#BookClub: Contesting Sovereignty in Africa and the Global South

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The year 2016 saw populism go mainstream in the West, when the phenomena of Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election sharpened the focus on the notion of ‘sovereignty’. Fairly often, changes in the West kickstart trends in the Global South.

This isn’t to say that the Southern states necessarily follow the West’s lead directly, but they do tend to trigger fresh discourses and refocus issues around concerns raised originally in the West. But the funny thing about the 2016 populist backlash against neoliberalism is that, in the Global South, there weren’t many dramatic changes. If anything, while Western (and hence global) multilateralism was being stressed nearly to breaking point, ASEAN and the African Union recommitted to strengthening their multilateral architectures and integration processes.

It wasn’t for lack of populist, often unilateralist, leaders in this region either. Figures such as Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Jacob Zuma of South Africa share many of the impulses of Western populists. However, the issue was different because Global South regions did not fundamentally feel that the strictures of regional or global rules had been overextended on them. Why wasn’t this the case?

Debating Sovereignty

My book explores the contestation over sovereignty that occurred in these regions well before 2016, during their charter-writing periods that settled the primary norms of either region. I’m certainly not the first to look at these contests, but a lot of what came before (and which dominated academic thinking) was read through Western lenses. The 1990s and its ‘unipolar moment’ spurred a range of scholarship about the ‘Retreat of the State’ or liberal ‘norm cascades’ that expected Western models to take root around the globe. The trouble was that the 2000s, in my experience (I worked in both Uganda and Southeast Asia by then), did not seem to show much of this anywhere I was, living and working in the Global South. And I might state that back then, I was a believer in a norm cascade and I thought its failure was our failure to identify the right triggers or factors to get over a tipping point.

But what had actually happened behind the scenes – in elite regional decision-making circles in Africa and Southeast Asia – pointed to something quite different. The global narrative was that these authoritarian regions were proving stubbornly resistant to liberal values, democratization, and the respect for human rights. This is not a completely unfair characterization. Yet what was overlooked is that they did have these debates, and gave them fair consideration about how their regional organization might look as they weighed these changes. It was not only human rights norms that were sometimes qualified, but many other norms that implied supranationality – which in ASEAN’s case meant rejecting recommendations not just by outsiders, but also by their own Eminent Persons Group.

What was then downplayed (but which only really came back to the fore in 2016) was that these debates were framed against another organizing norm: sovereignty. Again here the environment was largely characterized by the ‘sovereignty as responsibility’ movement in the West that eventually led to the Responsibility to Protect principle. This is a good principle, but this was not how elites in Africa and Asia understood sovereignty. They continued to view it functionally as the organizing principle of interstate relations.

Factors for Success or Failure

There were both victories and defeats as progressive norms were introduced. It was also important to realise that there was no linear path, and even as some liberal norms were embedded, others were rejected. The AU is rightly hailed for its introduction of the right to intervention in its new Constitutive Act that allows it to take a much more proactive stance on the internal conflicts in Africa. This culminated a long debate from the 1990s in which non-interference had always won out as the governing principle. But the Pan-African Parliament that had been adopted as far back as 1991 and should have had a renewed impetus in the formation of the AU was left languishing as an advisory body. Even worse, the more liberal states like Nigeria (the original proponent of the regional parliament) and South Africa were among the ones who worked to throttle it because they suspected it was part of Gaddafi’s federalist agenda.

In looking at these elite contests, I hypothesized and observed three key factors of diplomatic competence that seemed to explain the outcomes during this period. Firstly, diplomats who were in control of the agenda had far greater success with promoting their agendas. They could set the timings of decisions, use procedural rules to knock back undesirable challenges, or stall processes on tight deadlines to secure concessions.

Secondly, the shared norms of the diplomatic groups were paramount. Rather than global norms, it was those of the diplomatic circles that took precedence and guided decision-making. Indeed external norms tended to fare poorly and be perceived as foreign ideas in need of pushback. The precedents of decisions in the respective regional organisations can coalesce into a formidable cluster of norms that require recall and delivery at key moments in debates – putting secretariats in an unusually powerful brokering role as well.

Finally, there is ‘metis’, a form of domain knowledge (in this case, diplomatic ingenuity) that secures the maximal effect from the minimum force. In these case studies, it was up to the creativity of diplomats to find ways around particular dilemmas, to persuade others to get on board with their ideas, and it involved a deep understanding of not just the dynamics of the organizations but the motivations of those who did not necessarily share their interests.

Calibrating Sovereignty and Regionalism

So what did studying these episodes teach me? The long-awaited norm cascade did not materialize, and that was not necessarily a bad thing considering the populist backlash in the West. Rather, each region’s states had debated the amount of delegation of sovereignty they were prepared to cede to the regional organization, and what they would retain. This meant that when populism exploded in the West, typified by (but not limited to) antipathy to multilateralism, there was none of the political appetite for such a challenge in the Global South, even from authoritarian states that feared that some regional norms could serve as Trojan horses for liberal values.

Global narratives, particularly triumphalist ones, are written to serve certain purposes. They may inspire people (as it did for me) to get involved in these initiatives, but disappointment may quickly ensue if one believes their causal story too naively. Ultimately, it is the local norms and local perspectives that determine the fate of normative challenges. This puts the onus back towards capacity building, awareness raising, and preparing for a long game of substantive normative change, rather than trying to swoop in and win the battles for them.

Joel Ng is research fellow at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of Contesting Sovereignty: Power and Practice in Africa and Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

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