Better Late than Never

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the Senegalese National Assembly in Dakar

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the Senegalese National Assembly in Dakar

No, I’m not referring to political contortionist Mitt Romney’s pivot back to the moderate middle. Rather, I refer readers to French President François Hollande’s celebration in Senegal this week of Africa’s independence from colonial (and specifically French imperial) rule. The era of “Françafrique,” he declared in Dakar, is over. “There is France and there is Africa . . . the continent of progress and the future of the global economy.”

Of course, there were baser motives to Mr. Hollande’s visit, coming as it did a half century after Charles de Gaulle dissolved what was left of the French empire in the 1960s. Like many world leaders, the French president is angling for pole position in the race to exploit Africa’s vast reserves of precious minerals and energy supplies, as well as its huge, underdeveloped consumer markets. If today’s industrialized giants are not quite as ruthless in their pursuit of Africa’s riches as their nineteenth-century forebears, they are just as covetous of them.

Still, the congress in Dakar between former ruler and formerly ruled is a refreshing reminder that empire is by no means a terminal affliction and that imperial powers can leach themselves of the urge to unilaterally subdue resource-rich states and menace emerging rivals. Empires die hard, however; France lorded over its colonial possessions for centuries before war and overstretch ended its mission civilisatrice. Similarly, it may well take an economic crisis to relieve Americans of their imperial burden.

On the same day that Hollande’s visit to Senegal was reported in Le Monde, the Financial Times featured a short article about how a small delegation of US military officials and diplomats had arrived in Myanmar to negotiate a normalization of military ties that will no doubt include officer exchanges, arms sales, and frequent calls by US naval vessels. Thus Myanmar—which until only recently was run by a brutal military dictatorship—becomes the newest link in the Pentagon’s ring-fence around China, a barbed cordon that can only lead to conflict.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was deploying military trainers to Libya to set up a counter-terrorist force to pre-empt the kind of attacks that killed four US diplomats, including ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi. (Speaking of which, it was good to see US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally take responsibility for a tragic consequence of her own neglect.) The elite force under consideration, according to the Times, would be the centerpiece of “a broader package of American security assistance.” If history is anything to go by, such assistance will mushroom along with Tripoli’s dependence on US largesse, a reliance that will foster weakness rather than self-reliance and will guarantee America’s new African-Arab ally an unlimited supply of adversaries.

By itself, there is nothing pernicious about Washington engaging with and enhancing the armed forces of friendly nations. Such commitments, however, when regarded within the context of America’s ambition to control the “global commons”—a pleasant Beltway euphemism for most of the known world—tend to become ends in themselves rather than the means of fostering ally self-sufficiency. (Prominent examples include the Pentagon’s smothering embrace of Japan, South Korea, and members of NATO.)

That is why Hollande’s remarks in Senegal this week were significant: they provided a competing narrative to the American conceit for absolute hegemony and the endless war that sustains it.

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