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.
Timothy M. Shaw
One-quarter of the world’s states are African and can contribute to international relations theory and practice as the North enters a period of ambivalence and begins to retreat from positive global engagement. Each actor based in or concerned about the African continent, state and non-state alike, advances a foreign policy to reflect its interests, often in coalition with others. East-South relations and a non-Western world, as well as Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa, are important in international development and emerging powers in Africa. The diversion away from international order and peace of the United States under President Donald Trump, the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Theresa May, and the European Union, the latter characterized by unanticipated immigration and endless Eurozone crises, can be positive for African agency and development if the continent can seize the unprecedented space to advance its own developmental states and regionalisms. Such possibilities of Africa’s enhanced prospects are situated in terms of a changing global political economy in which new economies, companies, and technologies are emerging along with contrary, nontraditional security threats. In response, novel forms of transnational “network” governance are being conceived and charted to advance sustainable developmental states and regionalisms through innovative foreign policy stances outside established, but increasingly dysfunctional and ossified, interstate institutions.