy formation or goals. Also, Anda (2000) compared foreign policy behaviors with national attributes in West Africa. Focusing on three paradigms (systems, power, and decision making) as well as two levels of analysis (national and systemic), he found that francophone countries were more integrated into regional organizations than were anglophone countries. Also, elite perception and state attributes (such as size, development, contiguity, and capabilities) affected foreign policy outcomes.

Links to Digital Materials

  • African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF). Created in 1991, this is the African Union’s Specialized Agency for Capacity Development, which seeks to create stronger African institutions and to promote good governance. Helps coordinate activities with other development agencies. Partnered with the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UNDP, and the World Bank.
  • The African Studies Association. The leading North American interdisciplinary academic organization to promote the study of African affairs. Holds annual conferences and has several publications on Africa.
  • The African Union. This link is to the main intergovernmental body incorporating pan-African idealism. It includes descriptions of governance structures, member countries, programs, and other resources for African societies. Information on the African Economic Community, RECs, and other regional organizations can also be explored.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations: Sub-Saharan Africa. The Council of Foreign Relations is a nonpartisan think tank concerned with America's role in foreign relations. It publishes Foreign Affairs. The sub-Saharan Africa site has links to news, publications, editorials, regions, countries, and a list of their council experts.
  • The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). A development program of the African Union to promote regional development and accountability.
  • The United Nations. The UN is one of the main international (as opposed to continental or regional) IGOs where international cooperation can occur. The site also contains links to governance structures, members, programs, conferences, and other resources.
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The UNECA website contains an overview of the IGO, regional contact information, links to publications, press announcements, and a list of current programs. Established to help with regional economic development.
  • The United States Agency for International Development: Africa. The USAID is the agency that promotes US bilateral assistance to developing countries. Lists countries, programs, opportunities, and other resources.
  • The US State Department: Africa. Webpage for the Bureau of African Affairs. The official source for American foreign policy toward Africa. Contains press releases, lists of embassies, lists of programs, and links to other related agencies.
  • Data on Development: World Bank African Development Indicators 2018. Macroeconomic and development indicators/data on Africa as well as analysis.
  • Data: All Minorities at Risk Project. Contains data on politically active communal groups in all countries with a current population of at least 500,000. Data include, but are not limited to, Africa. Tracks political, cultural, and economic dimensions.
  • Data: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development: International Development Statistics. Source for DAC Development flows from advanced to less advanced countries, including Africa. Shows flows of developmental aid by several categories.


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  • 1. Here Africa refers mostly to sub-Saharan Africa, unless specified otherwise, though some individual works cover the entire continent or includes cases from North Africa.

  • 2. For review of single case studies, see Shaw (1980).

  • 3. See also Black (1988), Gitelson (1974), and Hey (2003).

  • 4. Here privatization of state relations does not refer to the sale or liquidation of state owned assets (Quinn, 2002, 2016; Tangri, 1999). It refers to the idea of private companies or individuals engaging in “traditional” state endeavors, such as security. See especially Reno (2000, 2009) or Clapham (1996, 1997).

  • 5. For overview of this debate, see Herbst (1993) and Taylor (2010).

  • 6. However, Schoeman (2013) wrote on the important role of the military and its importance for South African foreign policy, especially for regional peace keeping and/or reconstruction missions.

  • 7. For recent reviews of Africa vis-à-vis International Relations, see also Brown & Harman (2013), Englebert & Dunn (2013), Harman & Brown (2013), Quinn (2016), Taylor (2010) and other citations in this section.

  • 8. For similar idea of hierarchy, see Lake (2007); also for African agency, see also Blaauw (2016); Brown & Harman (2013); Englebert & Dunn (2013); and Reno (1998).

  • 9. However, many look at Western or great powers and their relations to Africa in a realist (or neoclassical realist) way; see example Olsen (2015).

  • 10. It was usually pitched as development policy, though this clearly had foreign policy implications.

  • 11. Factors of production can be scare or abundant relative to each other within a country. For example, one can look at per capita incomes to see relative abundance of capital, or population per square kilometer per agricultural land. These ideas are based upon Heckscher-Ohlin and Stolper-Samuelson theorems. See Rogowski (1989) for elaboration. Mining and oil can be abundant within a country, but most forms use capital and technology intensively in order to bring them out of the ground and to market. According to Rogowski, all developing countries are considered to be capital scarce, either of physical or human capital (1989, p. 6). Also, overvalued currencies subsidize the importation of capital and technology from abroad (Bates 1981; Lofchie, 1994; World Bank, 1981).

  • 12. Interests were seen as aggregating by sector and not class. A sector’s interests in free trade or protectionism was determined by its use of relative abundant or scarce factors of production. For discussion of factors vs. sectors, see Frieden (1991). For scare vs. abundant factors, see Rogowski (1989).

  • 13. However, it should be noted that Africa did not have many indigenous large land owners at the state of the independence period. See Bates (1981); also Quinn (2002).

  • 14. Other paradigms hold that ideas and norms matter. Liberals see ideas and norms as mattering, especially if institutionalized. English school scholars also include ideas and norms as part of the larger international society. For examples, see Owen and Rosecrance (2018) for liberalism, and Bull (2012) for English school.

  • 15. For review of approach on foreign policy that includes constructivism, see Kubálková (2016); For constructivism in IR, see Hopf (1998), Wendt (1987, 1999).

  • 16. For a case theory/ informing approach including dependence, see Kegley & McGowan (1981).

  • 17. See also DeLancey (1979); for online data, see McGowan (1992).