Elizabeth Schmidt. Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xviii + 267 pp. $84.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88238-5; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-70903-3.
Reviewed by Charlie Thomas (Air University, eSchool of Graduate PME )
Published on H-War (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In the modern era, foreign interventions appear to be part of the common experience of the African people: the French intervention in Mali beating back the radical Islamists from Timbuktu; the United States increasingly placing drone bases at the edge of the Sahara; even the deployment of the Kenyan military into Somalia to fight against the still-dangerous threat of Al-Shabaab. To outside observers, it appears as if African states are increasingly unable to defend their citizens, leaving foreign interventions as a necessary antidote to the violence and chaos on the continent. However, this reading of the state of Africa is not necessarily an accurate one. Elizabeth Schmidt’s volume offers a striking counter-narrative to the common perception of foreign interventions in Africa, contextualizing the last five decades of foreign interventions on the continent through decolonization, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. In the process, she continually drives home the message that these interventions, far from being a symptom of weak states on the continent, instead are a primary cause of the continued political and social fragmentation in Africa.
The introduction of Schmidt’s work does an excellent job of framing the key arguments and terms that will be used throughout the volume. Of particular import is her definition of foreign interventions, which she approaches from numerous angles. Schmidt makes certain to note that she is not merely speaking of political struggles but also intellectual and cultural ones on the continent (p. 2). In addition, for the purposes of her argument the very idea of foreignness refers to alien powers or states, not individuals, a necessary definition given the key role that individual revolutionaries and interventionists have played on the continent. Finally, she notes that “interventions” require an imbalance of power, a distinction from engagement, involvement, or influences (p. 2). So defined, Schmidt identifies foreign intervention on Africa as a phenomenon that has dogged the continent for centuries, from the Persian empire to the slave trade to the colonial subjugation of the nineteenth century, with each having its own mixture of political, economic, and cultural motivations. However, Schmidt quickly moves to the focus of the work: those interventions occurring in the post-World War II world and their political and military effects on the continent. Importantly, she also includes a section discussing the economic context in these periods and the key role that economic dependency has played within these interventions even to the present day.
Schmidt continues her strong foundation for the study with the first chapter, which offers a brief but thorough overview of the actors involved in the interventions on the continent through the years of decolonization and the Cold War. Critically, she divides the actors between two major categories: imperial actors and Cold War actors. While the decolonization of the continent occurred during the Cold War and the two phenomena are inextricably bound together, the motivations and strategies used by the two camps are distinct and must be recognized as such. From here, the powers are subdivided further, with Schmidt noting that individual powers had different capabilities and strategic goals throughout the periods covered. She completes this initial chapter with a quick overview of the case studies that will be presented in the following seven chapters.
Chapters 2 through 8 of the work then form the heart of the study, with each representing a geographically distinct exploration of the various military and political interventions that have been forced upon Africa. The initial case study, that of Egypt and Algeria from 1952 to 1973, does an excellent job illustrating the confluence of decolonization and the rapidly developing global Cold War. This is an especially welcome addition as it not only contextualized these same influences that occur in sub-Saharan Africa, but also tied together the global responses to these dynamics such as the nonaligned movement. The next chapter is devoted to the Congo from 1960 to 1965 and covers the wide array of foreign interventions that took place immediately following independence and that continue to affect that state in the present day. The next follows the parallel decolonization struggles across the Portuguese empire in Africa, tracing the liberation wars in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique from 1961 to 1975. Chapter 5 does a great deal of heavy lifting, covering the fierce struggles for African liberation from the white-minority regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. Of interest to many scholars will be the intersection of these struggles with US foreign policy and the proxy wars that were occurring in Angola and Mozambique at the time. Chapter 6 continues with a very dense overview of the struggles in the Horn of Africa from 1952 to 1993, a period that contained several Cold War political realignments and numerous inter- and intra-state wars in the region. Chapter 7 breaks with the regional focus, instead taking French intervention into its African colonies and former colonies from 1947 to 1991 as its singular focus. Given the unique cultural and political linkage that France fostered with its African possessions during and following the colonial era, this alteration in structure serves to focus the reader on the very anomalous history involved. The final chapter looks at the shifting dynamics of intervention on the continent from the end of the Cold War until the War on Terror. It is also worth noting that the order of the case studies has been well thought through, as it allows for chronological advancement without losing the regional focus that is so essential for a continent-wide study.
Schmidt then completes the volume with a brief conclusion containing four observations: that the interventionist powers attempted to mold decolonization to their own advantage; that the political, military, and economic interventions of the Cold War period have led to further bloody conflict on the continent; that the global War on Terror has remilitarized the continent and reinforced repressive regimes; and that on the whole, foreign interventions in Africa from 1945 to 2010 have done more harm than good. Given the previous chapters and the information presented within them, these are well supported and serve as an excellent summation of the importance of the work. If it can be said that this volume has any flaws, it is that given its continental span and tumultuous time periods, it can only choose a handful of case studies and even those it cannot delve too deeply into. However, Schmidt openly acknowledges this issue, noting that “these case studies represent only a fraction of the many instances of foreign intervention.… Rather than offering a comprehensive overview, they provide evidence of patterns that transcend time and place” (pp. 31-32). In addition, there are lengthy lists of suggested reading at the end of each chapter for those seeking more comprehensive understanding of the various case studies.
Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror is part of a new Cambridge series intending to offer starting points for new scholars to delve into topics that interest them. Given that goal, it must be said that it is a success. Its case studies are fleshed out enough to support Schmidt’s central thesis but without getting bogged down in details that might turn away budding academics. The prose itself is clear and crisp and will not present a barrier to the layperson. Overall, this book should be essential reading for all students of Africa, decolonization, or foreign military interventions. It is an invaluable introduction that will also hold new perspectives even for a veteran reader.
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Charlie Thomas. Review of Schmidt, Elizabeth, Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror.
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