A. O'Malley: The Diplomacy of Decolonisation

The Diplomacy of Decolonisation. America, Britain and the United Nations During the Congo Crisis 1960–1964

O'Malley, Alanna
Key Studies in Diplomacy
xiii, 207 S.
€ 76,92
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ulf Engel, Institut für Afrikanistik, Universität Leipzig

The events surrounding the Congo’s independence from Belgian colonisation in June 1960 are still academically debated within the field which has been consolidated as Cold War Studies. The outbreak of a civil war which ended when General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu finally consolidated power through a coup d’etat in November 1965, the short-lived secession of Katanga and South Kasai (1960–1963), the deployment of a United Nations peace-keeping mission ONUC, the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (1961) and the shoot-down of the airplane of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and his mediation team (1961) have inspired numerous pieces of research over the past few decades.

The diplomatic historian Alanna M. O’Malley has added a well-researched, archive-based contribution to this debate. The author is chair of United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice at Leiden University’s Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs (a position shared with The Hague University of Applied Sciences). This six-chapter monograph was originally submitted as a PhD at the Department of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence in 2012. It has been slightly revised for this publication, though most of the academic literature post-2012 did not make its way into the many footnotes.

Research for this monograph is mainly based on archival work in the George Padmore Research Library on African Affairs (Accra, Ghana), the Public Records and Archives Administration of Ghana, and the National Archives of India. Thus, the author develops a very interesting perspective on the conflict dynamics, exploring it through the eyes of two of the foremost architects of Afro-Asian solidarity: Ghana and India. Although, from a knowledge construction point of view this very timely perspective could have been reflected even more strongly. The strength of this revised thesis really is in giving voice to actors typically neglected in writing diplomatic history of the Cold War.

As the update of the PhD dissertation with regard to the academic literature has not been carried out too extensively (i.e. with a focus on the introduction), some of the literature published between 2012 and, say, 2017 is not captured well. This critique mainly applies to more recent reassessments of the role of the US and Belgium in the killings of both Lumumba and Hammarskjöld.[1]

Nevertheless, this volume offers a lucid analysis of the “crisis of the Congo”, the beginnings of the Cold War in Africa and the role of both the United Kingdom and the United States in this developing mess. It certainly provides a very sound interpretation of the role of the United Nations in Africa’s processes of decolonisation, as well as early attempts to organise Afro-Asian solidarity in the United Nations and the emerging Non-Aligned Movement. This study adds substantially to the way in which the United Nations under its Secretaries-General Hammarskjöld and U Thant (who succeeded the former from 1961–1971) developed the institution into a key arena in which even the US and Britain had to negotiate their political interests vis-à-vis emerging post-colonial states.

In a succinct analysis, O’Malley first describes how the “Congo crisis” posed a new, highly complex challenge to global politics on decolonisation when it erupted in June 1960. This chapter also discusses the “ambiguous partnership” between the United Kingdom and the United States: characterised by distrust since the Suez Canal conflict in 1956 (when Britain was hiding its support for Israel from the US), but at the same time mutually confronted by the Soviet Union, the two allies had difficulties to redefine their common approach towards global politics, both with regard to their respective foreign policies but also with a view to the role of the United Nations.

In the following chapter, O’Malley shows how the changing composition of the UN General Assembly, with a strong increase in membership from the Afro-Asian bloc, soon turned this body into a platform for criticizing the fragile Anglo-American alliance, using the Congo crisis as a point of entry. The emergence of this platform is mainly due to the leadership and staunch anticolonial agenda of the United Nations Secretary-General, the Swedish diplomat and civil servant Dag Hammarskjöld whose “vigorous and swift” responses to the crisis (p. 39) carved out new space for the international body to deal with the question of decolonisation. Of particular importance in this respect was the creation of the Congo Advisory Committee (CAC) in July 1960 which gave the Afro-Asian bloc a direct channel to the Secretary-General.

After the assassination of Lumumba, and with the split of the African bloc into the “socialist” Casablanca Group and the “conservative” Monrovia Group, the Afro-Asian / United Nations cooperation lost some momentum. Yet with the secession of Katanga – which is thoroughly discussed in chapter 3 – the United Nations got very active again, but also increased the number of contentious issues between the international organisation and national governments, in particular that of the United States. Meanwhile the United Nations had become “a space for the socialisation and an incubator for ideas” (p. 86), especially in form of the Fourth Committee and the Committee of 24, which dealt with the question of self-determination and colonialism. The US and Britain (and Belgium, it must be said) increasingly took an issue with the policies of Hammarskjöld who also used the ONUC troops to round up mercenaries and “advisors”.

Informed speculation about the circumstances of the UN Secretary-General’s death is shared at the beginning of chapter 4, which then continues to discuss the changing strategic considerations of the US government regarding the use of force against the secessionists.[2] In fact, it the US government increasingly supported the efforts of Hammarskjöld’s successor, the Burmese U-Thant. In the aftermath of Hammarskjöld’s death, O’Malley highlights, the Afro-Asian group at the UN tried to increase its influence through structural, changes at the UN Secretariat. Meanwhile, avenues for Anglo-American cooperation closed as Britain remained intransigent over the Congo crisis and her attempts to limit the role of the United Nations in solving the conflict. In this section the author again demonstrates how much the United Nations had become a contested ground for visions of global order.

Contrasting US and British visions of the United Nations’ future role remained, even after the fall of Katanga in January 1963. While the United Kingdom increasingly came under heavy pressure to fully decolonise its empire in Africa and elsewhere, after the Cuba crisis and the stand-off with the Soviet Union, the United States once again reassessed the possible value of the UN for its global ambitions. In the following, O’Malley neatly shows how changes in the two Western capitals after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and electoral defeat of Harold Macmillan opened avenues to find common ground – although not always in the interest of African countries, as evidenced in the military counterinsurgency against a hostage situation in Stanleyville (today’s Kisangani in Eastern DRC) in 1964, or the November 1965 Mobutu coup. In the end the Congo crisis, the author emphasizes, remained at the heart of the ambiguous Anglo-American relations for the rest of the Cold War (just as much as the “Southern Rhodesia” question did become an issue), as did the continued struggle over the character and nature of the United Nations. Joint Afro-Asian initiatives to address issues like apartheid in South Africa found not only an arena, but sometimes also a tool to leverage against Western powers’ interests.

O’Malley’s volume contributes to the ongoing scholarship of early African (and Asian) agency in the making of global order. Her account of the interconnectedness of diplomatic efforts between Washington DC, London, Accra, New Delhi and New York is compelling. However, despite the fact that most of her original sources come from Accra or New Delhi, the narration of her story is still predominantly through the eyes of the ambivalent Anglo-American alliance. A more detailed discussion of the perceptions, joint initiatives, strategizing and resistance – in this case encountered by Ghana and India – would have been much welcomed.

[1] Most importantly, this would refer to Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick, Death in the Congo. Murdering Patrice Lumumba, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 2015 (which was later reviewed by A.M. O’Malley for H-Diplo, April 2016, see: https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/119787/omalley-gerard-and-kuklick-death-congo-murdering-patrice-lumumba).
[2] For a recent reassessment of the discussion see Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations and the Decolonisation of Africa, London: Hurst & Company, 2019.

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