September 10, 2003: A moment with...

Jeffrey Herbst ’83

Photo by Frank Wojciehowski

Jeffrey Herbst ’83 knew little about Africa when he arrived at Princeton as a student. But he took a few courses about the region and went to Nigeria to research his senior thesis on that nation’s role in West Africa. Herbst, now chairman of Princeton’s politics department, recalls the time: “The oil boom was over, but the Nigerians didn’t know it. Civilian democracy was coming to an end. It was an endlessly fascinating place, with tremendous dynamism and lots of crooks.” With no working phones, Herbst would show up on people’s doorsteps each morning and wheedle his way into interviews. The experience sealed his interest in Africa. He now sits on the board of Princeton-in-Africa, and has written several books, including the prize-winning States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control (2000). He spoke with Ginny Parker ’96 for PAW, shortly after President Charles Taylor left Liberia.

What’s your take on recent events in Liberia and the role of the West?

Liberia is one example of an unfortunate phenomenon we’ve seen – a complete collapse of state authority due to a combination of poor economic prospects and the militarization of these societies.

My own view, which is not widely shared, is that we should give up on the fiction that Liberia is a sovereign state. All kinds of states have collapsed in the past. What’s new is our determination to continually rebuild the existing states. We have to give up on that. We should decertify these dysfunctional states. When people say things like, “The U.S. has a special responsibility in Liberia,” what they’re basically saying is that Liberia is not a sovereign state. But people don’t want to put it in those terms. The myth that once you’re sovereign, you’re always sovereign has been so ingrained.

So we give up this myth; then what?

We have to engage in the long and difficult process of figuring out who actually represents people in Liberia. It’s certainly not these rebels who just happen to be the current leaders of loose confederations of gangs with guns. The world is tempted to immediately start negotiating with them because that’s the quickest solution. We’ve got to take guns away from these guys and look for the actual leaders. Someone has to be in Liberia leading this for a long time, and take over many of the essential services. In Sierra Leone, for instance, the British have taken over much of the government. You could almost call it recolonization. That’s why there’s temporary peace.

Does the West care enough about Africa?

I actually think that the West is more interested in Africa than you’d predict, given how marginal Africa is to Western economies. Fundamentally, if African countries don’t make the right decisions, nothing can be done. The most important area in which the West can help is trade. Agricultural subsidies are just killers. You get an African country that has made tough decisions, opened its markets, and wants to trade more, and suddenly it finds it can’t export to the U.S. or the E.U. because we’re subsidizing our farmers or protecting our textile industries. That’s when our hypocrisy is exposed, and the dispirit among the African countries grows.

What about the impact of AIDS?

Things are going to get much worse. We’re already seeing it in southern Africa. There, governments are so far behind the curve that I think we are going to see large percentages of the adult population die. It’s a huge economic blow.

The primary responsibility sits with the African governments themselves. Too many people are focused on the pharmaceutical end. The truth is there’s not enough money for that in Africa. So the government must cut down on the spread of the disease. That means a lot of public talk about sexuality. Unfortunately, the Africans are not up to that, socially.

How should we think about this region?

African nations are pretty varied, and that’s important to say. Some countries at the extreme, like Mauritius, are saying that they no longer can produce textiles because they’re getting too rich, and they’re moving into information technology. In other places, like the Congo, it’s a desperate struggle for survival. In the countries that are doing poorly, you have to have some economic growth. Otherwise the struggle just becomes too desperate, and the only thing worth having is the state itself, which is the provider of resources. That’s why people fight so desperately to control the state. If you control the state, you get a lot – including a significant amount of the foreign aid.

Most of these countries are 40 to 50 years old. That’s just a blink of the eye in historic time. Most countries, as they develop, have great political problems that continue for many decades. The U.S. Civil War, for instance, was 80 years after independence, and look at the carnage it imposed. There’s no reason to believe that Africa can escape many of the problems that other countries face.


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