This essay by Marina Henke was awarded co-second place in the 2020 contest sponsored by the St. Louis Chapter of Citizens for Global Solutions.
The most fruitful step the United States can make towards improving global life involves a correction of its past missteps, a new foreign policy. Ever apparent in this last century of rampant globalization, the United States carries a marred past of covert and extractive involvement with democratically weakened countries. In this essay I assert that such interventions have done more damage than good, consistently putting the United States in tension with overall stability in global life. In contrast, involvement with democratically weakened countries should focus more than it has on building alliances and initiating mutually-beneficial intergovernmental efforts.
No example provides more evidence of the United States’ past missteps than its role in Sierra Leone’s political destabilization based in their extractive diamond economy. What should have been a national resource for good instead became a source of deadly conflict. Using this as a case study, I will argue that the United States woefully misused their global standing, and still has much room to grow in fostering collaborative and economically balanced alliances with newly formed democratic countries.
In the case of Sierra Leone, the United States did not thoroughly respond to the growing civil unrest that surfaced after the departure of British rule in 1961. In 1991 the increasingly violent rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), took control of large areas of diamond-rich land in the eastern and southern sections of the country, precipitating the overthrow of President Joseph Saidu Momoh. Thus began eleven years of uninterrupted civil war, with the country’s lucrative diamond trade playing a central role. Throughout this time strong international markets, including the United States, entered the situation and held up the economic growth of the country. The RUF continuously funded themselves by seizing control of diamond fields in the rural reaches of the country, taking advantage of what Zack-Williams refers to as warped “peripheral capitalism.” Through trade with international markets, the rebels gained access to weapons and rapid money transfers.
Notably, the U.S. did support Sierra Leone monetarily during the initial years of civil unrest. However, when the U.S. could have been ensuring that authoritarian rebel political groups did not reemerge in Sierra Leone, they stepped back to allow leaders like the RUF to seize control. This distinct lack of investment in political capital by the U.S. proved crucial for the enduring instability of Sierra Leone. Importantly, part of the problem also lies in the mineral rich landscape of Sierra Leone, characteristic of many newly emerging democracies of the world. In a now classic analysis of the many damaging impacts of natural resources on a state’s structure, Paul Collier argues that beyond creating a volatile and undiversified market, a national economy dependent on lucrative natural resources has the potential to fund rebel groups competing for power in structurally weak nations. Enter the United States, who in the wake of the Cold War felt even less of a responsibility to Sierra Leone with its dwindling benefit to the U.S. of patronage politics. With political pressures moving elsewhere, and the diamond economy also dependent upon the weakening whims of the RUF’s successes, the United States moved their focus from Sierra Leone, leaving the country in poverty and wracked by intertribal conflict.
Instead, the United States must be able to help new democracies create sustainable and enforceable governance structures. The U.S. should look to Collier’s concerns surrounding natural resource-based economies and vow to avoid interfering in the wealth of resources often present in newly formed democratic countries. As a global superpower, the U.S. can and should be a balm to what Collier suggests is a curse to vulnerable countries.
The United States still finds itself actively in these types of exploitative relationships from which they must move away. Looking towards solutions, this ought to include a complete re-examination of the U.S.’s relationship with oil extraction throughout the Middle East, an industry with a violent and exploitative history. As was the diamond legacy of Sierra Leone, rapidly fluctuating oil markets make for tenuous relationships between the United States and these countries. Whereas the United States has long promised to bring political stability to the Middle East, its simultaneous dependency on their natural resources have caused political deadlocks and rising tensions. In the past decade this has only added to violence and growing political instability. Whereas its mistakes with Sierra Leone are unfortunately of the past, the United States has room to respond differently in the case of the Middle East. These next steps must be considered carefully.
Groups like NATO, the G8, and the United Nations all provide models for collaborative and open global problem-solving. Ultimately, making unions among and between nations more enforceable and restructuring them to reflect modern governing bodies will prove the challenge of the coming decades. The United States must rise to the occasion and take the reins of these groups, instead of falling prey to the whims of capitalistic and self-serving relations with governments weakened by internal armed conflict. Recently, President-Elect Joe Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords is certainly a step in the right direction. However with the legacy of interventions like that in Sierra Leone, the United States has a huge debt to repay. Importantly, the answer is not in an abdication of global responsibility, but instead a movement to more collaborative interventions.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.
Magsamen, Kelly, Max Bergmann, Michael Fuchs, and Trevor Sutton. “Securing a Democratic World.” Center for American Progress. Accessed December 3, 2020. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2018/09/05/457451/securing-democratic-world/.
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