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African Agency in International Politics  

Jonathan Fisher

International Relations theory has tended to overlook the role of Africa and Africans in the international system. Traditionally, the discipline’s most influential theorists have focused instead on relationships between and perspectives of “major powers.” A growing body of work, however, has challenged these more limited efforts to conceptualize African agency in international politics. This scholarship has emphasized the significant space available to, and carved-out by, African states in molding the agendas of international institutions, and the role of African governments and advocacy networks in influencing the trajectory of major international debates around issues such as aid, development, trade, climate change, and migration. The study of African agency in international politics continues to wrestle with two key debates: the meanings of “agency” and “African.” Much of the literature focuses primarily on the role and influence of African states rather than that of African citizens and communities. This focus provides, at best, only a partial and qualified view of the ways in which African agency is secured and exercised at the global level, particularly given the significant structural constraints imposed on Africa by global economic and political inequalities. The extent to which contemporary analysis captures the breadth of African engagement with the international system is also compromised by current state-centric approaches. It is thus necessary to examine a range of approaches adopted by scholars to deepen and nuance the study of African agency in international politics, including work on agenda-setting, mesolevel dynamics and microlevel dynamics.


The Politics of Fires and Haze in Southern Southeast Asia  

Helena Varkkey

Transboundary haze pollution originating from fires in Southern Southeast Asia affects about half of the countries in Southeast Asia with varied intensities on an almost annual basis. Haze not only affects visibility but also causes widespread health problems, transportation disruptions, and other socioeconomic issues. This haze and the fires that cause it have been a key topic for environmental politics research in the region since the late 1990s. This has largely been driven by one overarching objective: how to prevent haze from returning in the following years. However, conditions on the ground (mostly in Indonesia and in the larger Southeast Asian region) have been changing and evolving drastically, which has resulted in a dynamic research agenda that has to keep up. Within the context of environmental politics, fires and haze can be viewed through the broad lens of national interest. There is a strong link between the severity of haze and the burgeoning agribusiness sector in the region: that of oil palm in particular. Oil palm is a very important crop in the region, with Indonesia and Malaysia generating almost 90% of total global palm oil output. Hence, national and business interest theories have often been used as a framework for research in this area, with commercial oil palm plantations often being the unit of analysis. However, this has been called to question lately as these plantations face increasing market pressure to act more sustainably. A new group of actors that have since been highlighted are smallholders, either independent or in contract with larger plantations. There is potentially much to be uncovered with regard to the relationships between smallholders and commercial plantations and how they affect patterns of fire use and global sustainability issues. Related to this is the ever-evolving collection of local, regional, and national policies (and related enforcement issues) on land and fire use in Indonesia. One key area of contention is the use of peatlands. Fires on peat produce the thick, sooty smoke that travels across national boundaries, and they are notoriously hard to put out. Political research in this area is heavily framed by a tough debate between the scientific community and socioeconomic concerns. While peatlands play an important role in the global climate change balance, they also face immense pressure for development fueled by the scarcity of land. The regional context has also been an important theme for haze research. Haze primarily affects the Southern Southeast Asian subregion, and the major players of the palm oil sector come from this area. The Indonesian palm oil sector is a vibrant combination of Malaysian, Singaporean, and local companies. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been the hub of cooperation and mitigation activities over haze. Hence, many scholars have searched for answers at the regional level. However, new national developments, such as Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, suggest that countries may be losing confidence in regional efforts.


Venezuela's Oil Wealth and Social Transformation  

Dario Azzellini

With the victory of Hugo Chávez in the 1998 presidential elections, Venezuela became the first country in the Latin American “pink tide.” Up to then, mainstream political analysis had considered Venezuela a stable liberal democracy. Little attention had been paid to the country internationally. Former army officer Chávez was met with suspicion by the international left, which knew little about the Venezuelan left and the contemporary history of the country, and the right thought it could persuade him to act in its interests. The process of social transformation launched, named the “Bolivarian Revolution” after Venezuelan independence leader Simón Bolivar, became radicalized rapidly and was soon declared socialist. Internal policies were characterized by popular participation, expropriations, and redistribution of the oil wealth. Internationally, Venezuela took an active role in promoting regional integration and South–South cooperation. Chávez and the social transformation process in Venezuela rapidly gained strong sympathies among social movements and the radical left throughout the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region; for the same reasons, Venezuela came to be the number-one enemy of the Latin American right and the United States, which supported several attempts to overthrow the government. After Chávez’s death in 2013, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, faced an increasingly violent opposition, a severe economic crisis, growing hostility from the United States and the European Union (EU), and a regional context in which the rise of right-wing governments reversed the “pink tide.” Since early 2019, the situation has escalated because of sanctions by the U.S. and EU countries; the recognition of a self-proclaimed “interim president” belonging to the opposition, by the United States, most EU countries, and the right-wing governments in Latin America; coup attempts; and the open threat of U.S. military intervention. The unfolding of the Bolivarian Revolution, the forces at play, and the main points of conflict need to be analyzed in their historical context.