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The United States and the fall of the Africa's Berlin Wall

The iconic images from the night the Berlin Wall came down, and of the Soviet flag being removed from the top of the Kremlin have passed into history as intrinsically linked to the end of the Cold War. However, they only document one of the many ‘ends’ of the Cold War.

The Cold War was a global conflict; from Berlin it radiated outwards and progressively invested new areas and regions of the planet, particularly when the so-called Third World emerged from decolonisation.

Consequently, the Cold War had as many ends as there were numbers of battlegrounds in which it was waged, and each ‘end’ opened a different series of new challenges and opportunities for the post-Cold War international system, led by the sole remaining American superpower

Sub-Saharan Africa offers an interesting case in the complex context of the “other ends” of the Cold War and the shaping of US foreign policy in the early 1990s.

The African continent acquired particular importance for the Cold War during the 1970s, as this coincided with the beginning of two conflicts: a major regional war in Southern Africa (1975), and the so-called Ogaden War (1977) between Somalia and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.

Both superpowers – the USSR and USA massively intervened in these conflicts creating an overlap between the African regional dynamics and the Cold War global dynamics. The superpowers’ external intervention interfered and distorted the local roots of these conflicts.

At the same time, the African conflicts greatly contributed to the collapse of détente. Former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously stated that the SALT agreement – possibly the greatest accomplishment of the US–Soviet dialogue on arms control during the 1970s – was buried ‘in the sands of Ogaden’, due to the superpowers’ disagreement over their respective policies during the Ethiopian–Somali conflict.

So, when and how did the Cold War end in Africa?

1988 was the turning point year. Both the Cold War related conflicts in the continent found a solution in 1988 by signing the New York agreement in Southern Africa and the Ethiopian-Somali agreement in the Horn of Africa. These agreements put in motion a significant transformation in the political and military dynamics in these regions, which split the local-global overlap developed during the 1970s and progressively removed the Cold War paradigm from the continent.

As such, it is safe to say that 1988 was the fall of Africa’s ‘Berlin Wall’. – Flavia Gasbarri

This is the starting point to understand the ensuing US foreign policy in the continent.

Post-1988 Washington’s involvement in Africa is marked by very heterogeneous actions, ranging from mediation and conflict resolution (Angola), to military intervention (Somalia) and disengagement (Rwanda).

The reasons of this mixed policy is due to the fact that the 1988 turning point created for US foreign policy in Africa a complex interaction between two different and coexisting themes: on the one hand, Washington had to manage the legacy of the Cold War, and the consequences of the 1988 watershed.

On the other hand, it had to face new challenges and find new approaches to the continent. The tension between these two imperatives created an overall incoherent policy. However, it is worth noting that US strategy in Africa was more consistent and committed for as long as the first theme (managing the legacy of the Cold War) still offered a guideline, and as long as the USSR was still there.

This was evident in the way in which between 1988-1991 Washington implemented a policy of conflict resolution and mediation in several African conflicts in cooperation with the USSR.

This happened for the war in Ethiopia and even more in the Angolan civil war, where Washington and Moscow established a joint action as mediator. Why did the United States collaborate in this way? Because cooperating with Moscow in this peripheral former battleground helped the superpowers’ broader relations and the dialogue on the core issue of arms control that was still going on, with the signature of the 1991 START agreement.

By collaborating in this way, they took the complete opposite approach to what happened during the 1970s when i the SALT agreement was buried in the sands of Ogaden. The existence of a global counterpart was thus helping the resetting of post-1988 US foreign policy in Africa, as Washington could still link that policy to a broader global strategic imperative.

By December 1991 there was no more Soviet Union” said Former US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Chester Crocker “and we lost our partners, and it made it very difficult.”

His words encapsulate how after the disappearance of the USSR, and as a new unipolar system was emerging, discrepancies in US action became more evident, showing the difficulties in finding new rules of conduct in an area where the end of the Cold War, had removed an overarching strategic imperative.

The disastrous US intervention in Somalia in 1991 is an illustrative example of how, for instance, the humanitarian argument (so fashionable in the early 1990s) turned out to be contradictory and, ultimately, insufficient to guide American involvement in Africa.

The strategic reset of the Cold War endgame in Africa shows that the United States almost needed a global interlocutor – such as the USSR. This may offer some food for thoughts in the current historical moment where the future is likely to be characterised by the rise of new (and old) superpowers, the return of great power politics and the end of the American unipolarity.

Dr Flavia Gasbarri is a lecturer in in War Studies Education, co-Chair of the Africa Research Group and member of the Centre for Grand Strategy at the Department of War Studies.Read more in her’s new book US Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War in Africa: A Bridge between Global Conflict and the New World Order, 1988-1994.

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