African Americans Influence On American Foreign Policy Towards Africa

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This paper defines international relations; it says that each nation state pursues its national interests in the international arena; what constitutes a nation’s national interests is defined by many internal political actors including interest groups; the paper concludes by saying that African Americans work to get America’s foreign policy makers to see that Africa and its issues are relevant to America’s national interests hence take positive actions towards Africa.

African Americans Influence On American Foreign Policy Towards Africa


Ozodi Thomas Osuji


        What is foreign policy? Let us see if we can make sense of it in this brief paper. There are almost 200 countries in the extant world.  Like human beings these nations have to relate to each other. Human beings by the necessity of their being must relate to each other. Some people have what you do not have and you have what they do not have and the two of you must engage in some sort of economic relationship whereby you exchange goods and services. There must be a means of doing this exchange of goods and services (money).

        The nations of the world must relate to each other. Some nations have what this nation needs and this nation has what other nations do not have and the two engage in exchange relationships. In effect, each nation has needs and national interests that it is motivated to meet and protect. 

      The United States is a nation; it has national interests it needs to serve both domestically and internationally. Consider energy needs. America needs petrol to provide energy source to many aspects of her economy. That petrol comes from domestic drilling and some from external sources.  Where they come from externally is of interest to the United States for interruption of oil flow affects economic activity in the United States. Whether goods and services are produced and whether folks have jobs in America has to do, among other things, with the procurement of the sources of America’s energy needs. If the source is threatened the national interests of America is threatened and the leaders of the nation decide on the costs- benefits of going to war with whoever interrupts the energy source.

       Each country has national interests (which only it defines).  Each nation relates to other nations in pursuit of its national interests.  Each nation keeps an eye on its national interests as it relates to other nations. Thus, relationship with other nations is not a sentimental thing; it is a politically realistic thing, it is done with an eye to what serves the national interests.

      Historians tell us that the international arena is a jungle, an unregulated environment in which animals (in this case nation states) come to seek what they need. Powerful animals (nations) in the international arena, jungle, seek to get what they want at the expense of weaker ones.  As in nature in general in the international jungle where there is as of yet no civil government supervising all of it the law of the jungle reigns; that is, the strong prevail over the weak and a band of the weak try to checkmate the strong nation.

       In international relationships it is understood that power rules. Each nation, as in the wild, must have power. If a nation is not powerful other nations, those more powerful than it attacks it and takes over its territory. All extant nations were once belonging to other people until they were taken over by more powerful states.

       The entire North and South Americas used to belong to American Indians until more powerful Europeans took them. In North America, for example, the more powerful United States used power to take much of what used to be Spanish Mexico (and before you go crying for poor Mexico remember that Mexico, too, took its supposed land from Indians).

        If you look at each country in Europe you would see that at one time or another other people ruled it before powerful ones took over. Consider Britain.  When it entered history (when Rome conquered it in 27 BC and called it Britannia) it belonged to a band of primitive tribes called Celts.  Italians, that is, Romans took over Britain from the Celtic tribes. In 450 AD the Roman Empire fell.  Thereafter Germans rushed into Britain and took it over.  In the 700s Norwegians marauded all over Europe killing and plundering and eventually settled in parts of England (York), Ireland and France (Normandy). 

       The Norwegians in France absorbed French culture and in 1066 conquered Britain and took it over.  The point is that the more powerful always take over the territory of weaker people. You can look at the history of each European nation and you would find the same phenomenon at work.

        If you look at the History of Africa you find the same phenomenon at work. North Africa, for example, was taken over by Arabs in the early 700s and today those Arabs who actually are invaders from the Middle East call Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania Arab countries. The original Africans that lived there were pushed out or absorbed by Arabs. 

       Go to any country and do historical study and you would find the same phenomenon at work. Thus, scholars of international relations tell us that the international arena is a jungle where the powerful take from the weak.  This will continue until the entire world is organized as one country with one government ruling it.

        In the meantime each nation is aware that others could attack and take it over. Therefore, each nation struggles to have a strong military for it takes military to defend its territories. A nation without military to defend it and has what other nations want, such as gold, diamond and oil would be taken over by others (when gold and diamonds was discovered in certain parts of what is now called South Africa the British attacked and took it over from the Dutch Afrikaans who had settled there).  When gold was discovered in California the Mexicans were shunted aside as the Anglo Saxons took over.

        The point is that each nation that has what other nations want must protect its territory.  Nigeria has oil.  If the United States desperately needs oil it will simply drive off the thieves of Abuja and take the areas where oil is found in Nigeria.  This is called real politics (Edward Carr wrote extensively on real politics; he talked about practitioners of real politics such as   Metternich, Napoleon, Otto Von Bismarck etc.; in our time Henry Kissinger writes on real politics).

        Because of the fact that the international arena is an arena of lawlessness, attempts are made to sort of organize it and reduce the incidence of war. Nations always have treaties (bilateral or multilateral) with each other, treaties that   protect their mutual interests. 

       European history is full of several concerts whereby the great powers agreed to behave in a certain manner; this has been going on since 1648 when the treaty of Westphalia in Germany formed the nation states as we now know them. 

        With the end of the First World War a treaty (of Versailles) established what was called the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson, the American President came to the conference with what he called fourteen points plan to make the world over to democracy (interestingly, the United States Congress did not ratify the treaty that Wilson engineered).

       The League of Nations gave equal vote to all its members.  This is flawed for not all members are equal in military power.  Thus, the League could not prevent wars. 

       Thus we had the Second World War and at its end another treaty was drawn by the victorious allies at San Francisco, California transforming the moribund League to what is now called the United Nations.  The flaw in the organization of the League was corrected by making all members of the United Nations  equal in the General Assembly (each has one vote there) whereas in the Security Council only five countries are given the vote. The USA, Russia, China, England and France are the permanent members of the Security Council. The five great powers must agree before anything requiring force is done by the United Nations.

        The General Assembly, the rabble may vote all it wants but unless the five big powers agree nothing is going to be done by the United Nations. Consider what is going on in Syria. There, the unelected President Assad is killing his people.  The five powers do not see their national interests threatened. Syria has nothing that the US economy needs.  So the big five look way as the Syrian dictator murders his people, who cares?  But suppose America has vital national interests in Syria what do you think would happen?  If US national interests are threatened by Assad he would suffer some consequences for his action.

        International politics is not a sentimental thing; it is a cold blooded thing.  If you threaten the powerful they come after you and will get you. 

       The point is that the Security Council is supposed to decide when members’ national interests are threatened and arrange for some sort of peaceful settlement and if that fails shoot it out and the stronger prevails.  If major nations’ interests are not threatened the Security Council generally stays on the side line.

       Consider Rwanda where African tribes do what Africans always do, massacre each other.  The Hutus killed almost a million Tutsis and the international powers did nothing to stop them.  Pious statements about the need to respect human rights were made by the leaders of the world but the fact is that it costs money to send armies to another country for war and if there is nothing to gain from doing so why send that army?

        In Nigeria Igbos make noise and try to provoke their Hausa neighbors to kill them. When that happens they would learn the rude fact that no one would come to rescue them for they have nothing that the American or British economy needs. Seeing themselves as gods makes no difference in national calculations as to why a nation’s military should be sent to an African jungle to protect a people that have not contributed anything to science and technology hence are not seen as a treasure to mankind.

      Africans killing Africans do not make Europeans or Americans lose sleep. It is when people who are responsible for much of our science and technology are threatened that the nations of the world are aroused. When Europeans are killed the conscience of Americans are pricked and they may go to war to stop the killing (as in Bosnia) but certainly not when Africans are killed (they may not even hear about such killings, for African issues are generally ignored by the American media for they are deemed unimportant).

        Nations protect their intellectual interests, too; they know who is contributing to scientific ideas and who is not. Attack Israel and the United States would attack you. The reasons are obvious. Defense of Israel makes a difference as to whether new scientific ideas would be discovered in the future. This is reality not sentimentalism.


        Let me summarize what I have said so far. I have said that nation states like people have interests and that they organize to protect their national interests; I have said that much of international relations are the effort by nation states to protect their national interests, as they see them, not as you tell them about them. Treaties and international organizations were set up to organize the international arena making it less prone to war. Until there is one world government those multilateral treaties can be broken at any time; it takes force to protect treaties and where there is no force to protect them they are not worth the paper they are written on (many central American countries have taken the United Nations to the world court and won their cases but  there is no way of implementing such decisions, for it takes military threat to implement law and no country in our current world has the power to make threats to the United States of America).


        America began its history as a bunch of British colonies. In 1776 thirteen British colonies in North America (minus those that are now in Canada) seceded from their mother country. After a long, protracted war Britain recognized the independence of the USA.

       Like other countries the USA had national interests. Initially, her interest was in expanding westwards from its original Atlantic, East Coast base. As far as we know it was America’s intervention in Tripoli, Libya (then called Barbary Coast)to deal with pirates harassing foreign ships that marked the United States first incursion in none western hemispheric politics. 

       The United States bought the Louisiana territory from Napoleon in 1803 thus doubling the size of the country (Louisiana territory was the French part of North America, minus the territories France had ceded to Britain in 1763, such as what is now called Nova Scotia, then called Arcadia, huge land mass that now encompasses many southern states and the Mid-West). 

       With the mid-west in pocket America tried to expand westwards. President Thomas Jefferson financed Lewis and Clark’s visit to the Pacific Northwest (they got to the mouth of the Columbia River, now called Astoria, Oregon). 

       America decided to own what it called the Oregon territory (now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and other states).  In the meantime the British had its eyes on the same territory. The two was about to shoot it out when cool heads prevailed and the two had a conference in Paris and set their national boundary at the 49 latitude (where British Columbia, Canada and Washington State, USA borders each other). 

       America then set its eyes on Mexico’s vast territory in Texas and provoked a war and took it over. It provoked another war with Mexico and took over what is now called California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and other places from Mexico. 

        In 1898 the USA provoked a war with Spain with the cockamamie story that Spanish folks at Cuba fired at an American war ship and defeated Spain and took over Florida, Cuba, Porto Rico, The Philippines and other Spanish islands in the Pacific.  America also took Hawaii from its natives.

       You get the point; the emergent USA had military power and used it to take over the territories it had its eyes on and there was nothing you can do about it other than complain about it (or do what the Mexicans are now doing: cross the border...Mexicans are gradually retaking the South Western States of California, Arizona etc.; in those states Spanish is spoken as the peoples language!).

       Powerful America has the military to do all sorts of things and in the twentieth century was always intervening in Central American politics, removing governments it did not like (in 1823  President Monroe initiated what is called the Monroe Doctrine; it asked European powers not to meddle in the Americas, to essentially leave it as America’s backyard to control). Indeed, America ventured south and was involved in South American politics, removing such undesirable leaders (as defined by the United States, that is) as Allende in Chile. 

      You get the point: in international politics, despite what they teach you about law what prevails is the rule of the powerful.


       We all know how African Americans got to be in the United States.  The British led by Mr. Smith settled at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.  They worked the land by establishing tobacco plantations. They needed labor to work on their tobacco plantations and imported Africans in 1619.  Africans came to the USA as slaves.  Slave trade lasted from 1619 to the early 1800s. Britain abolished slave trade in 1807 and thereafter harassed ships ferrying slaves to the Americas, so America had to content itself with its domestic slave trading. In 1864 the civil war finally ended the business of enslaving human beings in the USA. (The slave trade continued in Brazil and late as 1900 British ships were parked on the coast of West Africa trying to capture slave ships shipping Africans sold by their fellow Africans to wherever slaves were needed in the world). 

        For our present purposes slave trade ended in the United States and African slaves became free men.

       Freed slaves, as I pointed out in previous papers in this series, struggled to survive in a still hostile environment.  The struggle for freedom continued until the 1964 landmark Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson.


        At no time during their enslavement in the Americas did Africans lose awareness of where they came from; they always knew that they came from West Africa.  They always concerned themselves with African issues even when as slaves they had no power to do anything about it.

        They followed the news regarding European colonization of Africa in the late 1800s; they paid close attention to the Conference at Berlin (1884) that Bismarck had called to ascertain the boundaries of their European territories in Africa; they watched with helplessness as the countries of Europe carved up Africa among themselves; what can they do? Nothing. The powerful rule the world!

       In the early twentieth century African Americans were involved in a titanic struggle to finally gain civil rights and be allowed to live in America as full citizens. In another paper I will review some of the landmark court rulings in this struggle. For now what is salient is that the brothers and sisters were involved in an epic struggle to be treated with human dignity.

        By the 1970s their struggle had paid off. It can now be said that the black man in America is, more or less, free (free at last and thank God Almighty, Martin Luther King said). Of course African Americans are not as free as the white man for after all America wants to make its prisons and jails the favorite housing programs for young black persons. 

       For our present purposes, African Americans are now full citizens of these United States of America.

      African Americans are interested in American foreign policy.  Like most Americans they keep their eyes on what Uncle Sam is up to. What is Uncle Sam now doing in Africa, they ask?  Who is he sticking it to over there?  You know “them white men do not feel happy unless they are screwing somebody!”

      In 1945 the Second World War ended with America and Russia the emergent superpowers; Germany, Britain and France lay in ruins.  The hobbled European powers wanted to reclaim their territories in Africa and Asia.  President Truman was not enthusiastic about it; he was not willing to provide those weak European countries with American military aid to go reestablish their power and control in Africa. He made it abundantly clear that he would rather France and Britain let go of their overseas colonies. Winston Church beat his chest to tell us how powerful he is but the fact was that he did not have the economic and military resources to return to the status quo.  Indeed, Britain and the other European countries relied on America’s Marshall Plan (economic aid) to resuscitate them from the ruins they had fought themselves to.

        Who knows how much role African Americans played in influencing President Truman’s foreign policy?

       In 1956 Britain and France wanted to take over the Suez Canal. African Americans, supporting President Nasser of Egypt, cried out against it and who knows the role they played in getting President Eisenhower to get Britain and France to let go of their military adventurism in the Middle East.

      We do not have clear records of what African Americans did to influence American foreign policy until the struggle for Africa’s independence emerged. There is no doubt whatsoever that African Americans tried as much as they could, given their still powerless status, to get America to work for Africans independence from their European powers. Their success or failure depended on what party was in power.

        The Republican Party tended to not listen to African Americans and tended to want the continuation of European rule in Africa; the Democratic Party, on the other hand, tended to be sympathetic to Africa Americans and therefore listened to their leaders wish for a free Africa. 

        African Americans played a historic role in the independence of African countries. The specific things they did in this regard have not been fully studied and ought to be studied.

      I am more informed on the role of African Americans in the struggle to liberate South Africa from white apartheid rule. As a college student in the 1970s and 1980s I saw the role played by African American leaders, such as Reverend Sullivan and Jesse Jackson in pushing America’s administrations to support the anti-apartheid struggles. I witnessed their struggle to get Congress to pass sanctions against Pretoria and Ronald Reagan’s duplicitous “constructive engagement” with South Africa. 

      African Americans lobbied for the freedom of South Africa and Africans ought to give thanks to them for their unheralded help in that monumental struggle to free our people from white oppression.




        American foreign policy is made by the joint action of the American President and Congress.  Either of the two can initiate a proposed foreign policy and bargain with the other for support. In America nothing gets done unless the President and key members of Congress agree on it. Congress funds all foreign adventures and since it has the power over the purse and foreign adventures cost money whoever wants to get America to do so something overseas must get congressional blessing.

      American foreign policy shifts between two polar opposites: isolationism and interventionism.  There are forces in America that would rather America did not get itself involved in foreign affairs and simply managed its internal affairs. Those forces opposed America’s intervention in both world wars. On the other hand, there are forces in America that want America to intervene in foreign affairs. These days the Neoconservative group would America’s unprecedented military power is employed to reshape the world in America’s image; those folks were responsible for the preemptive war in Iraq, a war that was not funded by Congress and money was borrowed to fight it.

      We live in an interconnected world, a global village; what other countries do affects America. So like it or not America must be engaged in international affairs; she must have foreign policies.

        Forces seeking to influence US foreign policy target key members of Congress (those in the House Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example) and lobby them.  To the extent that interest groups can exercise power over key congressmen to that extent they get their goals and objectives served.

       The Jewish lobby, for example, has money and resources to lobby key congressmen. Thus, they generally sway Congress to support Israel.  There is even line item money for Israel in the US budget.  How much? Let us just say that the US spends more money on Israel, a nation of six million people, than it spends on all of Africa, a continent of almost a billion people.  Why so? The Jewish nation has a lot of supporters in America.

      African nations are weak and poor and African Americans are not rich so they do not have the resources to literally buy Congressional votes to get the US to give aid to Africa. Nevertheless, African Americans are doing their best to get Congress to extend foreign aid to Africa.

      Interestingly, the first African American President of the USA, Barack Obama, has not shown any interest in African affairs; his spending on Africa pales in comparison to President George Bush.  Amazing, isn’t it?  Obama is a mystery but we shall leave him alone; one does not expect much from him; his mere presence as a black man in the white house is perhaps the only gift he is capable of giving to the black world. He has now made it possible for black children to aim at becoming the President of the United States; perhaps one such future black President would deliver substantial political and economic benefits to black folks and to Africans.




         In sum, nation states have foreign policies that aim at protecting their vital national interests. In its internal politics interest groups work to define what constitutes the nation’s vital national interests. African Americans have worked to convince other Americans that doing well by Africa are in America’s national interests. 


Ozodi Thomas Osuji

April 27, 2012





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