The Diplomacy of Decolonisation: America, Britain and the United Nations During the Congo Crisis 1960–64, written by Alanna O’Malley, 2018

In: Diplomatica
Author: Volker Prott1
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Manchester: Manchester University Press, 207 pp. £ 75.00 (€ 83.50) Hardback isbn 978-1-5261-1626-0.

The Congo Crisis has continued to fascinate researchers and the general public. In the Congo, anti-colonial and revolutionary rhetoric was bound up with un intervention, assassination plots, mercenaries, Cold War anxieties, and shady Western businessmen. After five years of civil war and political intrigue, the Congo Crisis ended with – or rather, was perpetuated by – the establishment of the 32-year long dictatorship of General Mobutu, setting the country on a path of chronic corruption, instability, and poverty.

The historian Alanna O’Malley, based at Leiden University, has made an important contribution to our understanding of the Congo Crisis as a turning point of international politics. While the book offers a few new insights into the crisis itself, its primary strength lies in exploring, juxtaposing, and connecting the larger historical forces that shaped, and were themselves shaped by, the conflict: decolonization, the rise of the non-aligned bloc and the un, shifting us policy towards Africa, and the decline of European colonial politics in an era of mounting Cold War tensions.

O’Malley traces these forces and their interplay from Congolese independence in June 1960 to the Stanleyville hostage crisis in November 1964. The book confirms the central role played by the un and its Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, but it points out that it was only the rise of the Afro-Asian bloc that enabled the un to pursue its interventionist agenda. Indeed, O’Malley shows that the un and the non-aligned states depended on and mutually supported each other, effectively pushing the United States to embrace a policy of decolonization in Africa and marginalizing the European colonial powers Britain and Belgium.

The Diplomacy of Decolonisation is a well-crafted and sober analysis of multilateral diplomacy that resists the temptation to delve into plots, conspiracy theories, and behind-the-scenes machinations. While the main emphasis is on international politics and external actors, the author embeds the diplomatic scene in a dense and poignant historical narrative. Chapter one, for instance, opens with a historical background that aptly sums up the international fascination with the Congo following the European explorations of the late nineteenth century. Likewise, Chapter six offers a compelling synthesis of the Stanleyville hostage crisis of November 1964 that effectively connects the strategies of the intervening powers with events on the ground.

The study draws on an impressive range of diplomatic correspondence and personal papers that stem primarily from Britain and the United States. Notably, O’Malley has also carried out archival research in Ghana and India, which enables her to shed light on the “South-South” dimension of the conflict. Although the book provides some background on Belgian political and economic interests in its former colony, it does not make any extensive use of Belgian archives. Since it focusses on the United Nations, the non-aligned states, Britain, and the United States, this is certainly justifiable. Given the amount of research that has gone into this study, however, a bibliography or an index of archives and document collections would have been helpful.

O’Malley’s prose is dense and analytical. At times, the narrative flow is interrupted by slightly lengthy passages on the Anglo-American “special relationship” or on diplomatic initiatives that neither produced tangible results nor offer significant insights into the mind-sets of decision-makers and their advisers. Arguably, it would have been more intriguing to cut some of these sections and, instead, examine more closely Ghana’s and India’s policy towards the un and the Congo Crisis. Such a change of emphasis would have further strengthened the book’s innovative South-South angle.

Probably because of the ambitious and multi-pronged approach, the study does not settle on a clear main focus. This lack of a stringent perspective allows for analytical and thematic flexibility but at the same time gives the overarching framework a certain sense of vagueness. In the introduction, O’Malley first sets out to use “the un as a lens through which to examine American and British policies (4)” but shortly after states that the book aimed at “analysing the role of the un in the Congo, as a way of highlighting different visions of world order as it transformed the way decolonisation was henceforth managed by challenging the policies of America and Britain (6).” There are many fascinating leads and elements here, but lacking a coherent framework, the book struggles to situate their causes, effects, and limits in a wider historical perspective.

The book claims rather than proves, for instance, that the Congo Crisis, and not the Suez Crisis of 1956, was the key moment that triggered the paradigm shift away from European colonial-style politics in international relations. Yet the timing of this paradigm shift is hard to determine without clear criteria, such as – and this seems to be what the author has in mind – a new constellation of forces, with the non-aligned states and the un championing the cause of anti-colonialism and thus tipping the scales in favor of decolonization. The same analytical ambiguity also affects O’Malley’s assessment of the legacy of the Congo Crisis in international politics. The book rightly highlights how the rise of the un and the movement of non-aligned states shaped the Congo Crisis and accelerated decolonization. Yet as the retreat of the un from the Congo in the summer of 1964 and the Stanleyville hostage crisis of November 1964 exemplify, neither the un nor the Afro-Asian bloc were able to provide an effective and durable alternative to Western interventionism.

Without acknowledging it explicitly, O’Malley’s study thus showcases not just the rise of the un and the non-aligned states, but it also reveals the limits to their ambition to become an active force in international politics – an “actor in its own right,” rather than representing merely a ‘public forum’ for moral pressure and an anti-colonial “socialization space (3).”

Overall, Alanna O’Malley has written an international history of the Congo Crisis that is as ambitious as it is intellectually challenging. Based on meticulous archival research and opening up several alleys for future research, The Diplomacy of Decolonisation will be of keen interest to scholars working on the un, the Congo, Cold War diplomacy, and decolonization alike.

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