Stephen M. Walt

Strategic ethnocentrism

Howard W. French has written a fascinating and disturbing review essay in the latest New York Review of Books. It is an assessment of three recent books on the cataclysmic war that has been taking place in Central Africa, and here’s the passage that reached out and grabbed me: The protracted and inconclusive conflict that ...

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Howard W. French has written a fascinating and disturbing review essay in the latest New York Review of Books. It is an assessment of three recent books on the cataclysmic war that has been taking place in Central Africa, and here’s the passage that reached out and grabbed me:

The protracted and inconclusive conflict that followed has become what Gérard Prunier, in the title of his sprawling book, calls “Africa’s World War,” a catastrophic decade of violence that has led to a staggering 5.4 million deaths, far more than any war anywhere since World War II. It also has resulted in one of the largest — and least followed — UN interventions in the world, involving nearly 20,000 UN soldiers from over forty countries.

I was aware of this conflict, of course, but as I read French’s essay, I realized that I knew very little about its origins, evolution, or the prospects for ending it. I’m a full-time professional in the field of international relations and security studies, and I teach an undergraduate course on “the origins of modern wars” here at Harvard. I go to seminars on various international relations topics almost every week. And yet I knew next-to-nothing about the greatest international bloodletting of my lifetime. Readers of this blog know that I’m usually wary about outsiders meddling in situations they don’t understand and that don’t involve vital interests, but that’s no excuse for being ignorant about a cataclysm of this magnitude.

I could offer up various reasons for this lapse — I’ve never studied African politics, the conflict hasn’t been high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, Western media haven’t given a lot of play, I’ve been working on other topics, etc. — but frankly, none of those reasons are very convincing. Mea culpa. 

I suspect I’m not alone in my ignorance either, and French’s essay suggests that U.S. officials who were engaged in this conflict (including current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice) didn’t have a firm grasp of what was going on either. There’s probably some “strategic ethnocentrism” going on here too: Western elites pay a lot more attention when people like them are being killed in large numbers, and look the other way when the victims are impoverished Africans.

As for me, I have some reading to do, starting with the three books discussed in French’s essay (Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War; René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, and Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars.)

And it’s time to make some changes to my course syllabus, too.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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