As the world’s attention is riveted by the dramatic and consequential struggle for Ukraine, last week it was a voice from Africa—that of Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations Martin Kimani—who clarified the stakes in Ukraine for the rest of the world. His defense of rules-based multilateralism and rebuke of powerful states that disregard international norms when it suits them pointed toward the promise of a renewed commitment to international order. It also underscored the role that Africa, which soon will account for a quarter of the world’s population, will play in shaping it.
For U.S. policymakers, the current global inflection point should help prompt the long-overdue shift from imagining that African states are simply the sites of crises with little relevance to the rest of the world to understanding that there will be no successful attempt to reform the international, rules-based order without Africa. But these states must be partners, not afterthoughts. That means that reforms should address African priorities, from ending energy poverty to more equitable pandemic responses to rules for global migration that better reflect where labor forces are growing and where they are shrinking.
The search for lasting global solidarity also requires acknowledging and reckoning with the racism that distorts analysis, obscures opportunities, and fuels injustice. That racism informs the kind of choices that leave Africans stuck at border crossings as they struggle to escape Ukraine. It underpins the notion that it shocks the conscience to see coverage of exhausted Ukrainian families fleeing their homes, but in other parts of the world, the sudden and gut-wrenching transformation of families into refugees is business as usual. It is a poison that will continue to sicken the already ailing international system. States that wish to build a resilient international order ignore it at their peril.
Rethinking Africa’s role in the international system also means recognizing that the bravery and commitment to resisting authoritarianism on display in Ukraine is also manifest across the African continent, from the Sudanese streets where citizens have been resisting military rule at great personal risk to the Zimbabwean opposition politicians and supporters trying to make democratic competition a reality even as officials promise to crush them “like lice.” These countries are not being invaded by more powerful neighbors, but they have been hijacked by self-serving elites who rely on the support of states like Russia to cling to power. The people pushing back are deserving of attention, admiration, and support. Their success can strengthen the numbers of states aspiring to an international order that rejects aggression and revanchism, respects human dignity, and protects the capacity of societies to choose their own leaders and hold them accountable for their actions.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.