To the Editor:
. . . Elie Kedourie, in his otherwise admirable article, “A New International Disorder” [December 1980], argues that the precarious position of Africa’s new rulers is in part due to the fact that “there is little or no relation between the formal Western-style institutions of government and the traditional African society of which these new rulers . . . suddenly find themselves in control.” In the traditional society, Mr. Kedourie continues, “tribal loyalties and preferences ruled supreme,” attitudes which naturally led to “corruption,” which he characterizes as “the generally recognized hallmark of the new states.” “But,” he continues, “the idea of corruption is intelligible only where it is believed that government is and must be a government of laws, the public office is not a piece of property, and the public interest cannot be a respecter of persons. A society in which these notions have no hold is one in which the idea of corruption is unintelligible.”
I have no argument with the contention that the “modern” institutions of African government often bear little relation to the traditional African society on which they (the modern institutions) are superimposed. Nor do I quarrel with the statement that in the traditional order, tribal (or more accurately, ethnic) loyalty reigns supreme. But such attitudes do not naturally lead to “corruption,” nor do their contemporary analogues lead one to conclude that where they exist, “the idea of corruption is unintelligible.”
What appears to be often forgotten or not recognized is the fact that the attraction of modern institutions—albeit Western-style, and often thoroughly flawed—lies not in their modernity, but in the fact that they respond in one critical aspect to a near-universal imperative of the traditional African order: that it be “constitutional.” I do not refer here to a written constitution, but to the understood sense that the political order must be an order of structure, place, obligation, in which the rules according to which authority is exercised are the common heritage of the community. In this context, abuses of power—acts certainly analogous to most modern definitions of political corruption—were (and still are in many traditional contexts) punishable, for example, by removal from office, or worse. In Ghana, it was (and is) called “destoolment,” and destooled chiefs suffered not only ignominy, but could in the past be killed if their affront to the office they held was heinous enough. In traditional Africa, the chief or king with unlimited, unchecked prerogatives was the exception, not the rule.
The corruption of many contemporary African regimes lies precisely in their inability to translate fully the “constitutional” legitimacy of the traditional order onto the modern national state. The polyarchal—i.e., democratic—assumptions of the early Western-style institutions were widely shared and popular because of their constitutional basis. When the new regimes, often run by self-seeking ideologues determined to build the new states on personalist foundations, began to abandon or pervert the traditional order, the paradoxical result was the emergence of the most virulent forms of parochial tribal politics, and with it, corruption. Unable to secure themselves, that is, legitimate their existence, many of the new regimes soon fell prey to tyrannies or successive coups. Let me add that Africans understood full well what was happening, and even the most corrupt recognized that their behavior would not have gone unpunished in the traditional order.
The notions of civic probity to which Mr. Kedourie refers are in fact widely held on both the modern and traditional African scene; the ail-too common African tragedy is that the attractions—and corruptions—of absolute power recruit more rulers and regimes than the very African traditional notions of democracy and constitutional rule.
Victor T. Le Vine
St. Louis, Missouri
To the Editor:
Elie Kedourie fears and dislikes nationalism. Not U.S., British, or the traditional European variety, but the virulent strain which has descended upon us since the end of World War II.
Mr. Kedourie would have us believe that world politics prior to 1914 was preferable to that strain with which we are now burdened. He waxes almost nostalgic about the balance of power, a concept which, in reality, often led men into armed conflict. Further, he sees the Rights of Man, similar in many ways to the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, as subversive of stability and of peace.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kedourie is afflicted with what I would call a selective memory. In fact, world politics prior to 1914 was a confusing tangle of intrigue and inbreeding. By the time of Queen Victoria’s regime, almost all the royal families of Europe were related, thus accounting for cases of hemophilia in many of the royal households. As for the balance of power, this was a concept whose express purpose was to preserve the sovereignty and independence of the states of Europe. That it was made to work there is no doubt; its practice, however, was marked by numerous abuses.
As an early example, we might point to the partitions of Poland. Poland, a weak but ancient kingdom, was dismembered under the guise of balance of power. Edmund Burke, a man of conservative bent, cried out against this, for in the first partition in 1772 he saw the crumbling of the old order. Poland thus disappeared by cold diplomatic calculation. This would be a foreshadowing; established rights were no longer safe even in peacetime.
On the whole, the balance of power remains a concept of the status quo. It would, when possible, deny nationalistic yearnings. Thus Metternich, a consummate practitioner of balance-of-power policy, spoke of Italy as merely “a geographical expression.”
Mr. Kedourie has neatly avoided this problem. Nowhere in his article does he complain of the 19th-century appearance of European nation-states. There is no flogging of European nationalism. Instead, he bemoans the demise of the balance of power, and he describes 20th-century nationalism, accompanied by Bolshevism, as a principle of disorder.
By 1945, at the end of World War II, our planet had been turned upside down in a battle for freedom. Peoples who had lived under the yoke of colonialism believed that, at last, they would be granted the opportunity to reap the benefits of victory. The Atlantic Charter had clearly stated that all peoples should be allowed to determine their own political future.
Mr. Kedourie objects that the Atlantic Charter was filled with toothless pieties; that it did nothing to stop the possible advances of the Soviet Union. He complains that a Ho Chi Minh could have been portrayed as the George Washington of his country.
What he fails to see is that in Vietnam there was a long history of nationalist movement prior to World War II. The French had brutally suppressed it, and had continued to milk the country for their own gain. French colonials had ruled Vietnam for almost a century, during which time the lot of the natives had improved but little. Ho, a nationalist first, but undone in the eyes of the West because of his Communist background, was not allowed a chance to become his country’s George Washington. Sadly, the U.S. chose to help the French in their futile effort to regain a foothold in their colony. Perhaps if the tenets of the Atlantic Charter had been followed more closely, the results might not have been so disastrous.
Nationalism since 1945 has become the world’s most potent political force. This does not mean, as Mr. Kedourie would have us believe, that it must give birth to political disorder. Decolonization, which he rightly deplores for its slipshod implementation, might have been achieved more easily if the West had not displayed an initial reluctance to relinquish its hold over its colonies. Far more serious, though, the West failed to prepare its colonies adequately for independence. We displayed a needless negligence in dealing with our colonies. When we found that we could not retain them by force, we chose to let them drop away like so much excess baggage. The French in Indochina and in Algeria proved to be the worst offenders.
To make matters worse, the West often failed to distinguish between nationalism and Communism. John Foster Dulles’s one-man crusade compounded this problem and served only to polarize world politics. Nasser of Egypt was certainly no Communist, but he was driven to seek aid from the Communist bloc by the actions of the West.
The problems facing us today because of our earlier errors are great. The world has become exceedingly dangerous, but this does not mean that we should abandon all hope. If the world is disordered, it is not because we do not operate by an anachronistic theory of international relations. Rather, it is because the West, particularly the U.S., victorious as it was at the end of World War II, failed to take up its responsibilities of leadership. When the war ended, we were in too much of a hurry to pack up our soldiers and send them home. We failed also to perceive the immense changes that had been wrought by worldwide upheaval. . . .
Paul A. Kellogg
New York City
Elie Kedourie writes:
I do not disagree at all with Victor T. Le Vine’s contention that the traditional African polity was generally “constitutional.” But this traditional polity did not go beyond the tribe or the ethnic group. Modern political arrangements as bestowed on Africa by the former colonial powers aim precisely to transcend the tribe and the ethnic group, and aim to do so through the device of one man, one vote. African society has not, however, transcended tribal or ethnic loyalties. If these loyalties reign supreme, then the state, made despotic through the fearful power of universal suffrage, becomes simply an instrument for advancing the interests of one tribe or group to the detriment of others. In the logic of the modern European territorial state, this is corruption; in the logic of tribalism, it is not. This was the point of the remark in my article that in post-colonial Africa there is a ruinous tension between the form and the content of politics. Africans are human beings like the rest of us, and will feel injustice and misgovernment as keenly as the rest of us do. I hope my article did not imply the contrary. I was concerned simply to describe the cruel predicament in which Africans have been placed by their former rulers and their present masters.
To the best of my knowledge, Paul A. Kellogg is not personally acquainted with me. I do not, therefore, know how he can make such confident assertions about my fears and dislikes or the quality of my memory—subjects with which my article did not deal. If he had attended to the article, or if he had been at all acquainted with my writings on nationalism—which have been in the public domain these last twenty years—he would have known that in my view nationalism is a European invention which Asia and Africa have adopted, along with so many other European ideas and artifacts, and that I consider the consequences of nationalism to be similar in Europe and the rest of the world.
Regarding the balance of power, I did not say that it infallibly prevented conflict—who or what can?—but that it was a device which limited conflict. And why is it wrong for states to try to preserve their sovereignty and independence? I also do not see how the balance of power “remains a concept of the status quo.” It is, on the contrary, a concept which assumes change and suggests ways of coping with it. Mr. Kellogg brings forward Poland as an example of the abuse of the balance of power. Why? Pre-Congress Poland was, in Lord Salisbury’s words, “a ceremonious anarchy.” Polish politics of the time were such as positively to invite intervention by Poland’s more powerful neighbors, whose interests were touched by the external consequences of internal conflicts. Mr. Kellogg should also consider whether the fate of Poland since 1918 is an improvement on its condition under Austrian, Russian, and Czarist rule.
Mr. Kellogg writes of Ho Chi Minh with remarkable coyness: “a nationalist first, but undone in the eyes of the West because of his Communist background.” “Communist background” is a nice way to describe the record of someone who, as the whole world knows, was a determined and skilled Comintern agent throughout his life, and who never ceased to work for the triumph of Communism. For the rest, Mr. Kellogg’s vision of history after 1945 is blissfully simple: if only the West had done what Ho Chi Minh, Nasser—and perhaps Mao, the well-known agrarian reformer as well?—had bidden it to do, all would have been well. If it comforts him to believe this, let him by all means do so. But this empty sentimentality provides as firm a grip on reality as a dish of jello.