This Week’s Top 5 Picks in International History and Diplomacy

Image result for The Retreat of African Democracy foreign affairs BAZ RATNER / REUTERS

(Image: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The Retreat of African Democracy

Nic Cheeseman and Jeffrey Smith

Foreign Affairs

In the decade following the Cold War, Africa saw many democratic success stories. In 1991, Benin and Zambia became the first former dictatorships to hold multiparty elections after the fall of the Soviet Union. In both countries, the opposition beat the incumbents. In 1994, South Africa replaced apartheid with majority rule, and soon after that, Nelson Mandela was elected president. Later that decade, Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi also held elections and saw power change hands. All told, by the middle of the first decade of this century, every major peaceful state in Africa except Eritrea and Swaziland, the continent’s last absolute monarchy, was, at least in principle, committed to holding competitive elections.

But in recent years, Africa’s political trajectory has begun moving in the opposite direction. In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has clamped down on the opposition and censored the media. His Zambian counterpart, President Edgar Lungu, recently arrested the main opposition leader on trumped-up charges of treason and is seeking to extend his stay in power to a third term. This reflects a broader trend. According to Freedom House, a think tank, just 11 percent of the continent is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance shows that democratic progress lags far behind citizens’ expectations. The vast majority of Africans want to live in a democracy, but the proportion who believe they actually do falls almost every year. (Read more)


How Britain embraced referendums, the tool of dictators and demagogues

Robert Saunders

The Economist

With the possible exceptions of race, sex and Theresa May’s dancing, no subject has inspired more hysteria in British politics than the referendum.

In 1945 Clement Attlee denounced it as “alien to all our traditions” and an “instrument of Nazism”. Harold Wilson, the prime minister who would hold Britain’s first national referendum in 1975, had previously dismissed the idea as “contrary to our traditions” and “not a way in which we can do business”, scoffing that a referendum would probably abolish the income tax. His Conservative opponent, Margaret Thatcher, called the referendum “a device of dictators and demagogues” that would be dangerous to minorities and destructive of parliamentary sovereignty. (Read more)


What can history tell us about the future of international relations?

Georg Sørensen and Jørgen Møller

OUP Blog

According to Cicero, history is the teacher of life (historia magistra vitae). But it seems fair to say that history has not been the teacher of International Relations. The study of international relations was born 100 years ago to make sense of the European international system, which had just emerged from four years of warfare. Ever since, the field has remained remarkably Eurocentric. Virtually all major theories have been formulated to understand the international system that arose in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and expanded to become the first ever global state systemin the 19th and the 20th centuries.

At the same time, however, many international relations theories have much wider pretentions. Take the most influential of all such theories, Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism. Waltz’s most general insight is that sustained domination by one power in international relations is a near impossibility because power accumulation in one state triggers efforts at emulation by other states (internal balancing) and the formation of hostile coalitions (external balancing). Waltz derived this insight from the European and later global state system, which for a thousand years has seen repeated attempts of long-term domination fall through due to balancing. But Waltz holds that this generalization applies “through all centuries we can contemplate.” This is neatly illustrated by his famous analogy that “[a]s nature abhors a vacuum, so international politics abhors unbalanced power.” (Read more)


The Fable of the Fourteen Points

Matthew Wills


On January 19th, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference got underway. It was an effort to formally end the Great War and remake the world. Waiting in the wings of the conference were representatives from around the world eagerly awaiting the manifestation of Woodrow Wilson’s supposedly ringing endorsement of “self-determination,” the ability of groups of people to form their own states and choose their own governments.

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June of 1919, it was clear that Wilsonian self-determination wasn’t actually all that real. All of the colonial powers except for defeated Germany remained. Hopes for independence in Ireland, India, Asia, and Africa were dashed. The Ottoman Empire, brought down in part by promises of independence to the Arabs, would be chopped up into “mandates” of Britain and France. (Read more)


A Primer on the Geopolitics of Oil

Anand Toprani

War on the Rocks

Last year was a wild one for the oil industry. Between January and October, oil prices rose to almost $80 per barrel — a 25 percent increase since the start of the year — thanks to fears stemming from Washington’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. In the months that followed, due to increased U.S. shale oil production, weak consumer demand, fears over the future global economic outlook (exacerbated by the prospect of a Sino-U.S. trade war), the Trump administration’s decision to authorize waivers to various countries to continue importing Iranian oil, and the inability of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia to cut production sufficiently, prices cratered. This collapse wiped out any earlier gains and, combined with the threat of U.S. anti-trust legislation, has called into question the future of OPEC. Qatar, a marginal oil producer but the holder of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, even chose to leave OPEC.

At a time like this, it is tempting to think that oil will finally become just another commodity rather than one of the most important factors in global geopolitics. The experience of the past century would suggest that some caution is in order before strategists denigrate oil’s future significance. Oil will remain the world’s single largest source of energy for the foreseeable future, and the balance between global supply and demand remains perilously narrow. A major disruption in just a single major oil producer could send prices skyrocketing again and quickly push the world into a recession. (Read more)


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