The Doorstep: Reversing Missed Opportunities in Africa, with Howard W. French

November 12, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. I am very excited today to welcome Mr. Howard French, a career foreign correspondent who worked for The Washington Post and other outlets in West Africa, for many years at The New York Times, and now is a columnist for the World Politics Review and a professor at Columbia Journalism and Law Schools, but we are excited here to talk with him about his latest book on Africa, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Because we are looking at climate change—the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 is ending today—and the Global South is a huge part of our climate conversation, Mr. French spoke with us today.

In a few minutes we are going to hear from him about what that means and about what the Global North owes the Global South. We are so excited to have him and to look at the issues in different ways and maybe ahead sometimes of the news.

Our last conversation, literally only a couple of weeks ago, where we spoke about what is going on in Latin America, is now all over the front page of the Times as is the crisis between Poland and Belarus. I do think we are looking at issues because we are able to reflect on them with our team here at Carnegie Council. We welcome our audience to send us your ideas and what you are seeing around the world.

Here is something I would like to ask you in particular, Nick, before we talk to Mr. French. Xi Jinping has named himself a "living historical figure" today with a new resolution, changing history a little bit. What do you think about this idea of changing history and making yourself a god?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I don't know if he is necessarily making himself a god because he is still technically a Marxist-Leninist and therefore does not necessarily accept the idea of divinities, although it does perhaps have some resonance in the longer span of history. But I think you are on to a point here, and it really is important for people who follow the news to understand that when we talk about history, history matters, and certainly our conversation with Howard French is going to touch on history and understandings of history.

What he is doing in China essentially is to some extent marrying the Chinese imperial past with the Marxist-Leninist superstructure and saying that China is moving forward into the 21st century, not waiting to catch up to the United States, not expecting the end of history where the end result is for China to become a liberal free market democracy, but that really China is a separate pole in the world, a separate system, co-equal with the United States and with the West, not looking to learn, not looking to be tutored, and so it is not accidental that this takes place before his summit with President Joe Biden. This essentially is a message saying that for the last 40 or 50 years, ever since Nixon went to China, this idea that the United States would "bring China along," essentially saying, no, China is its own entity, its own player in the world, it will be treated with respect, and it will be that you have to accept the reality of a Chinese system that exists alongside what the West might prefer. This does not mean that we are moving into a new Cold War, but definitely this is a real claim again that the world is at least bipolar, that there are alternatives, and that has implications for how the United States views itself in the world and how it interacts with other regions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We will certainly talk about how it interacts with Africa in a moment, but before we go to our discussion with Mr. French I wanted to point out to our audience, because press freedom is so important here in the United States under the First Amendment, at our doorstep, and in what you and I do here and our team here at Carnegie Council do, but it came out that the court in military-ruled Myanmar sentenced the U.S. journalist Danny Fenster to 11 years in prison with hard labor, and that is just for a couple of charges including incitement to spread false information. When somebody says "incitement to spread false information," it just makes my skin crawl as a journalist because we are here to speak truth to power, and I think that is what Danny Fenster was doing, and he has now been sentenced and is facing many more years on other charges. We have a lot of human rights groups and reporter groups speaking out against this including, if you go back to our press freedom podcast a couple of months ago. [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded and released before Fenster was released from prison in Myanmar on November 15.]

What are your thoughts on this issue? What are you hearing?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think this actually goes back to your earlier question about what is happening in China. The idea of press freedom as a good, that the press exists, as you said, to speak truth to power, that the idea that you need a free and independent press in order to have a modern society, these were all ideas that 30 years ago—we are one month away from celebrating the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we all thought that we were moving into this post-historical world where all of these things were a given. I think what we are now in is the idea that press and information are tools. They are weapons. The idea of a reporter who is going out to discover the truth can be seen now not as a good but as a threat. We have seen the constant erosion of press freedom and the rise in illiberal and autocratic systems around the world over the last ten years.

Again, this is a trend that is ongoing. These reversals are happening, and it is not just simply happening "out there," but the question is now to the extent that these things are happening within the West itself, and I think what happened in Myanmar is just one more symptom, and we are getting many symptoms now, of something that is happening across the world which maybe calls into question how definitive the events of 30 years ago were in changing the world. In fact, autocracy and illiberalism are definitely having a comeback.

That means that—going back to your earlier question—when President Biden is meeting with President Xi virtually, the idea that the United States can speak with a degree of confidence about the strength of its ideals is going to be put to the test.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We will certainly keep watch over this.

We want to mention also to our audience that next Wednesday we have a book talk with Saumya Roy on Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai, so please do join us for our book talk looking at another climate issue, waste, our waste, and what are we doing with it?

Now let's talk to Mr. French.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. French. We are so excited to have you today of all days in particular. It is the last day of COP 26. You have a lot to say about the Global South, particularly Africa, and how perhaps at COP 26 there are some opportunities to talk more about what developed nations should be doing and should be talking about that maybe they have not been.

Yesterday I was really struck by the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate's speech, emboldening or trying to embolden the leaders to actually make change and not just talk. She of course had her own experience with being cast aside last year. There was a photo of her with Greta Thunberg and a couple of other climate activists, and the Associated Press actually cut her out of the photo. She said, "There is not just me but many activists from the Global South who have been sidelined," and you speak a lot about this sidelining of the Global South and I think her experience. I think we need to talk more about the Vanessa Nakates of the world and Uganda's place in the climate.

The other thing I will say to lead into your response is that The New York Times put together a really interesting graphic today—I don't know if you got a chance to see it—about who has the most historical responsibility for climate change, and you write also a lot about historical responsibility in your new book Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, really showing how the developed nations have produced so much and are asking developing countries to give too much, I think. Today I know COP is trying to deal with these issues. How can we find some solutions?

How would you rate their efforts? How is COP 26 doing in your point of view?

HOWARD FRENCH: I hesitate to credit their efforts very enthusiastically. The reason for that is that I don't think that history has been taken very deeply into account here, and I also don't think that our future prospects as a species, demographically speaking, have also been taken into account very seriously. The rich and powerful nations of the world are settling into a habit of paying symbolic attention to inclusion and trying to fit, however awkwardly and unsuccessfully in the example you just gave us, Africans and other members of the Global South into the picture, so to speak, of the discussion of climate change.

I would make a couple of arguments. One of them is, and this is an argument at great length in my book, that the very industrialization of the West, in fact, the very creation of the West—if we consider the West to be a sort of condominium that exists between especially anglophone North America and Western Europe, this product, this entity was created on the basis of forced labor, otherwise known as slavery, 12.5 million people brought living across the Atlantic to work in armed prison camps, in effect, which we glorify with the name of "plantations," to produce commodities for several centuries, which were the very basis for the West's rise economically speaking, for the groundwork for industrialization, and for many other achievements credited to the West solely—and wrongly in my point of view.

Africa in particular is regarded as a fringe player, something you have to pay maybe symbolic attention to for political correctness' sake in these kinds of discussions, but actually it was a foundational element through its sacrifice in the creation of the present wealth that the West enjoys, and therefore there is a historic debt that I think the West in fact owes to Africa in particular, above and beyond any other component of the Global South, so to speak, because of this economic history.

The other piece, of course, is future-looking, and—not to make my answer too long I will not go into this in full detail right now—the demographic balance of the world is changing very rapidly. We are focused a lot on carbon, but we are not focused enough on human beings and on where people will actually be living over the next 20, 30, 50, or 100 years, and the conversation really needs to shift in that direction much more decisively in my view.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In fact, speaking of that, a couple of episodes ago we had author Parag Khanna. I am not sure if you are familiar with him. His new book MOVE is all about what you are talking about, the migration of people from South to North, that we are not paying enough attention, and that we need to pay more attention.

Let me go back to your point, though, on this demographic shift, which you do highlight, speaking about how—and this is the statistic that really caught my eye that you mentioned—60 percent by 2030 of the world's working population is going to be from Africa. Can you talk more about that?

HOWARD FRENCH: The "Global North"—which is a term not used as frequently as the Global South—is still in a phase of deep denial about what is happening in terms of population shifts in the world. If you look at what is happening throughout Europe, we are still caught up in the politics of xenophobia with Europe essentially fantasizing about the possibility of throwing up walls that will be able to keep human movement at bay. With the continent of Africa literally on Europe's doorstep if you look at Gibraltar, the distance between Africa and Europe, in simple geographic terms this is ridiculous, but when you add to this the demographic realities that are at work already, invisibly for most of us, but at work powerfully already in the world today, this becomes all the more evident.

Africa today is perhaps about 1.5 billion people, a little less than that. Africa at the middle of this century is going to be 2 billion people, and if you project outwards—by the way, these figures come from the United Nations Population Division, which processes the most widely accepted projections of population trends in the world—to the end of this century, Africa will be somewhere between 3 and 5 billion people. Five billion people is more than China and India combined. You do not have to take the extreme outlier number there to understand that this is going to be extraordinarily transformational in terms of the nature of the composition of the human race.

And these people are on Europe's doorstep, geographically speaking. Europe and the West more broadly—I am just going to speak to the West for a second and then I will speak about the global stakes here—have a stark choice: They can get really real, really quickly, accepting their historical burdens and accepting the need to make true sacrifices of their own in order to help change the economic realities in Africa, such that more Africans have a stake to remain at home on the African continent because they have the prospect of productive lives and basic things like electricity, clean water to drink, and job opportunities; or, if Europe takes a too-selfish approach, cutting off their nose to spite their face, Europe will see in the coming decades an inundation, if you will.

I do not want to dwell right now on the racial aspects of this. Some Europeans have a racial conception of what it means to be European, and so this is a crucial thing to them, keeping non-racially European people outside of Europe, but what they are going to discover over time against the backdrop of the dynamics that I have spoken to is that they themselves, meaning the people we traditionally call Europeans, are not going to have enough workers themselves in order to sustain their own wealth.

So a crunch is coming. Europe in particular and the West in general seem utterly unfocused on this. There is nothing of substance taking place in Africa to engage African governments with the level of urgency that is required to help transform the landscape of African economics in order to deal with this.

By the way, just to back up a little bit, there are two interests at play here. One of them is giving Africans a reason to stay in Africa, and the other one is supplying Europe itself, which is desperately going to need young people to work and to pay taxes, creating the conditions that Africa can supply people who are well-trained and educated to be able to serve those functions in Europe. That requires a social transformation, Europeans realizing that they cannot sustain this racial idea of Europe, but it also requires a commitment to investing in Africa in things like education and social services that will help socialize Africans in ways that make African migration to Europe much more constructive for Europe's own needs. So one of them is about helping Africa for the purposes of Africa, and another one is helping Africa for the purposes of Europe. We are just completely, completely unfocused on that at this stage.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: If I could jump in here, this is a fascinating conversation the way it is evolving, and I am hearing in some of your comments echoes of some points that Ambassador Charles Ray raised with us when he appeared on The Doorstep last year, really this idea of Africa potentially emerging as the workshop of the world, as the future source of human capital, or sometimes as people describe it that Africa would be "China's China." What China did as the workshop for the world in the 1990s and the 2000s, the African continent is poised to do.

I wanted to get at a question of narrative. You have laid out here a situation and a prospect which could actually be a very positive political narrative in the West, which is that Africa, particularly Western Africa, is, as you put it, a "foundational element" in the creation of the West. The African continent is part of the Atlantic world. This idea of the survival and the future of the Atlantic world to some extent economically and demographically rests upon integration of the Atlantic world on a North-South way, as you have mentioned, human capital pools that in many cases are either anglophone or francophone to begin with, and so you don't have language issues.

Why is it that you think that this kind of vision of an expanded Atlantic community—the United States, Europe, Western and Southern Africa, and by the way bringing in the Caribbean as well into this, particularly as you noted in your most recent book about the importance of the Caribbean aspect of this—is a difficult narrative, and perhaps does this really come down to looking squarely in the face the racial question, which is that there is an unwillingness of policymakers in Europe and the United States to really think of Africa as a continent as a charter member of the Atlantic community?

HOWARD FRENCH: Thank you for your question, Nikolas.

I think racism is an inescapable element of this conversation. The West, historically speaking and presently, has a race problem, and I am not wielding the word that makes so many people so uncomfortable, saying that they are being "racist," but they are being racial-ist. I referred to this earlier when I spoke to Europe. I said that there are large numbers of Europeans who have a racial vision of what it means to be European, and this anachronistic actually.

Europeans have from the beginning of history been flowing into Europe from all different quarters of the Near East, actually from North Africa, from Northeastern Europe, and flowing back, in fact, also from the Americas. Historically speaking, in fact, Europe has not really been ever as simple, racially speaking, as the people who cling to these beliefs would have it.

The other element of this beyond the racialism piece—which just needs to be dealt with; it really needs to be confronted, and some European politicians are going to have to find the courage politically speaking to do so, and up until this present moment of our conversation I have trouble finding prominent European politicians who actually have the voice for this or the courage for this—is selfishness. Europe and the United States came together to form this thing that I am calling "the West," and they enjoyed unprecedented prosperity for a long run of history on the basis of the exploitation of African labor and African resources, and that debt has never really been looked at squarely in the face.

However, as Europeans got very, very rich, and as Americans got very, very rich, they began to engage the selfish reflex of the pie being something that shouldn't be divided instead of thinking about tapping human resources in ways that continue to enhance and to multiply the prospects of their peoples and to increase wealth, to create a greater good by constantly bringing in more people.

In the case of the United States, this is particularly ironic. I know European history in this regard a little less well, but it is very clear that with each wave of immigration the United States has gotten richer. To see a discourse in this country which sees immigration from the Global South mostly as a threat and as something that is going to dilute American prosperity or chip away at whatever it is that supposedly makes the United States great is just not founded at all in history.

I would add to that the fact that as a group Africans in recent decades have had among the very highest levels of educational attainment of any immigrant group in the country. The stereotype is that Chinese and Indians come here, prosper, do very well, get lots of graduate degrees, and end up in high-end jobs. Africans have brought in in smaller numbers, but they have done just as well as East Asians and as South Asians, but this gets no attention, and the reason that it gets no attention I think throws us back to this notion of racialism, that because this doesn't fit our mental models about different types of minorities we cannot accommodate the thought.

But we have to get over that because Africa—as Tatiana's question stated a few minutes ago—is going to constitute 60 percent of the working-age population of the world a decade from now. Pause, repeat, a decade from now. Africans are going to constitute 60 percent of the working-age population of the world.

You have a choice. Either you deprive yourself of access to the biggest single piece of the working-age population of the world, or you say: "Let me be proactive about engaging that population in ways that help myself but also along the way help them." The discourse in Europe and in the United States in the anti-immigration world is: "Why should we spend our wealth to help those people? Why do we have to give them money? Why do we have to invest over there? Let them sort their own problems out." They are going to help you sort your problems out, and even if you do not realize it today, five or ten years from now you are going to realize it in a much more emergent and even painful way.

So get ahead of the problem. Get over the racialism. Understand that human beings are human beings, that we all have the same potentials. There is no such as a model minority. There is such a thing as opportunity, and when you give equal opportunity to people of different backgrounds, history shows that they do roughly more or less equally with that opportunity. We need to absorb that lesson and we need to come to terms with this, and we have a chance. We have a few years to begin to turn this conversation around and to try to be proactive instead of reactive.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think we are trying to start to have the conversation here in the United States, at least with the 1619 Project, which takes a hard look at what you are doing in your book for the United States and how much and where did the U.S. wealth begin and originate from when the first enslaved persons stepped on the shore of the English colonies here in the United States. I think that has caused a hard look and hard conversations that people are not comfortable having here in the United States at all, and we are seeing a lot of opposition to that.

To your point, though, do you think on a broader level that the Biden administration can take this doorstep issue of trying to deal with immigration and looking at our past and trying to fix problems, do you think they have enough support to make changes and to create new policies for Africa? We have Secretary Blinken going out to Africa next week in fact, so our conversation is ahead of his visit. He is supposed to be making some big speech about Biden's policy in Africa. Do you see a change, a shift, a change in narrative?

HOWARD FRENCH: Two things. One of them is that I think the United States is vastly underinvested diplomatically speaking in Africa. It is great that Blinken is going to Africa. Blinken is going to Africa toward the end of the first year of Biden's presidency.

Compare this to China, which was invoked earlier in our conversation. Every year prior to COVID-19 for many years either the Chinese premier or the Chinese chairmen, meaning the equivalent of our president, has made a multi-country trip to Africa. Every single year. Every single year high-level delegations of members of what is called the State Council, which is basically the cabinet, go to Africa, multiple members, every single year.

The United States has no equivalent level of engagement with the African continent, and until it does the dynamics of the situation as we have been discussing are not going to change. When the United States gets around to visiting or engaging with Africa it typically bundles a lot of African leaders into a room and says: "Okay, here's our thing. We have just met with Africa." It doesn't even give African countries the respect of treating them on an individual basis at a high level, and you give some kind of portmanteau speech where you throw the whole continent together. The feeling that you get and certainly the feeling that Africans get is that the Americans are taking kind of a checklist approach to the continent—"Yes, so we know we have to do this every once in a while"—but it's never high on the agenda, and, okay, check. There it goes. This is not going to suffice.

Back to the other part of your question, though, is Biden's policy on immigration going to manage to achieve the momentum that it requires? Here is the problem: You have roughly half of the American population which votes for the other party, and the other party in recent years has been consumed by a kind of zero-sum ideology, where if you turn on certain television networks or you read certain media that are popular in those circles you will find—in fact, our previous president himself spoke in these terms—this kind of discourse that describes immigrants as basically a threat to America.

The way the threat is described is twofold: one of them is again racialist—they are not like the real Americans. That kind of phraseology is sometimes used. What does "real" Americans or "traditional" Americans mean? It is an indirect reference to whiteness. So these people are going to come in and they are going to change the whiteness of our country. We are back to a conversation that is very similar to what I was saying about Europe earlier.

The other piece of this is the economic piece of that discourse, where if you tune into Tucker Carlson or people like that, they are basically saying to low-income and low-middle-income white people in the audience that immigrants are "coming to steal your jobs," that they are going to come take your work, and you are going to end up poorer, addicted to drugs, in a dead end in life, and we are all going to go down the drain.

In fact, the reality is that by increasing—in a well-conceived, well-regulated way but steadily—our immigration inflows, we are actually ensuring future prosperity for the country. We need younger people. The United States is fortunate not to be among the very fastest aging countries, but we are aging pretty fast ourselves.

We have these things called "entitlements," which need to be paid for over time, and entitlements—Social Security and the like—are paid for by young people paying into the tax system, and the evidence shows that immigrants do a really good job paying taxes, and immigrants tend to skew toward young people, and you need young people to work in order to sustain the Social Security system, not just Social Security itself but the whole system, that underpins American prosperity and the economic security of people in every part of this country.

As long as you have demagogues who are able to corral significant portions of the American electorate with these kinds of xenophobic ideas and economic horror, scaring them to death about their own prospects, it is going to be difficult to get a generous immigration bill passed. That is just a fact. We have been struggling to get immigration reforms passed already for several years now, and that is the basic reason, because on the one hand again there is this racialist propaganda, and on the other hand there is this scare-them-out-of-their-wits economic propaganda.

I don't know the answer to that, but it's going to take, like I said with Europe, people who have the political courage to speak to the facts insistently and not to treat this as a kind of incidental piece of their political program but to really take these arguments to the public and to introduce them at the center of our contemporary debates. These are going to be extraordinarily important issues in the next ten, fifteen, twenty years.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: When you were mentioning that about the political debate and political courage, I can't help but think then of the importance of—political courage is usually fortified by interest groups.

When you mentioned about China and Africa, there is a wonderful slide I use in my class, which is the countries of the world that have never been visited by retired or sitting U.S. presidents, and you see a blotch in the Andean region, Central Asia, and then of course it is most dramatic with sub-Saharan Africa. Then you put up the slide of, as you said, countries that are visited by the Chinese president, by the Chinese prime minister, and you see vastly how different it is.

That raises a question, tying this to what might motivate change. Given your background in reporting as well from China and East Asia, that the prospect of great-power competition can impel U.S. policymakers to take Africa more seriously because, particularly when you wrote A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, one of the things I was struck by was the sense of how quickly the United States really forgot about Africa once the Cold War was over. So is there a national security imperative?

The other actually goes back to your question about immigration, which is: Are we going to see a new group of African-descended, African American, in the sense of recent immigrants from Africa, becoming more of a lobby group in the United States, saying there are good business prospects, there is opportunity? Can we see maybe a national security and an economic business argument that may push, if not President Biden, a future president to maybe take that dose of political courage because you will have interest groups saying we have to take Africa more seriously?

HOWARD FRENCH: These are two very good questions. On the first one I would say that the conversation about China and Africa, when the West very belatedly and slowly begins to awaken to the fact that since the early 1990s China was ramping up its efforts to engage the African continent, were full of alarmism that China is "taking over" Africa, that China is colonizing Africa. "Colonizing" is so interesting a term coming from the actual colonizer with no evident self-reflection about what it means to colonize another party. This was just an extraordinary thing to watch.

In fact, China should be seen—listen, I am not going to make the argument that everything China has done in Africa is great or even great for Africans, but grosso modo, in fact we should be grateful that China has engaged Africa economically for the last generation because we were not doing so, and Africa needs to be engaged for all of the reasons that I said will become important. So had China not engaged Africa while we were also not engaging Africa, what would that have portended for the world? Africa being totally cut from the cords of the global economy and just adrift in space.

Would that have been good for Europe? Would that have been good for the United States? Would that have been good for the environment? Would that have been good for global security? Would that have been good for disease? Would that have been good for—I could go on and on and on. Of course it would not have been good.

On the second question about will Africans come to constitute at any time in the foreseeable future the kind of interest group or lobby within the United States where they can begin to affect this conversation in important ways, I think that is happening a little bit already. I am not sure if this by itself will ever reach the kind of critical mass that is required to do so, not by itself, and I will come back to what "by itself" means in a moment.

Africa is 54 countries, so Africans come here, and in the first instance they come here as people from one of those 54 countries, and Africans don't just automatically pour themselves into some vessel called "I'm from Africa" when they are in the United States and then begin to lobby or conduct themselves as an African interest group. It just doesn't happen that automatically. So that's one thing.

Where the greatest potential for this lies is also where the greatest hurdle lies. The greatest potential for this lies in forging stronger bonds between Africans and African Americans, and this has become historically challenged because the entire history of the United States has been aimed at preventing or discouraging African Americans from even thinking about themselves as Africans. They were inculcated to believe that being as far away from Africa in skin color, in hairstyle, in physical appearance, and in whatever other association you might like to mention, the furthest away you get from that the better. This has run very deep. Thankfully this is less strong today than it was in my childhood and less strong in my childhood than it was in a previous generation, but this is something that runs centuries deep, has its own kind of momentum, and will take lots of work to overcome but it is crippling.

Africans and African Americans are a resource to each other that has not yet been realized where African Americans can work harder—

By the way, there were moments going back to the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, when African Americans constituted a very important lobby on African policy at a time when—I am going to use the R word now—American foreign policy was truly racist. But that has largely faded. There was another moment late in the apartheid era when African American lobby groups worked very hard to end apartheid, but by and large these energies dissipate and have not been sustained or the momentum has not been maintained.

We need these synergies to help do two things: (1) to affect American policy toward Africa; and (2) to affect the way Africans think of and engage with the United States.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Blinken's trip goes, if it does impact even a modicum of change, because as you said it did take almost a year before Biden addressed and sent an envoy to Africa. Hopefully some of our discussion today and some of your work is incremental and leads to bigger changes. We hope to have you back to talk about these changes in the coming months. Thank you so much for your time today.

HOWARD FRENCH: I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.

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