Will UK leaders engage more with Africa?
UK foreign and defence interest in Africa has grown, but is challenged by capacity constraints and political inertia heightened by Brexit. Yet, there is a UK generational and strategic renewal under way in relation to foreign policy issues including Africa, especially around soft power. But it is far from clear if this will emerge post-Brexit and lead to a resurgence of influence for the UK in Africa.
From a UK diplomatic and defence perspective, Africa has risen on the UK agenda in recent years, albeit from a very low base. For decades Africa was generally seen as either an irrelevant basket case or development project. There is now growing recognition that in a world of renewed multipolar competition, the support of African states is valuable to the UK. Moreover, there is an emerging generation of leadership inside the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that has significant Africa experience.
Just as there was once a probably overblown perception that ‘Arabists’ dominated decision-making and thought in the FCO, there is now an ‘Africanist’ contingent. This by definition brings a greater awareness of the opportunities and threats that this complex and diverging continent represents for the UK. Africa controls almost a third of UN General Assembly votes, and soon it will provide 40% of the world’s population.
UK security and defence policy similarly reflects a growing appreciation of the expanding traditional and non-traditional threats to the UK rooted in one part of Africa or another, whether in relation to migration, climate change, public health, terrorism, or transnational crime. This is demonstrated in UK government policy. The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review and the 2018 National Security Capability Review both highlighted those threats, along with some opportunities offered by African states.
Post-Brexit, barring a widespread economic or political crisis in the UK or large parts of Africa, this trend of a steady moderation in UK foreign and defence perspectives is likely to continue. There will be an ongoing differentiation of policy towards those countries and regions moving towards or through middle income status, in contrast to regions or countries deemed as ‘failing’, or simply poor.
Within this, three linked factors are likely to drive the nature of UK diplomacy in Africa: the UK’s wider international position and direction, its capacity and appetite in Africa, and the alternative soft power relationships emerging for African states.
The UK’s wider international position
The UK’s wider international position sits at the very heart of the challenges currently facing the country. While much is beyond the scope of this article, underneath the rather sclerotic top level politics in the UK, a fundamental shift is under way in wider government, both generationally and in worldview, that may tend towards a deeper engagement with African issues. This is due in part to a period of 20 years or so when new and less reductive perspectives on Africa issues were making their way into mainstream policy debate in the UK. But it is also a function of a growing awareness of the fundamental cultural, demographic, technological, and other shifts under way globally, and an appetite for the UK post-Brexit to be more proactive in optimising these shifts for the benefit of the UK.
In some respects, foreign and defence bureaucrats and younger politicians seem more aware of these shifts than the mainstream media or thought leaders. Yet it is the current political impasse which is ironically creating space for more imaginative and focused longer term thinking. Whether it will emerge in policy post-Brexit is unclear and dependent on many factors, but if there is significant generational leadership change it will likely favour a strong foreign and defence focus on those parts of Africa, such as the Sahel, which pose the greatest challenges, as well as on regions, such as East Africa, that are at the heart of renewed multilateral competition.
Capacity and appetite in Africa
Despite recent Brexit-related increases in funding, including the reopening of small UK diplomatic posts in Lesotho and Swaziland, the UK Foreign Office has suffered long-term decline, not just in network size, but also in language skills and its London-based analytical, administrative, and policy functions. In recent years, its Africa footprint and staffing has moderately improved in relation to other regional networks, but it remains stretched to cover its largest geographic region in a substantive way. Smaller posts, in particular, are highly dependent on the quality of the diplomats running them, which brings inevitable variability in performance. The trend towards appointing younger diplomats to ambassadorial positions has particular challenges in African states where age and authority are closely intertwined.
Defence is similarly resource-challenged in the UK, with the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan still hanging heavily over considerations of potential expeditionary deployments of the type probably required were the UK to wish to project power unilaterally in most of Africa. On the flip side, there is growing awareness of the value of defence engagement, as set out in the UK’s 2017 Defence Engagement Strategy. This has led to the increased deployment of small numbers of military personnel to support regional and local peace, security, and stabilisation efforts. This culminated in the UK’s contribution of significant numbers of military personnel in support of UN peacekeeping in Somalia and Sudan, a decision that reversed decades of UK avoidance of direct contributions of forces to UN missions. Again, resources allowing such actions will likely be expanded post-Brexit. However in relation to both diplomacy and defence, the loss of the multilateral burden-sharing opportunities offered by EU membership will place far greater onus on the UK to commit its own resources to compensate. At present it is far from clear whether there is the appetite to do so. The alternative is accelerating diminution of UK influence post-Brexit, when influence will be greatly required.
Soft power relationships with African states
The third driver is the likely alternatives for Africa and the soft power that often mediates these. Alternatives are expanding as rival and emerging powers court African states, which themselves have ever fewer emotional reasons for aligning with the UK on any particular issue. The UK’s recent loss of key votes at the UN, among others, on the contested Chagos Islands, and the loss of its seat on the UN International Court of Justice – for the first time in over 70 years – were real wake-up calls for a country that had assumed it commanded more support internationally. African states played key roles in deciding both these matters.
Post-Brexit the challenge will grow, as EU member states deepen and advance their own collective interests, sometimes at odds with the UK position. Much of the groundwork for diplomatic engagement in Africa, as elsewhere, is provided by that steady drumbeat of social, cultural, and sporting interactions emanating from a range of formal and informal networks. Perhaps most important of these are links of family and personal familiarity.
Historically the UK has benefitted significantly in large parts of Africa, particularly Commonwealth countries, from providing educational, business, and leisure opportunities for future decision-makers to spend time in the UK. At 58, more world leaders have studied in the UK than in any other country, a significant number of them from Africa. The opportunity and encouragement to visit the UK for business has built deep relationships and familiarity that are the basis for common perspectives on global issues. UK institutions – from the BBC World Service to the British Council, Premier League, Formula One, and British fashion and music – have played an outsized role in securing a sympathetic hearing for UK diplomats and positions.
Yet the continuing power of all these sources of influence is now somewhat in the balance for a number of reasons. The signals being sent internationally on whether the UK is still a welcoming destination for study, business, or leisure are mixed at best. The long-term impact of this is unclear. The nature and quality of support for business and cultural institutions to continue, let alone expand their international ambitions depends upon a delicate balance of leadership, support, and encouragement, which appears at present insufficient or absent as the UK government grapples with Brexit.
Challenge of leadership
This leadership challenge sits at the heart of all three of the factors outlined above and applies to issues of foreign and domestic policy far wider than Africa. But it has a special resonance in relation to UK policy towards such a complex and fast changing continent which is likely to pose so many challenges as well as bring opportunities for the UK and the wider international system in the coming decades. As noted above, there are specific reasons for believing that a renewal in UK strategic thinking is under way, if largely hidden from view, and that individuals with an understanding of Africa are active in such discussions. African issues certainly won’t drop off the agenda, whatever changes are under way in the UK. But whether a real revitalisation of UK engagement with African states is possible or even likely is unclear at present. Much depends on how economic and democratic issues in the UK play out after 2020. In an era of unprecedented and growing volatility, in the UK and the world, some deep and profound uncertainties remain that will be vital in determining the impact of UK policies towards Africa.
About the author
Tom Cargill is executive director of the British Foreign Policy Group, a new not-for-profit organisation committed to improving the quality of national debate on the UK’s international position and choices.