Theoretical Approaches to Africa’s International Relations
Thomas Kwasi Tieku, University of Toronto
How can we think theoretically about Africa’s international relations? Can extant International
Relations (IR) theories help us to understand Africa’s international relations? Or do scholars of
Africa’s International Relations (AIR) need a new theory or theories to capture Africa’s reality? 1
Discussions of these questions are long overdue yet seldom explored.2 This chapter seeks to
provide a preliminary assessment of the above questions arguing that though mainstream IR
theories provide useful pointers for studying and understanding Africa’s international relations,
the individualist worldview that drive these theories constrain them from providing
comprehensive explanation of key aspects of Africa’s international affairs.
To illustrate the above claims, the chapter divide the extant IR literature into two
categories, the rational utilitarian approaches and the sociological perspectives. Central claims
made by the two approaches are assessed against empirical evidence from Africa. The chapter
shows that the two perspectives are helpful in many ways but they are built on individualist
worldview which exaggerates the significance of competitive and self-centred international
practices and experiences while simultaneously peripheralizing collectivist international life,
such as consensual decision-making, group preferences formation, and solidarity behaviour
which are ubiquitous feature of Africa’s international life. The individualist orientations of both
approaches, which normally renders invisible the significance of international practices and
experiences of Africans, prevent their derivative theories from providing clear answers, and in
some chances, useful pointers to key questions in Africa’s international relations.
A good theoretical account of Africa’s international relations must at the very least
recognise that Africa’s international relations is distinct from international politics of the so-
called great powers which has been the main focus of traditional IR. It is distinct in the sense that
it is not driven by power, and individualist ideas. Africa’s international relations is however not
exceptional. Some of its key features are found elsewhere in the world though mainstream IR
scholars have elected to peripheralise or ignore them in their account of what constitute
international relations. For instance, consensual decision-making is a common feature of
international politics of Asian states, Latin American countries, United Nations system, and even
the politics of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet few mainstream IR scholars
recognise its existence let alone examine its impact on politics. It is unlikely that deeper insights
of Africa’s international relations can be gained if you ignore the impact of consensual decision-
making. Indeed, any theory that will help answer key questions in Africa’s IR must
accommodate at least three key collective traits, that is, group preferences formation, consensual
decision-making procedures, and solidarity principle that are the central referent of Africa’s
1 I used the uncapped phrase Africa’s international relations to mean the object of study and its capped version
Africa’s International Relations (AIR) to mean the field of study.
2 The exception is Kevin C. Dunn, and Timothy M. Shaw (2001).
The next section examines theories that come under the broad category of rational
utilitarian perspectives, noting that rational utilitarian insights are helpful in many ways. Some of
the structural and material forces highlighted by utilitarian theorists are useful background
conditions for exploring inter-state relations in Africa. Like most theories, rational utilitarian
theories have their limitations and the next section highlights them.
The Rational Utilitarian Approach
The rational utilitarian approach explains international relations including Africa’s with a core
assumption that governments have similar preferences for material concerns, such as
maintenance of territorial independence of their states, security guarantees, military power,
international prestige and economic domination (Keohane and Nye, 2000; Brooks and
Wohiforth, 2001; Pedersen, 2002; Biersteker, 1998; Senarclens, 1998; Barker and Mander,
2000). These material preferences are almost fixed, and the goal of every public official is to
ensure that their states achieve the optimal outcome of their material interests.
In order to ensure that their states maximize their preferences, governments engage in
cost-benefits analysis. Since governments are utility maximizers, they always choose the option
that provides the optimal means to these material ends. Therefore, the second key assumption of
the rational utilitarian approach is that governments are efficient choosers who make decisions
through a careful calculation and examination of different lines of actions. In a technical sense,
the utilitarian perspective suggests that governments are homo economicus, and act primarily to
maximize their utility. In plain IR language, governments are rational egoistic actors who act
principally to achieve their optimal material preferences.
Theorists of IR who employ the utilitarian logic also recognize that governments are
aware that their states do not exist in isolation. As a result, utilitarian IR analysts also assume
that governments pursue their material interests by taking into consideration the environment in
which their states operates (Waltz, 1979; Gilpin, 1987; Keohane, 1984; Krasner, 1982).
Structural properties that most utilitarian scholars find useful are international anarchy (the
absence of centralized international government), global market competition and transnational
economic processes. For most utilitarian theorists, the international system in which states are
embedded impacts heavily on governments’ actions and decisions.
Based on the above insights, many utilitarian theorists suggest that theoretical analysis of
intentional relations should begin with an examination of international configurations of powers,
actors, and institutions (Hurrell, 1995; Cox, 1981; Krasner <insert year>; Mearsheimer 1990;
Walt, 1987). For a majority of utilitarian theorists, the best way to understand international
affairs of any continent is to look at it from the “outside in” (Hurrell, 1995; Neumann, 1994).
The position it is located in the global power structure will determine its international relations.
Actors embedded in peripheral regions such as those in Africa are acted upon and their
behaviours are often dictated by actions of regions that house powerful actors in the international
There is, however, a disagreement in the literature over the exact material interests (i.e.,
the utility) that governments seek to maximize. While some theorists believe a desire for
military power is the key causal variable, others emphasize economic interests. The disagreement
has led to four major lines of theorizing. These are: rational state power theories (the realist
family — i.e., neo-realism, regime theory, hegemonic stability theory, voice opportunity theory);
economic interests theories (the liberal family — i.e., neo-liberal institutionalism, transnational
theory, and pluralist domestic interests theory); and preference convergence theory, or what
some call liberal intergovernmental theory.3
The above theories offer good pointers to the behaviour of African states especially
during the Cold War but they are weak when it comes to explaining relations between African
states themselves. Hierarchy of power is a determining factor in Africa’s interactions with the
rest of the world but it is not the most defining factor in inter-Africa relations. The Pan-African
national character rejects power as a basis for international relations. As I. William Zartman
pointed out, the African ruling class not only “rejects relations on the basis of power”; it is also a
national character of almost all African states to “reject power as a basis for international
relations.” 4 Besides, reverence for the elderly makes it difficult for Africa’s military and
economic power houses such as South Africa to use them to lord it over other African countries.
Indeed, South Africa is still considered a baby. The most effective power resource babies have is
the power to persuade not the carrot and stick power that utilitarian theorists highlight.
The African region lacks secondary states (regional hegemons) capable of providing
sufficient incentives and/or threats to induce other African governments to act in a particular
way.5 None of the African states is influential enough to qualify as a secondary state though
some analysts of area studies occasionally engage in conceptual stretching by referring to
relatively wealthy African states as hegemons. The relatively well endowed and big African
states encounter great difficulties much of the time in turning their size and wealth into effective
Two obvious reasons account for the inability of the relatively wealthy countries to have
assertive influence over other African states, particularly in multilateral forums. First, besides the
fact that the relatively wealthy and big states in Africa have their own serious internal political
and social problems, none of the prospective hegemons has the resources and clout to provide the
incentives that regional hegemons (secondary states) in Europe like Germany, France and Britain
are able to give to their smaller counterparts. These African states have neither the economic
resources to provide side payments and continental public goods, nor the required power to set,
maintain and enforce regime rules. Second and more importantly, due to the influence of
colonialism, Cold War politics, and the attraction of ideas about imperialism, resentment against
powerful states runs deep in the thinking of elites in Africa. Not only does the resentment drive
African ruling elites to often mobilize against any hegemonic seeker, but makes it hard for
relatively big and wealthy African states to get support for their positions.
3 I omitted functionalism/neo-functionalism and its spill over hypothesis from the review because the theory was not
developed to answer questions the chapter seeks to answer. The theory primarily seeks to help us understand
increases in supranational authourity. Some IR scholars have caricatured and manipulated the theory in order to
make their case. I eliminated it from the review to avoid the temptation of falling prey to such an exercise.
4 For a discussion of how a ‘rejection of power’ forms the bedrock of international relations in Africa, see William
5 Hegemon used here refers to a dominant state(s).
6 See for instance, Clapham, (1996) and William Zartman, (1967).
The near deterministic logic and the weak role accorded African agency raise more
questions than it provides answers. Rational utilitarian approach tells us little about the
formation of interests and preferences among African states. All the literature pre-socially
assigned interests of African governments. But as many IR scholars have long maintained, the
processes through which preferences are formed have enormous impact on the behaviour and
actions of actors (Légro, 1996).
Rational utilitarian approach de-emphasises the role ideas play in Africa’s interntional
relations. This neglect is surprising for two reasons in particular. But mounting evidence in the
social science (cognitive psychology, sociology and political science) literature shows that ideas
have profound effects on the course of events. Empirical evidence emerging from the
sociological strand of IR literature indicates that ideas that actors hold affect how they define
their interests in the first place; ideas are also known to provide guidelines for human action and
behaviour (Onuf, 1989; Wendt, 1989; Kratochwil, 1989; Katzenstein, 1996). They do so “by
stipulating causal patterns,” by “imply[ing] strategies for the attainment of goals,” and “by
providing compelling ethical or moral motivations for action” (Goldstein and Keohane, 1993).
Thus, in addition to providing lenses for actors to define and understand their interests, ideas
show actors ways to pursue the interests they have identified. 7
The failure of the literature to account for ideas suggests that additional analytical tools
are needed to provide a comprehensive account of Africa’s international relations. The approach
that can carry the analytical burden should at a minimum have the analytical tools to account for
the formation of interests and preferences of African governments. African leaders’ perceptions
of their interests are often structured by ideas. Ideas may also provide the intellectual framework
for African states to interpret the institutional choices available. This observation, however,
leads me straight out of the rationalistic paradigm and into the complex web of sociological
The Sociological Perspective
The sociological perspective suggests two steps to explain Africa’s international
relations. The first component directs us to examine preference formation of actors in Africa’s
sub- system. Many sociological scholars pay attention to preference formation because they
believe that the process through which actors construct their interests has enormous influence on
their behaviours and political outcomes. The second aspect encourages us to look at the
The sociological literature contends that actors do not pursue extant interests that grow
automatically out of structural arrangements, material conditions and unanticipated events. They
argue that preferences that political actors pursue are socially constructed (Onuf, 1989; Wendt,
1989; Kratochwil, 1989; Katzenstein, 1996). For many sociological theorists, preferences of
political actors are constructed through social interactions.
7 For a review of this literature, see Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “Taking Stock: The Constructivist
Research Program in International Relations and Comparative Politics,” Annual Review of Political Science, 4
(2001), pp. 391-416.
Although the concept of ‘social interaction’ is not without its substantive and operational
imprecision, it is used analytically by many IR sociological scholars to mean a mutually oriented
relationship between two or more people that takes the other self into account (Checkel, 2003).
The phrase social is employed specifically to indicate that interactions mutually oriented towards
each others’ selves have meaningful causal influence on preference formation. Interactions that
shape, define and redefine interests of agents are those that take account of each other’s
subjective experiences, emotions, thoughts, and/or intentions (Rummel, 1976).
Social interactions, the sociological perspective claims, influence preference formation in
three major ways. First, social interaction provides a place for social learning and socialization.
Second, social interaction provides a forum for actors to develop intersubjective understanding
of meaning. For many (but certainly not all) sociological IR theorists, actors acquire new
interests and preferences through social interactions even in the absence of obvious material
incentives.8 Third and perhaps more important, social interactions generate ideas that help actors
to understand their environment and to identify the different options available (Sikkink, 1991;
Adler, 1991; Hall, 1993; Bernstein, 2002; Finnemore and Sikkink, 1999).
Many sociological theorists argue that actors’ ability to identify various options and to
select some as preferences is dependent on the stock of ideas they hold (Risse et. al, 1999;
Bernstein, 2000; Klotz, 2002; Risse-Kappen, 1995; Boli and Thomas, 1999; Wapner and Rulz,
2000; Keck and Sikkink, 1998; Thomas, 2001). Ideas, defined as beliefs that actors hold, are of
three kinds (Goldstein and Keohane, 1993). They are worldviews, principled ideas and causal
ideas (Goldstein and Keohane, 1993). Worldviews are the taken-for-granted cognitive paradigms
or axioms that enable actors to interpret events and to identify and perceive occurrences (O’Neill
et. al, 2004). These ideas define the universe of possibilities for action. Causal ideas, which are
lenses that organize and simplify experiences for actors, serve as guides to human action
(Marble, 2002). They guide human behaviour “by stipulating causal patterns or causal road
map,” and by “imply[ing] strategies for the attainment of goals” (Goldstein and Keohane, 1993).
Principled ideas, which are referred to in the literature as norms, are shared standards of
appropriate behaviour that a community of actors holds. Principled ideas “distinguish right from
wrong and just from unjust and also provide compelling ethical or moral motivations for action”
(Goldstein and Keohane, 1993).
Ideas, of course, “do not float freely”; they require agents and a congenial environment to
be causally effective (Checkel, 2002). Ideas usually require political entrepreneurs to select and
market them. In general, the literature suggests that ideas that are likely to have meaningful
impacts on the preferences of actors are those that:
• Resonate with widely accepted normative frameworks (Keck and Sikkink, 1998);
• Demonstrate that adhering to them serves broader goal of actors (Moravesik, 2001;
Goldstein and Keohane, 1993);
• Show the existence of general incentives to comply (Checkel, 2000 and 2003);9
8 Note, however, these scholars concede that the social as well as the material forces shape political outcome. See
Jeffrey Checkel, “Social Construction and European Integration” (2001).
9 Jeffrey T. Checkel, “Going Native’ In Europe? Theorizing Social Interaction in European Institutions,”
Comparative Political Studies 36:12 (2003), pp. 213; Jeffrey Checkel, “Social Construction and Integration,”
• Are presented to actors who are in a new environment, or are cognitively uncertain about
the appropriate way to respond to a changing environment (Johnston, 2001; Gheciu
• Are presented in front of small and private audiences (Checkel, 2000 and 2001);
• Are presented by political entrepreneurs perceived as knowledgeable about an issue and
whose intentions are perceived as trustworthy (Lupia, 1994; Johnston, 2001);
• Reinforce a belief of an actor or are consistent with prior evidence of which an actor is
aware (Morasevik, 2001).
Based on the above insights, scholars who employ this perspective contend that actors are
homo sociologicus, who are governed by “a logic of appropriateness” (LOA) in their mode of
action (March and Olsen, 1998). The logic of appropriateness means that actors are motivated by
a desire to do the right thing; they take a particular course of action not because of external
material sanctions and/or rewards. Rather, they pursue the course of action because they think it
is right. As March and Olsen point out, the LOA implies that:
behaviors (beliefs as well as actions) are intentional but not willful. They involve
fulfilling the obligations of a role in a situation, and so of trying to determine the
imperatives of holding a position… Within a logic of appropriateness, a sane person is
one who is ‘in touch with identity’ in the sense of maintaining consistency between
behavior and a conception of self in a social role (March and Olsen, 1989; Sending,
The LOA comprises three main ideas. They are: situation, role/identity and rules.
According to the LOA, actors ask a series of questions before taking a particular course of
action. The questions are: What is my situation? Who am I? How appropriate are the different
courses of actions for me? How is an actor in my role and with my identity supposed to act?
(Fearon and Wendt, 2001; Sending, 2004).
For the great majority of sociological scholars, actors are rule-followers who act out of
habit, and they usually choose the course of action that they consider appropriate. This is not to
deny that preferences of actors are sometimes driven primarily by consequential reasons. The
point is that, all things being equal, actors will usually opt for the appropriate course of action.
The great merit of this aspect of the sociological literature is its ability to provide a
framework for explaining preferences of actors and the light it sheds on the importance of
worldview in IR scholarship. However, the IR sociological literature is silent on ideational
effects on international institutional change.10 The IR sociological research program neglects to
investigate why states create consequential international institutions in places other than Western
Europe and the advanced industrial world. As Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein
recently noted, the empirical research programme of mainstream IR theorists concentrates on “a
small pool of successful Western institutions, such as NAFTA and the EU” (Hemmer and
ARENA Working Papers WP 98/14 (2000). Available online at http://www.arena.uio.no/publications/wp98.
Accessed on March 20 2003.
10 The ongoing collaborative works by Riise and others(2004), Checkel’s works on EU and that of McNamara are
Besides and as reviewers of the literature correctly pointed out, the “influence of
ideational forces on actor preference formation… remains vague … [and] underspecified”
(O’Neill et. al, 2004). There is also a dearth of literature that systematically demonstrates, in a
concrete fashion, the specific ideas that animate preference formation. In other words, how
exactly do idea(s) influence actors to choose say A over B?
The sociological research program has provided little systematically tests of the validity
of many of this claim (Payne, 2001; Deitelhoff and Müller, 2005). The few empirical works that
have emerged are focus primarily either on the impact of international norms on domestic
political outcomes, or on how domestic politics help/ impede the diffusion of international norms
(Risse, Ropp and Sikkink, 1996; Risse, 2000; Ruggie, 1998; Checkel, 2001). Only a few of the
mainstream IR sociological works even examine the impact of causal ideas on political outcomes
(McNamara, 1998; Marcussen, 2002; Parsons, 2002; Marble, 2002). The emphasis placed by
analysts of the sociological approaches on international norms has led to the neglect of
systematic analysis of the role of ideas that “are deeply rooted in other types of social entities –
regional…and subnational groups” (Acharya, 2004; Légro, 1997). Sociological scholars ignore
ideas embedded in these entities because they see norms “as … global ‘oobleck’ that covers the
planet” and “affects… all [actors] in the same way” (Keck and Sikkink, 1998). The few
ideational analysts who do not subscribe to the universalistic view are “so concerned with
detailing the variations in local reaction[s]” to international norms that they lose sight of regional
and sub-regional ideational and normative fabrics (Keck and Sikkink, 1998).
Ingredients for Theorising Africa’s IR
The neglect of regional normative fabrics limits the applicability of sociological in the African
context. Indeed, no theoretical account of Africa’s international relations will be complete
without taken into serious consideration of a regional African norm called the Pan-African
solidarity norm. Briefly, the Pan-African solidarity norm is a widespread belief among African
ruling elites that the proper and ethically acceptable behaviour of Africa’s political elites is to
demonstrate a feeling of oneness and support towards other Africans, at least in public. This
feeling of ‘we-ness,’ or public show of support, among African leaders goes “beyond the merely
rhetorical level” to impose “on African rulers a sense that, at any rate, they ought to act in
harmony.”11 The solidarity norm not only discourages African leaders from disagreeing with
each other in public; it also puts “pressure on the rulers of individual African states not to step
out of line over issues where a broad continental consensus had been established” (Clapham,
1996). The norm was developed “at the first [Session] of OAU Council of Ministers [held in]
Lagos” in 1963 (Thompson and Zartman, 1975).
The norm has profound impact on Africa’s international relations. The norm’s
expectation that African political elites must at all times work together in harmony and
11 This understanding of solidarity norm comes from Christopher Clapham’s discussion of politics of solidarity and
Ali Mazrui’s analysis of the concept of “we are all Africans”. Christopher Clapham, Africa and the International
System: The Politics of State Survival, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Ali Mazrui, “On the
Concept of ‘We Are All Africans’,” The American Political Science Review, LVII: 1 (March, 1963), pp. 88-97; and
Ali Mazrui, Towards a Pax Africana: A Study of Ideology and Ambition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
cooperatively at the continental level put ethical pressure on African governments to seek a
compromised position. African governments often sacrifice interests and preferences of their
states in order to conform to the norm’s expectation. Moreover, the norm usually provides road
map for appropriate and inappropriate courses of action. The norm not only encourages African
political elites to show loyalty in public to continental unity; it also makes it hard for those elites
to oppose openly an issue that commands broad support. Decision making is often made easy by
the self regulation of the norm. It is the powerful effect of the norm that allows African states to
develop common positions on crucial international issues. It often encourages Africa
governments to engage in block voting in at international forums. Indeed it dictates actions of
African governments in international politics especially in the absence of obvious material
Though earlier IR sociological theorists highlighted the central role of worldview in IR
scholarship, the sociological research program has failed to examine the impact of worldview in
international relations. Norms and causal ideas are the central referent of the sociological
research program. Like their utilitarian counterparts, leading IR sociological researchers are very
American and European centric. The focus on few Western empirical turfs where individualist
worldview dominates social structures and on norms and causal ideas has led to the neglect of
impacts of different worldviews.12 Indeed, they treat all societies as if they are embedded in
individual social milieu.
But as many research works on personhood show, collectivism is the dominant
worldview in Africa and any theory that neglect collectivist practices cannot account for Africa’s
IR. In African societies, and by extension, Africa’s IR, actors such as persons and states are not
independent entities; rather, they are “integral members of a group animated by a spirit of
solidarity” (Okere 1984:148).13 The reason is that collectivist cultures prioritize the social over
the personal and group preferences over individual interests and goals, and they peripheralize
differentness, as well as uniqueness (Hofstede 1980; Hsu 1983; Kim 1994; Markus & Kitayama
1991; Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier 2002). In such cultures, individuals are deemed
interdependent, and their self is assumed to be inextricably linked with the selves of others
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Oyserman, 1993; Triandis, 1995). The key identity markers are
group membership and obligations. As a consequence, they cherish group harmony and the
public show of unity by members of the in-group, however shallow that harmony might be.
Indigenous African societies exhibit many features of collectivist cultures, as those who have
closely studied the person in African society have noted. In the view of Stagner, many
indigenous Africans “show practically no self-awareness” (Stagner 1961: 184). Ma and
Schoeneman have suggested that the “individual in a traditional African society does not aim to
master himself or other things but instead aims to accept a life of harmony with other
12 This should not be misconstrued to mean that that individualist worldview is exclusive to the “West” or global
north and that collectivist practices are only found in the
elsewhere. While it is certainly the case that formal education encourages individualist
practices, the high level of literacy in the “West” has made individualist worldview the mainstream way of looking
at the world, the general view amongst informed observers of personhood is that both practices are common in both
locales. In the same way that there are many Africans who are hard core individualists, many people in the
West still hold on to their collectivist orientations.
13 For a detailed discussion of the person in Africa, see Riesman (1986).
individuals. The ideal of life to the tribal African is correct behaviors and relationships to other
people” (Ma & Schoeneman 1997: 263). Formal education has removed some of the collectivist
traits from African political life, and made some of the political elites give away some of the
collectivist behavioural persona. Almost all political elites in Africa show some form of self-
awareness and self-interest. Nonetheless, remnants of collectivist cultural practices still dictate
African politics in general, and interstate relations specifically. Unlike the individualist
behavioural traits widely documented by IR scholars, many African elites do not see themselves
as independent, atomistic, isolated and abstract entities, or think they just “have” relations with
each other. Rather, they think they “are” relations (Piot 1999). In other words, they think and
behave in relational terms.
The relational behavioural pattern associated with collectivism often makes African
governments seek compromised position on major issues at regional, continental forums, and to
a limited extent, at the global level. African leader’s deference to compromised outcomes is a
double-edged sword. On one hand, it encourages quick decision making among African leaders
on key issues during meetings. The usual confrontation, open disagreement, and sometimes
complete inertia which usually characterize decision-making of most international organizations
are often absent at summit meetings of African leaders. On the other hand, the disdain for dissent
has meant that African leaders often make decisions at summit meetings without any serious
debate or analysis of the issue. The deference to compromises has on many occasions prevented
African leaders from implementing decisions and policies that have consequential impact on
sitting African leaders. This is why although African multilateral institutions have some of the
best international legal rules, policies, charters, and institutions, many of them are inactive or yet
to be translated into domestic laws.
The influence of collectivism meant that key aspects of African international politics take
place at informal settings. Formal structures may exist but the informal framework is often used
to make critical decisions. For instance, agenda items for African Union summits must formally
be provided by the Assembly of the Union, the Executive Council, the Permanent Representative
Committee, the AU Commission, and other organs of the Union, or they must be proposed by
member states and regional economic communities. Yet, most agenda items for AU summits are
provided by informal sectoral expert meetings invented by AU bureaucrats. Indeed, formal
structures at the international level in Africa are mere rubber stamping institutions. The
informalization of Africa’s international politics is obviously distinct from the formalized and
legalistic international relations documented by mainstream IR scholars.
The chapter critically examined major IR theories with a view to finding out if they
posses key tools needed to study and understand Africa’s international relations. The theories
were grouped rational utilitarian insights and sociological perspectives. Rational utilitarian
theories are helpful in many ways. Some of the structural and material forces, such as the impact
of the end of the Cold War and economic incentives, which underpin the work of rational
utilitarian theorists, are useful background conditions for exploring inter-state relations in Africa.
These material forces are often used by agents to set agenda for actions, encourage African
leaders to take certain steps and they usually form the background conditions for
preferences/interests formation of African governments. Power, which is the thread that bends
rational utilitarian theories together and highlighted by rationalists as the main instrument of
international politics, is not the most important driver of Africa’s international politics. The Pan-
African national character rejects power as a basis for Africa’s international relations. The
neglect of African input and agency in the account of rational utilitarian theorists further
weakens the explanatory power of their theories. Most rational utilitarian theories lack the
analytical tools to account for the formation of interests and preferences of African governments
The tools and clues for explaining preference formation of actors in Africa’s international
relations can be found in the sociological perspective. Indeed, the sociological theories offer rich
tool kits to explore Africa’s international relations. They draw attention to ideational variables
such as norms which are extremely important in the African context. However, the exact
influence of ideational forces on actor preference formation is underspecified and largely
untested. The approach English speaking IR sociological scholars employ to study the effects of
ideas is so universalistic that they tend to ignore the effects of norms embedded in regional and
subnational entities. The few ideational analysts who do not subscribe to the universalistic view
are so interested in capturing variations in local reactions to international ideas that they lose
sight of regional and sub-regional ideational fabrics. But no account of Africa’s international
relations will be complete without consideration of regional and sub-regional ideational forces.
The existence of plethora of regional and sub-regional institutions in Africa and African leaders’
penchant for multilateral politics make regional and sub-regional fabrics indispensable part of
African politics in general and Africa’s international relations in particular. It is simply not
possible to understand Africa’s international relations if you neglect regional and sub-regional
More fundamentally, the two perspectives use individualist worldview to examine
international relations. On one hand individualist worldview exaggerates the significance of
competitive and self-centred international practices and experiences such as competitive voting,
pursuit of national interests, threats, side-payments, material rewards and punishment. On the
other hand, it peripheralizes collectivist international life, such as consensual decision-making,
group preferences formation, and solidarity behaviour which are ubiquitous feature of Africa’s
international life. The stranglehold the individualist orientations have over the two perspectives
render invisible the significance of international practices and experiences of Africans and at the
same time prevent their derivative theories from providing clear answers, and in some cases,
useful pointers to key questions in Africa’s international relations.
With the above limitations of mainstream IR theories in mind, the penultimate section of
the chapter outlined key ingredients for theorising international relations of Africa. Four
mutually reinforcing elements of Africa-centric mid-range theory were highlighted. It called for
the use of mild version of collectivist lenses. This is meant to reflect the fact that African actors
are embedded in collectivist cultural milieu. Thus, unlike mainstream theories, an Africa-centred
IR theory directs attention to social behaviours rather than self or individual-centred actions,
group preferences instead of individual state interests and it puts students of IR in a position to
understand common rather than unique international practices. The emphasis on the social and
collective helps us to understand the relational dimension of international politics and why
African governments tend to pursue compromised outcomes at the international level. Rather
than caricature African actors as atomistic and egoistic players in the international system,
relational thinking helps us to understand collective actions such as the common African
positions, and in particular, why and how over 50 different African states with supposedly
distinct national interests are able to develop a common position on critical international issues
without the usual rancour and inertia that characterise decision-making of large groups. In
addition, the chapter drew attention to the importance of African region-wide norm such as Pan-
African solidarity which has become central pillar of Africa’s international relations. Lastly, it
was noted that an African-centred theory should not prioritise formal institutions and structures
over informal ones. Indeed, paying attention to informal processes and institutions may provide
more insights into Africa’s international relations than focusing on formal structures.
Acharya, Amitav (2004), “How Ideas Spread: Whose Norms Matter? Norm Localization and
Institutional Change in Asian Regionalism”, International Organization, Vol. 58, pp.
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