Regional Security Complexes and African Foreign Policies

  • Published
  • By Dr Stephen Burgess

Barry Buzan and Ole Waever define the web of structured relationships that states develop to survive and strengthen their security within a geographical area as “regional security complexes” (RSC), which may differ from geographically defined regions.1 Furthermore, they define an RSC as a “group of states whose security cannot realistically be considered apart from one another.” Given state fragility, African leaders conduct foreign policies and “securitize” a range of external and domestic challenges as part of efforts to guarantee regime and state survival.2 I argue that RSCs are structured relationships that provide utility with which to analyze African foreign policies, given their survival imperative. RSC concentration and thickness of power as well as levels of amity and enmity explain how various African states and their leaders conduct their foreign policies.3

Buzan and Waever assert that RSC theory has become increasingly applicable in explaining foreign policies since the end of the Cold War and the end of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union to dominate Europe and the Third World. However, in 2003, they struck a note of pessimism about the applicability of RSC theory to Africa (in comparison with Asia), because “in most of Africa the transplant (of the European-style state) has to varying degrees failed. Consequently, Africa has kept some of the superficial diplomatic appearance of a Westphalian-style state system over the past 40 years, in the continued diplomatic recognition of its states, but it has had little of the political, social, or economic reality of functioning states.”4

Several African states remain juridical rather than de facto,5 and they experience difficulties in governing much of their territory due to a lack of capacity.6 Consequently, several RSCs are emerging and are exemplified by low levels of interstate competition and conflict. There are still regions in Africa, such as the Sahel and parts of Central Africa, where there is insufficient thickness of power for RSCs to develop.7 However, in this century, there has been sufficient development of many African states and some RSCs, which justifies an exploration of the theory’s applicability in analyzing foreign policies. High rates of economic growth and ongoing political development since 2000 have led many African states to grow stronger and more functional. Further evidence for RSCs includes African leaders and states developing and using regional security organizations and defense pacts to deal with a range of challenges that they have securitized. Leaders have formed coalitions of willing states to deal with security issues, such as in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the Lake Chad region. In some places, interstate competition and thickness of power create greater prospects for interstate conflict. Examples include the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria as well as the confrontation between Ethiopia and Eritrea that led to war from 1998–2000.

Regional Security Complex Theory and Foreign Policies

In asserting that RSC theory has been more applicable in explaining foreign policies since the end of the Cold War, Buzan and Waever point out that states increasingly have conducted foreign policies on a regional level. They find this especially true in Asia where Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia RSCs broke free of superpower hegemony, resulting in more regionally centered dynamics and foreign policies. Subsequently, China helped create an Asian “super-complex,” in which it became an increasingly powerful actor, around which other powers revolved. As the South Asian RSC merged with the Asian super-complex, foreign policies evolved from a primarily bipolar interstate confrontation between India and Pakistan into a tripolar one involving China.8

The analysis draws on constructivist and neoclassical realist theories of international relations and foreign policy decision-making.9 Both constructivist RSC theory and neoclassical realism include levels of thickness and concentration of power and levels of dispute management as factors that shape foreign policies.10 The thicker the power, the more likely there will be a concentration of power—unipolar or multipolar. Below a threshold of thinness of power, regional states may not exercise sovereignty over much of their territory and an RSC will not exist.11 In addition, RSC theory emphasizes levels of analysis and “patterns of amity and enmity” across a complex, which is dependent on the actions and interpretations of leaders and other actors in the system. Neoclassical realist theory also focuses on regions, disputes, and levels of analysis and how leaders and other actors settle disputes, either through conflict or compromise.12 The assumption is that patterns of enmity and amity develop over time and are hard to alter, even when conditions change. Therefore, adversarial states may find it difficult to bury the hatchet when it is in their interest to begin cooperating. Conversely, friendly states, especially democracies, may think twice about defending their interests by using force and escalating to war against each other.13

Variation in RSC power thickness, power concentration, and levels of amity and enmity correlate with variation in foreign policies. Growing complex thickness and amity can bring greater collective security, while greater complex thickness and enmity produces greater competition and can result in conflict. State size matters in terms of the foreign policies of states in RSCs. Large states look to use concentration of power in their hands to conduct foreign policies that either seek to lead in or develop hegemony over an RSC and possibly supply the bulk of collective security goods. Small states can bandwagon with, balance against, or hedge in relations with large states. Patterns of amity and enmity help determine whether RSC foreign policies tend toward cooperation or conflict. Some RSCs succeed in supplying public security goods in the form of mechanisms and actions that supply reassurance for states concerned about their survival. Multipolar concentrations of power tend to produce foreign policies that are competitive and adversarial, and states are less effective in supplying positive security goods. A multipolar, developed RSC depends on states using foreign policies, especially diplomacy, to create a balance of power and keep the peace.14

In Europe, RSCs featured multipolar concentration and increasing thickness of power before 1945, which resulted in foreign policies focused on alliance formation, interstate war, and keeping peace through power-balancing. The RSCs grew thicker as economies industrialized, infrastructure developed, and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita rose. Growing thickness and multipolar concentration of power resulted in militarized competition and arms races. As power thickened during the nineteenth century, the major powers became stronger and developed highly mechanized forces that threatened each other. Another basis came from a pendulum that swung from cooperation and amity to confrontation and enmity. In Europe, the leaders of Germany and France were intertwined in enmity and a worsening security dilemma from 1870 to 1944 that helped to shape the RSC and competitive and conflictual foreign policies. Rising enmity between France’s and Germany’s leaders combined with the multipolar concentration and increasing thickness of power, resulting in the highly destructive world wars of 1914–18 and 1939–45. The level of dispute management was unable to manage the rising level of enmity. After 1918, foreign policies to prevent another war focused on collective security through the League of Nations and arms control conferences and less on power-balancing. After World War II, the concentration of power was bipolar, with the United States and the Soviet Union controlling blocs in Europe and competing for influence in Asia and Africa. Germany’s defeat in World War II and bipolarity muted the enmity within the European RSC and limited its autonomy. The United States led in forging cooperation and managing competition within the Western Europe RSC with the creation of NATO in 1949. US and French leaders’ promotion of regional cooperation led to a qualitatively different RSC with the development of integration and amity and the development of the European Union (EU) from the late 1940s to the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. There was high concentration of power in the hands of the United States and increasing thickness of power with economic recovery and growth and the fading of enmity and development of amity. Bipolar deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union forestalled enmity and confrontation from developing into conflict between the Western and Eastern blocs. After the Cold War, European leaders sought to develop their own security vision and institutions and a common foreign policy that diverged somewhat from those of the American superpower.15

In Asia, power thickened after 1945, especially with decolonization and industrialization. Enmity grew between India and Pakistan in South Asia and Japan and China in East Asia. The rapid rise of China and the thickening of power in the 1990s brought the Northeast, Southeast, and South Asian RSCs closer together and led toward a super Asian RSC. India had been the dominant power in South Asia but, with the thickening of power, found itself competing with China, and the intensity of negative and positive interactions increased. In 2011, the concentration of power in China’s hands compelled the United States to announce a “pivot to Asia.”16

In Africa, from the 1960s to the 1980s, newly independent states’ struggle to survive included foreign policies that featured bandwagoning with the United States or Soviet Union or attempting to play one superpower against the other.17 The only interstate wars in eastern Africa occurred in the late 1970s. Ethiopia, backed by the Soviet bloc, defeated an invasion by Somalia, and Tanzania retaliated against an incursion from Uganda by overthrowing the Amin regime. After the Cold War, states could no longer look to the United States or Soviet Union to bolster them. For example, the United States did not come to the rescue of Liberian president Samuel Doe in 1989–90, and the Soviet Union did nothing to stop the overthrow of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991. With the end of the Cold War and disappearance of US and Soviet aid, African states increasingly worked together with their regional counterparts, using collective security arrangements to meet challenges and help faltering states survive. France was the only outside power to remain engaged—and only in its former colonies in West and Central Africa. In addition, regional rivalries developed, some of which led to enmity and conflict. The most significant examples were Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a bloody war between 1998 and 2000, and several states whose armies fought each other in in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the Second Congo War, 1998–2003.18

Power in Africa’s RSCs is not as thick as in Asia, which helps to explain the lower level of interstate competition and conflict. African states are poorer, and most cannot afford large militaries that can wage interstate war. They are also weaker than their Asian counterparts and more absorbed with internal security. As in other RSCs, higher power concentration and thickness in African RSCs tend to produce unipolarity, as in the case of South Africa’s hegemony in Southern Africa. Higher thickness and less concentration bring multipolarity, as in the dyadic rivalry between Algeria and Morocco in North Africa. The lower the thickness and concentration, the weaker the RSC and the greater the chance that an RSC is in formation. Patterns of amity and enmity have developed across Africa. On one hand, RSC enmity has grown in rivalrous dyads, such as Morocco vs. Algeria, Ethiopia vs. Eritrea, and Rwanda vs. Uganda. Some states’ rivalry and enmity have made their security dependent on being able to stand up to their adversaries. On the other, the evolution of RSC amity has been accompanied by regional security cooperation, with many African leaders and states taking collective action, creating security arrangements and architectures, and making one state’s security dependent on that of others.19

African RSC foreign policies have featured considerable diplomatic activity, institution-building, and episodic use of sanctions and military force for regional collective security. African Union member states and some in regional economic communities (RECs) have signed on to rules that suspend countries from their organizations when they undergo unconstitutional changes in government. RSC states have occasionally intervened when misrule within a country becomes so egregious that it causes spillover with flows of insurgents and refugees. However, African states also have the tendency to devise new regional institutions but struggle to act, which is symptomatic of sovereignty’s strength and “symbolic diplomacy” within relatively weak RSCs.20

A varying combination of regional security crises and rivalries provide the impetus for RSC formation. For example, the confrontation between apartheid South Africa versus the Group of Frontline States helped to shape the Southern African RSC’s formation, while Nigeria versus France and francophone states shaped the West African RSC’s development. The rivalries of Ethiopia versus Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea influenced the Horn of Africa RSC’s emergence, and Rwanda versus Uganda and Burundi that of the Great Lakes RSC. Regional security crises, such as the 1985 Horn of Africa famine, spurred the securitization of drought and food shortages and RSC development. The Horn of Africa RSC came to came to be characterized by the struggle for food security and famine prevention, as well as by conflict management in Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan and interstate enmity between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The identity clash between Morocco and Algeria helped to create the North African RSC, with a security dilemma and enmity hampering the development of cooperation.21

Both constructivist RSC theory and neoclassical realism include a focus on economic and environmental security. Some African states and RSCs have focused on the environment and food security and set up organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGAD). Others concentrated on economic security, such as the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, which focused on economic separation from apartheid South Africa and development in the 1980s and became the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1992. Some states used RECs to institute security architectures and mutual defense pacts that helped to shape RSCs. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a mutual defense pact in 1981 after Libyan provocation in the region, which paved the way for Nigeria to lead the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, followed by the establishment of a security architecture.


I examine the relationship between African RSCs and the foreign policies of their constituent states and demonstrate how the RSC model is a useful way of explaining African foreign policies, especially after the Cold War. First, an analysis of three cases of RSC development in the most advanced RSCs (North, West, and Southern Africa) shows their impact on foreign policies. This includes description how the RSCs originated, developed, and changed decade by decade and the variable impact of RSC power thickness and concentration on foreign policies of key states. Second, comparison of the RSCs leads to explanation of their differences and similarities.

In part, power concentration is measured by the regional distribution of gross domestic product, and thickness is measured by the level of regional GDP per capita. RSCs’ levels of power concentration and thickness and levels of enmity and amity tend to cause certain types of foreign policy behavior (e.g., bandwagoning, balancing, “soft balancing,”22 or hedging as well as cooperating, competing, or fighting). Changes in RSC power distribution and in levels of amity and enmity lead to changes in foreign policy behavior. Concerning levels of analysis, RSCs explain how states behave in their interactions with other states and the behavior of leaders, most of whom try to centralize power in the face of foreign and domestic threats and uncertainty. The RSC level affects foreign policy behavior at the state and individual levels and supplies the basis for comparison.

Southern Africa’s RSC and Foreign Policies

The Southern African complex has featured a higher degree of thickness compared to other African RSCs, due to the regional mining industry and supporting infrastructure, as well as majority ruled states’ solidarity with armed liberation movements from the 1960s to the 1990s. There is a unipolar concentration of power in which South Africa has had by far the most economic and military power and is the regional hub. From the 1960s until 1994, African-ruled countries and liberation movements confronted apartheid South Africa and its allies, resulting in intense rivalries, enmity, and insurgencies. The first sign of an emerging complex was with the independence of Mozambique and Angola in 1975 and the creation of the Group of Frontline States (GFLS) to support the liberation movements fighting against apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. The same states plus others came together in 1980 to form the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (an emerging REC that became the SADC in 1992) to supply economic security in the face of apartheid South African blandishments and threats. The foreign policies of Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Mozambique and the liberation movements focused on implementing the dual strategy of armed struggle and negotiations with Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as cultivating solidarity among the independent African states. The Cold War enabled the liberation movements and the GFLS to secure support from the Soviet bloc, China, and nonaligned states, as well as pressuring the United States to work for change in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.

With the end of the Cold War and dissolution of superpower interest, the RSC developed into a complex where conflict and confrontational foreign policy gave way to cooperation mixed with competition and some resistance to leadership by the new South Africa. In 1992, Southern African states transformed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) into the SADC, with the aim of a more formal REC similar to the EU, but which also formed the basis for the reconfigured RSC. Despite increased regional cooperation, several states pursued their own foreign policy agendas that contradicted and occasionally clashed with each other. The competitive side became clear soon after a democratic South Africa joined the SADC in 1994. The new South Africa did not face a major adversary in the region and was by far the largest economy, but it still had to win the trust of regional leaders and states and slowly develop cooperation and amity. While South African leadership and soft power combined with the prospect of increased aid and investment were attractive to many African leaders and states, several resisted South Africa. Resistance particularly came from autocratic leaders who were fearful of regime change.

In the early 1990s, Southern African countries’ foreign policies centered on helping to manage postconflict transitions in Namibia (leading to independence from South African colonial rule in 1990), Angola (leading to contested elections and renewed war in 1992), Mozambique (leading to peace in 1994), and South Africa (leading to majority rule in 1994), as well as trying to prevent the conflicts from reigniting and spilling over borders. Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, and other states supported the African National Congress in negotiations with the apartheid regime from 1990–94 and prepared for the spread of violence from South Africa. In 1992, the Angolan peace process collapsed, and conflict spilled over into Zambia, Namibia, and Zaire. Southern African states made several interventions to persuade the Angolan regime of President Eduardo dos Santos and the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) rebel movement of Jonas Savimbi to cease fire and restart the transition process. However, two ceasefires—partly brought about by Zambia and other neighboring states—and two United Nations missions failed, leading to strengthening of the conflict and an eventual merger with the DRC wars from 1996–2002.

As the RSC developed in the 1990s, the new South Africa proceeded cautiously in its foreign policy, though it achieved some early diplomatic successes. In the latter half of 1994, South African diplomacy helped to reverse a military coup in Lesotho and restore democracy. In 1994, South African leaders intervened with their Mozambican counterparts to persuade both sides to follow through with multiparty elections and successfully complete the UN peacekeeping mission there. Only intervention prevented failure of the peace process and spillover to the rest of Southern Africa.

Some leaders resented a more powerful, influential South Africa that led to resistance and “soft balancing.”23 The prospect of President Nelson Mandela and South Africa leading the region threatened the power and prestige that Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano, and Angola president Jose Eduardo dos Santos had accumulated as well as jeopardized the civil war that dos Santos was waging to consolidate his rule.24 In resisting and balancing against South Africa, Mugabe and dos Santos led in founding the SADC Organ on Politics, Defense, and Security (OPDS) in 1996 as a military-oriented body that would be able to provide mutual defense and deal with civil wars and other issues of instability. They excluded South Africa from the leadership troika. In opposition to Zimbabwe and Angola, South Africa worked with Botswana, Tanzania, and Mozambique to ensure that the OPDS would be primarily a peacemaking body, committed to upholding democracy and human rights.25

Southern African RSC competition and contention centered especially on the civil war that ended the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko and the Republic of Zaire, gave birth to the DRC, and claimed more than a million lives. In May 1997, South African officials took the initiative in negotiations to persuade Mobutu to resign and leave the DRC, after they had gained the trust of Paul Kagame and Laurent Kabila, the leaders of the Rwandan Patriotic Army and Congolese rebel force, respectively.26 In addition, South African generals convinced Mobutu’s generals to end resistance and dissuaded foreign allies of Mobutu from intervening. After Mobutu’s departure and Kabila’s establishment of the DRC, Southern African leaders invited the country to join the SADC in September 1997, which began the process of incorporating the DRC into the Southern African RSC. Subsequently, several Southern African states and Rwanda, Uganda, and the Angolan UNITA rebel group began a struggle for power and influence in the DRC. This led to a resurgence of civil war in August 1998, as President Kabila turned against his Rwandan allies and asked that Southern African countries come to defend him from retaliation. In September, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia’s answered Kabila’s call for help and intervened in the DRC. As Rwanda and Uganda and the three Southern African countries struggled over spheres of influence in the DRC, the civil war turned into an interstate war on Congolese soil.

Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia proclaimed that their intervention was “in the name of SADC” with a mandate from the OPDS troika and in response to a request from a SADC head of state (Kabila). However, all three countries had ulterior motives and did not consult other SADC leaders, tainting the legitimacy of the intervention.27 In response, other SADC leaders called on the three countries to withdraw—without success. Subsequently, the anti-interventionist states proposed a diplomatic solution to put an end to the war. Zambia took the lead in negotiating the Lusaka Ceasefire Agreement in July 1999.28 As the war dragged on, South Africa took over the diplomatic initiative and led in negotiating the Sun City Agreement of April 2002. With the withdrawal of foreign forces from the DRC in 2003, President Joseph Kabila and his regime were beholden to the Southern African states that had come to the rescue. Also, there had been close ties between Southern Africa and mineral-rich Katanga Province for decades, and the war and its aftermath accelerated the process of incorporating the DRC into the Southern African RSC.29

Soon after the DRC intervention in September 1998, South Africa and Botswana intervened militarily in Lesotho to stop a military mutiny and preserve democracy. In contrast to the DRC intervention, the Lesotho intervention met no regional opposition, but the excessive use of force in the intervention tarnished the image of the new South Africa as an emerging benign hegemon and showed that it had much to learn in the use of power in its foreign policy. The controversies and interventions demonstrated that the Southern African RSC at the end of 1990s was not well institutionalized and that foreign policies were more about competition than cooperation.

In the 2000s, the Southern African RSC became less divisive, as leaders constructed institutions to help in the management of disputes, grew to accept South African leadership, and practiced more cooperative foreign policies. Southern African leaders approved a process for OPDS decision-making and for authorizing collective action to avoid squabbles over “intervention in the name of SADC.” In 2003, leaders agreed to a SADC mutual defense pact that focused on conflict resolution and laid the groundwork for developing the capabilities for more effective collective security.30 With the creation of the African Union (AU), the African Peace and Security Architecture, and plans for an African Standby Force (ASF), Southern African states began to develop one of the five regional ASF brigades to organize and move toward operationalization, which promised to add to regional collective security capacity within the RSC. With the founding of the AU and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), several Southern African countries submitted themselves to the NEPAD African Peer Review Mechanism, starting in 2004. The new international institutional setting divided those Southern African regimes that were willing to undergo peer review and those who refused to move outside the shadow of sovereignty, causing tensions within the RSC.31

Economic interactions help define RSCs, and free trade areas (FTA) tend to diminish discord in an RSC. In the 2000s, South Africa began expanding the Southern African Customs Union nonreciprocity arrangement to the rest of the SADC. In 2008, SADC states agreed to a FTA, with plans for a customs union leading to a common market and monetary union. However, resistance from several states and the imposition of nontariff barriers hampered trade expansion. At the same time, South Africa and other Southern African states sought their own free trade deals with the EU, which weakened the drive toward an FTA. Therefore, the FTA effect on the RSC and cooperation was not as great as it may have been if states had fully implemented the agreement.32

In the 2000s, Southern African states undertook diplomatic initiatives to bring peace to the DRC and political reform to unstable autocracies in Angola, eSwatini (Swaziland), and Zimbabwe. Southern African states played a key role in ending the DRC war, culminating in the 2002 Sun City peace agreement. Afterward, Southern African countries sent peacekeeping troops to the UN Mission in the DRC to help oversee the withdrawal of foreign forces and try to stabilize the east of the country. In 2006, the Southern African election observation delegation’s quick endorsement of the election of Joseph Kabila as DRC president further elevated the region’s standing with the regime and helped to draw the beleaguered country further into the RSC.33

Resistance to Southern African diplomacy came from autocratic leaders who were fearful of the prospect of intervention to stop massive human rights abuses and to enact regime change. After resisting diplomatic solutions for almost a decade, President dos Santos continued to oppose efforts to reform his regime and reach out to the democratic opposition movement, even after the end of the Angolan civil war. Even though eSwatini was virtually surrounded by South Africa, King Mswati III continued to oppose diplomatic efforts to reform his near-absolute monarchy.34

While the RSC featured growing institutionalization, cooperation, and acceptance of South African leadership, the crisis in Zimbabwe spurred a new round of regional contention and foreign policy challenges. In 2000, Mugabe lost a referendum on land reform and ordered the seizure of white commercial farms, which devastated the economy and resulted in hyperinflation. In March 2002, presidential elections between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai of the rising Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) featured assaults on opposition party officials and white commercial farmers combined with unfree and unfair election procedures. The repressive actions led to EU and US sanctions and Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth. However, the Southern African election monitoring team downplayed election irregularities, and Southern African leaders asserted that sanctions would worsen the chances for conflict resolution. From 2002 to 2008, Zimbabwe deteriorated with hyperinflation and continued repression. Most Southern African leaders chose a foreign policy approach of solidarity and quiet diplomacy over effective action, though they did prevent Mugabe and his subordinates from holding leadership positions in the SADC. This position reflected regional solidarity with a leader who had supplied support during the liberation struggle. In 2008, the MDC won parliamentary elections and the first round of presidential elections. After massive repression and election fraud, Mugabe claimed victory in the second round, which Southern African observers certified as free and fair. Despite the flagrant abuses of democratic and human rights norms, most Southern African governments continued to oppose sanctions and hoped that quiet diplomacy would end the crisis.35 The result of negotiations was that Mugabe remained as president in a power-sharing arrangement with Tsvangirai and the MDC. The crisis in Zimbabwe demonstrated the continuing power of the personalist “presidents’ club” and “liberation movement solidarity” that characterized much of the region’s foreign policies.36 Thus, excessive amity with Mugabe and fear that enmity with the regime would cause conflict prevented pressure for reforms that would have stabilized Zimbabwe and regenerated US and EU support. Only a few leaders were willing to speak up against misrule in Zimbabwe. President Mwanawasa in neighboring Zambia deplored the negative spillover from Zimbabwe into his country. President Ian Khama of Botswana was conspicuously outspoken during the 2008 crisis and criticized Mugabe and the Southern African old boys’ club of aging autocrats. The Zimbabwe crisis, Mugabe’s undemocratic and economically disastrous behavior, and the failure of Southern African leaders to act decisively to reform dictatorships and end repression harmed the image of the region and its good governance initiatives and demonstrated the limits to foreign policy that would effect change.37

In the 2010s, enmity, competition, and soft balancing in the RSC continued to fade, as amity and cooperation developed. South Africa continued to act as a restrained regional hegemon, while also acting concretely on the continental stage and symbolically on the global stage. There was symbolic foreign policy innovation in the RSC with limits on implementation and substance. Conflict management continued to be a major part of the foreign policies in the RSC. In 2009, Southern African states suspended Madagascar from the SADC and imposed sanctions after a military coup. They lifted the suspension and sanctions in 2014 after Madagascar implemented a process to restore civilian rule. In 2013 in the eastern DRC, South Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania deployed the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) to the eastern DRC to augment the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO) and defeated the M-23 rebels who were committing massive human rights abuses and who had captured the regional center of Goma. While the FIB remained in the DRC in case of emergency, Southern African states also continued to make significant contributions to the stabilization of the DRC.38 Southern African states pressured DRC President Joseph Kabila to hold elections in 2018 and transfer power to Felix Tshisekedi, as well as intensify efforts to stabilize the east of the country, so that Southern African states could begin to gradually withdraw their forces.

In November 2017, Zimbabwe returned as a foreign policy concern, after a military coup. Mugabe’s wife led a group that tried to seize control of the government and oust Mugabe’s heir-apparent and security chief, Emmerson Mnangagwa. The Zimbabwe military switched their support from Mugabe to Mnangagwa and seized power, ending 37 years of strongman civilian rule. Even though Southern African states should have suspended Zimbabwe from the SADC as they had Madagascar, they avoided admitting that the military intervention was a coup. This would lead one to conclude that Zimbabwe ranked higher on the Southern African pecking order than Madagascar. Instead of suspending Zimbabwe from the SADC, Southern African states intervened diplomatically and helped pave the way toward elections in 2018. However, under President Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe sank deeper into misery, and Southern African states continued to manage the fallout from a chronic crisis. In 2018, South Africa’s new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, reenergized South Africa’s leadership role in the Southern Africa RSC and pressured Mnangagwa to make reforms to save Zimbabwe’s sinking economy with limited results.39

In 2018, in another display of RSC collective security, Southern African countries deployed troops to Lesotho to stop another military mutiny and coup. However, the limits of collective security have been demonstrated recently by the reluctance of Mozambique’s President Felipe Nyusi to allow a Southern African security force to enter northern Cabo Delgado Province and counter an insurgency involving a local franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that had been operating since 2018. One of the reasons cited for his reluctance was the apparent desire of Mozambique’s leaders to leave Cabo Delgado insecure and lawless, because they were benefiting from a lucrative drug trade that a regional security force might disrupt. Mozambique’s leaders were also concerned about the threat to the lucrative gas business in the north and had hired Russian and South African mercenaries over whom they had more control than a regional force. However, after considerable pressure from Southern African states, Mozambique agreed to allow a SADC force of 3,000 to deploy to the conflict zone.40

An analysis of the Southern African RSC’s development and its foreign policies illustrates how the RSC model explains foreign policies. The hegemony, and the change from apartheid to democracy, were correlated with change in foreign policies—from enmity and resistance by independent states through a transition period in which Zimbabwe and Angola soft-balanced against South Africa toward eventual regional amity and acceptance of South Africa’s leadership role. The thickness of power in the RSC enabled states to pursue foreign policies that secured the region and reached out to help stabilize the DRC and draw it into the region. However, the persistence of personalism prevented states from pursuing foreign policies that consistently employed sanctions to deal with regional challenges. Southern African RSC development coincided with the transformation of one REC (the SADC) into an organization that managed collective security and shaped regional foreign policies.

North Africa’s RSC and Foreign Policies

This RSC developed from the 1960s onward, eventually reaching a similar level of thickness as Southern Africa (in terms of relatively high regional GDP) but with contrasting foreign policies, stemming from a bipolar concentration of power in the hands of Morocco and Algeria—two of the strongest states in Africa. Morocco has a GDP per capita of more than 9,000 USD and Algeria more than 16,000 USD (due to oil and gas exports), and both have developed two of the strongest militaries on the continent, with high levels of defense spending and sophisticated weapons procurement due to their rivalry as well as the domestic influence of their militaries.41 This RSC configuration and clashing constructions of identity have led to rivalry, enmity, and foreign policies that feature competition, confrontation, and occasional conflict, though with periods of reconciliation and efforts at institution-building. The bipolar RSC has led the two main antagonists to conduct foreign policies that have reached outside the region to garner support for their contending positions.

The roots of the RSC lie in the two historical paths that Morocco and Algeria followed and their conflicting constructions of identity. The Kingdom of Morocco descended from an empire that once controlled much of Maghreb North Africa, and its leaders have long considered the region within its sphere of influence. Algeria emerged in 1962 from a revolution against French settler colonialism as a struggling republic, supported African independence movements from their European colonizers, and rejected the concept of a “greater Morocco.”42 While Morocco supported the Algerian Front de Liberatión Nationale struggle against French occupation, Rabat maintained historically based claims on the Algerian provinces of Tindouf and Bechar. In 1963, Morocco sent troops across the border to fulfill its claim, starting the Sand War, which lasted for a month but sparked the enmity between the two states that persists today.

For five decades, the main point of contention has centered on the status of Western Sahara. In 1974, Spain began the process of decolonization of its territory. The Saharawi Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro (POLISARIO) movement and Algeria pressed for independence and self-determination for the Saharawi people. Morocco and Mauritania claimed that the territory was part of their respective empires and had been illegally separated from them by Spain. In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that the people of the Western Sahara had the right to self-determination and independence, even though the court recognized that Morocco and Mauritania’s historical claims had some merit. In November 1975, Morocco invaded the territory. POLISARIO responded with guerrilla warfare, backed by Algeria, which lasted until a ceasefire agreement in 1989. Rabat saw Algiers’s support of the POLISARIO liberation movement’s struggle to create an independent Western Sahara as an assault on Moroccan sovereignty, while Algerian leaders viewed Morocco’s seizure of Western Sahara in 1975 as thwarting a fraternal liberation movement and Saharawi national self-determination. Algeria led efforts in the Organization of African Unity (OAU) that recognized the independence of Western Sahara and POLISARIO as the legitimate representative of the Saharawi people. In protest, Morocco left the OAU in 1984.

While Morocco and Algeria struggled against each other, the Maghreb countries were united in the Arab League behind the Palestinian cause and developed foreign policies of nonalignment. Tunisia and Libya composed the other significant parts of the RSC and tended to be forces for regional cooperation and unity. Egypt was never heavily engaged in the North African RSC, due to its rivalry with Israel and focus on the Middle East. During the 1970s, Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba undertook several campaigns to unify the Maghreb states. In 1974, the revolutionary Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and Bourguiba agreed to unite Libya and Tunisia, but the plan collapsed due to a lack of popular support in Tunisia. Afterward, Libya formed a defensive alliance against Morocco, and Gaddafi began supplying the POLISARIO guerrilla campaign in Western Sahara. In addition, Gaddafi sponsored insurgents throughout Africa and the Muslim world and promoted pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism with the aim of increasing his regime’s influence.

In the late 1980s, with the winding down of Soviet support for Algeria and Libya and with negotiations to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, relations among Maghreb states improved. International mediation brought the Western Sahara ceasefire agreement and a UN peacekeeping mission (MINURSO) that deployed in 1992. In 1988, Tunisia hosted the Maghreb Summit, which initiated efforts to form a REC. In 1989, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) was born. The AMU had the aim of reinforcing the independence of its member states and safeguarding their economic assets. The AMU could have been the basis for more cooperative foreign policies in the North African RSC.43 However, renewed feuding between Algeria and Morocco extinguished those hopes. After the deployment of MINURSO, a planned UN-sponsored referendum foundered on the issue of who was a Saharawi. POLISARIO and Algeria claimed that only those who lived in the territory in 1975 had the right to vote in the referendum, while Morocco asserted that the descendants of tribe members who were driven from the territory by the Spanish in the nineteenth century could vote. In 1994, renewed rancor over Western Sahara culminated in a dispute over the transfer of the AMU presidency from Algeria to Libya. As a result, Colonel Qaddafi opined that the AMU deserved to “be in the freezer.”44 Since that time, AMU heads of state have failed to meet, and the organization has been moribund. Consequently, the foreign policies of Morocco and Algeria returned to confrontation and competition and oriented toward garnering support for their respective causes in sub-Saharan Africa, the Non-Aligned Movement, Europe, and the United States. With Morocco supplying aid, investment, and peacekeepers throughout much of Africa, the country gained influence and was readmitted to the AU in 2017.

After failing to achieve Arab or Maghreb unity, Qaddafi turned to a pan-Africanist foreign policy in the late 1990s and led the transformation of the OAU into the AU from 1999 to 2002. In 2003, AU defense ministers, in agreeing to form the ASF, designated the AMU as the lead organization in developing the North African Standby Brigade. Due to Moroccan-Algerian enmity, the brigade turned out to be a nonstarter. As a result of the Morocco–Algeria standoff, the AMU failed in the economic and security sectors.45 However, with the spread of violent extremism from Algeria in the 1990s, Algeria and Morocco as well as Tunisia and Libya cooperated to mitigate the impact.46

In 2011, the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and affected the entire North African RSC. The Moroccan government responded by instituting reforms and the Algerian regime deflected popular dissatisfaction. Qaddafi tried and failed to suppress mass uprisings and was killed in October 2011. The Libyan state fractured with two opposing poles in Tripoli and Benghazi and an on-again, off-again civil war. This led to foreign policies in the RSC to revive Libya, with the other North African states mediating and struggling against spillover. Although Morocco and Algeria occasionally cooperated, their rivalry proved difficult to overcome.47 In 2020, as Morocco’s position in Western Sahara strengthened further, POLISARIO announced that it was renewing military operations in the territory with Algerian support.

The North African RSC and its states’ foreign policies followed a different pattern from the Southern African RSC, where enmity and soft balancing toward the South African hegemon transitioned to amity and cooperation. Morocco and Algeria’s differing constructions of North Africa crystallized in the Western Sahara dispute and fueled enmity. In contrast, South Africa came to accept the African nationalist construction of Southern Africa, culminating in granting independence to its illegitimate colony, which became an independent Namibia. The North African bipolar balance of power meant that neither country could prevail over the other. The end of the Cold War and mediation by Tunisia, Libya, and the international community led to a brief period of cooperation that soon returned to enmity and confrontation. The North African RSC resembles the South Asian one, with the intense rivalry between India and Pakistan, based on differing constructions of the subcontinent, preventing the development of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Although India is the hegemon in South Asia, Pakistan has countered by sponsoring violent extremist organizations (VEOs) as asymmetric means of opposition, backed by a strong military and nuclear weapons. In contrast to North Africa, France and Germany overcame enmity and differing constructions of their region’s identity from the late 1940s onward and led in creating the EU. In the 1990s, Brazil and Argentina did the same in leading to create MERCOSUR, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia in leading to develop the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the 1970s.

West Africa’s RSC and Foreign Policies

Power in the West African RSC is thinner and less concentrated than in the Southern African and North African RSCs, and some states have struggled to survive. The RSC features a range of fragile to moderately stable states that have overcome postcolonial rivalries to exercise foreign policy cooperation in organizations, including through ECOWAS, the G5 Sahel, and the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Nigeria has the region’s largest GDP but is a not a hegemon or a strong state and struggles to exert its power in the region and within its own boundaries. An outside power, France, has shaped the identity of francophone West Africa and played a key role in regional security, most recently in stabilizing two of its former colonies, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali. According to Buzan and Waever’s definition, continuing French involvement means that the West African RSC struggles to become a fully-fledged complex where states’ foreign policies would be focused on each other.

During the Cold War, West Africa featured a mix of foreign policies primarily intended to ensure the survival of states in formation, especially as a wave of military coups swept over them. France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom all intervened in West Africa to stabilize friendly regimes and destabilize ones that infringed on their interests. Until Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, he led Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, and other countries in the pan-Africanist movement, seeking to undermine French neocolonial identity and create a united West African identity. The 196770 Nigerian civil war led some francophone states to back the Biafran secession as a way of weakening the potential hegemon. Nigeria’s triumph in the civil war and the use of its oil wealth in foreign policy led to rapprochement with Francophonie and the emergence of policies of cooperation, highlighted by the 1975 founding of ECOWAS to promote regional economic integration. In 1980, Qaddafi’s invasion of northern Chad, as well as his sponsorship of several West African insurgent movements, led regional states to agree to an ECOWAS Protocol on Mutual Defense Assistance in 1981.48

With the end of the Cold War, the emerging West African RSC and its foreign policies developed toward self-reliance and self-containment, especially with the Nigerian-led ECOMOG interventions to make peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Within the RSC, personalist, ideological, and security factors explain West African states’ conflicting foreign policies in the 1990s. In Liberia, the withdrawal of US support for the Samuel Doe regime in Liberia opened the door to insurgents led by Charles Taylor and backed by Libya, Burkina Faso, and Cote d’Ivoire. In August 1990, President Doe called on West African states to come to the rescue. Nigeria and Ghana invoked the ECOWAS defense pact, proposed a ceasefire, and sent troops to Liberia. Although there was no peace to keep and Doe was killed in September 1990, ECOMOG stayed and defended a transitional government and the capital, Monrovia, from insurgent assaults. Senegal sent troops to demonstrate that a francophone state was willing to support the ECOMOG mission but soon withdrew after several soldiers were killed.

The Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida had developed close personal relations with Doe and was unconstrained in spending substantial amounts of financial and human resources in forcefully trying to make peace and stabilize Liberia. Nigeria and Ghana sent troops also because they were concerned about spillover from Liberia throughout West Africa. Babangida and his successor, Sani Abacha, also wanted to improve the image of Nigeria tarnished under a brutal military dictatorship.49

Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso opposed the ECOMOG intervention. Burkina Faso had experienced a revolution the 1980s and continued supporting the insurgency. Ivoirian president Felix Houphouet-Boigny supported the insurgents and opposed ECOMOG for personal reasons, as Samuel Doe was responsible for the execution of the president’s daughter alongside her husband, Liberian president Tolbert, in 1980. Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso pushed back against Nigerian hegemony in a form of soft balancing that resembled that practiced by Southern African states against the new South Africa in the 1990s. In 1992, the two opposing sides reached the Yamoussoukro Agreement. Subsequent negotiations patched over the enmity in West Africa and set the stage for 1997 elections in Liberia and a temporary peace.50 In 1997, ECOWAS states deployed ECOMOG troops to Sierra Leone to reverse a military coup and escalation by the Revolutionary United Front that led to a siege on the capital, Freetown. ECOMOG succeeded in stabilizing the country and handed matters over to a UN operation in 2000.51 The last ECOMOG operation of the 1990s took place in Guinea-Bissau—a country that was riven by factionalism and coups.52 In the 1990s, the West African RSC developed into one that was largely self-sufficient in security, thanks to personalist largesse by Nigeria’s dictators, and where personalist soft balancing gave way to cooperation, due to West African diplomacy.

In the 2000s, RSC foreign policies focused on strengthening security cooperation and building amity. ECOWAS established the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping, and Security, with a security architecture including an ECOWAS Peace and Security Council that set up procedures for authorizing more legitimate, orderly, and humane peace operations than the ones in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, as well as an Early Warning Mechanism plus a Council of the Wise to mediate in disputes and conflicts.53 Starting in 2003, West African states took steps toward developing a standby brigade as part of the ASF. The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy set the stage for other interventions in the region.54 The ECOWAS protocol strengthened norms against military coups and other unconstitutional changes in government, such as presidents unilaterally ending term limits. Civilian governments were fearful of more military seizures of power and were especially interested in the ECOWAS anti-coup norm.55

West African states provided leadership against coups and other unconstitutional seizures of power. In 2003, they helped to reverse a military coup in offshore Sao Tome e Principe. In 2005, they became involved in the transition process in Togo after the death of the dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema and an attempted military coup. Because of pressure from West African states, the military backed down and allowed free and fair democratic elections and a constitutional conclusion. However, the result was that Eyadema’s son, Faure, won the election and carried on the dynasty.

While the level of West African RSC institutionalization rose in the 2000s, the amount of collective security dropped in 2000, with the end of the Nigerian military dictatorship and the new civilian leadership’s unwillingness to continue to spend the same level of blood and treasure to stabilize West Africa. In 2000, Nigeria withdrew its troops from Sierra Leone as part of a ceasefire agreement that ended ECOMOG and stood up the UN Mission to Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL).56 When UNAMSIL faced a crisis later in 2000, Nigeria was unwilling to return its troops, so British troops helped rescue the mission. When West African troops reinforced UNAMSIL from 2000 to 2003, they were not self-sustaining as in the 1990s but instead were supported by the UN in a peace support operation. In addition, West African states took part in a peace support operation in Liberia from 2003–17. The operation became necessary in 2003 after Liberian rebel groups closed in on the capital Monrovia and the warlord President Charles Taylor. A few West African states played the leading role in negotiations to end the civil war and remove Taylor to smooth the transition. In September, several West African states conducted a three-week ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) intervention that removed Taylor, replaced him with a transitional government, and quickly handled over peace support to the UN. In October, a UN Mission took over from ECOMIL and supported the transition to a democratically elected government led by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and spearheaded security sector reform.

The 2002–11 Côte d'Ivoire civil war and crisis demonstrated the West African RSC’s dependence on France and the UN as well as the limits to the West African RSC’s foreign policy autonomy. France intervened in 2002 to stop civil war in Côte d'Ivoire from ravaging the country. An ECOWAS deployment proved to be too small and weak to maintain the peace and merely supplemented French forces. The UN deployed United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI) peacekeepers in 2004 and superseded the West African mission. In 2010, French troops had to forcefully intervene to ensure the ascendance of newly elected Alassane Ouattara to the presidency and the removal of defeated President Laurent Gbagbo. Therefore, in the 2000s, the West African RSC came to depend increasingly on UN and French intervention and leadership for stabilization, and foreign policies became more externally oriented.57

In the 2010s, the Western African RSC confronted the rise of VEOs in the Sahel and Lake Chad region, which presented a more fanatical and militarily adept threat. In March 2012, Tuareg separatists took over northern Mali and declared the Republic of Azawad. In response, Captain Amadou Sanogo led a military coup that caused ECOWAS to suspend the country. In June, VEOs took over the north from the Azawadis and threatened to take over the rest of the country and the entire Sahel. West African states took part in delicate diplomacy to persuade Sanogo and the military to transition to a civilian government and agree to allow an AU force—African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA)—to guarantee the transition and restore Malian sovereignty in the north. In January 2013, West African states deployed air and ground forces to Mali. However, when the extremists began to advance toward the Malian capital, Bamako, AFISMA was not capable of stopping them. France had to intervene with Operation Serval, which temporarily defeated the VEOs and paved the way for a UN force. Since 2013, the continuing dependence of Mali on France’s Operation Barkhane and the UN for security rather than West African states once again demonstrated the limited autonomy and power of the RSC.58 Also, VEO activity spread to Burkina Faso and western Niger and threatened the entire Sahel. In 2020 and 2021, two successive military coups in Mali brought renewed ECOWAS sanctions, the French announcement of the end of Barkhane, and a heightened threat to the West African RSC.59

The RSC’s weakness was also demonstrated by the inability of Nigeria to subdue the Boko Haram and ISWAP insurgencies from 2009 onward.60 In 2014, as the situation in northeast Nigeria deteriorated, the Multinational Joint Task Force Lake Chad Region was formed and intervened, allowing forces from Chad, Cameroon, and Niger to enter Nigerian territory.61 Despite tactical successes by the task force, Boko Haram and especially ISWAP continue to operate in the Lake Chad region.

West African states continued to deal with unconstitutional changes in government. In 2009, ECOWAS and the AU suspended Guinea-Conakry for a military coup. However, they did not suspend Niger for an unconstitutional change. In December 2016, Nigeria and Senegal led ECOWAS in acting to restore President-elect Adama Barrow to his rightfully elected position in Gambia, deploying troops, and forcing out the dictator Yahya Jammeh.62 The intervention proved that West African states could succeed in acting with a modest operation to uphold democracy and human rights. This contrasted with AFISMA’s failure in January 2013 to stop the advance of extremist forces in Mali.63

The West African RSC’s power thinness and dispersal and the surge of VEOs in the region have led to foreign policies with limited regional security cooperation and increasing dependence on France, the UN, and the United States for security. The West African RSC’s weakness also explains why states have struggled to implement an ECOWAS free trade agreement and plans for a common currency and common investment market.64 The West African case demonstrates the fact that RSCs can rise and decline.

Additional RSCs and Findings from the Comparative Analysis

The emerging Eastern African RSC spans three RSCs (the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes, and East African) in different stages of development, as well as three regional organizations—IGAD, East African Community (EAC), and International Conference on the Great Lakes Region—and three long-running intrastate conflicts (Somalia, South Sudan, and the eastern DRC). The degree of thickness and concentration of power varies within the Eastern Africa RSC. In the Horn of Africa RSC, power is thinner than in Southern and North Africa and concentrated in subhegemonic Ethiopia, which is weakened by internal conflict like Nigeria. Sudan and Eritrea have ranged from cooperation with Ethiopia, to competition, to conflict. In East Africa and the EAC, power is dispersed among five states (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi), thicker than in the Horn, and foreign policies range from competitive to cooperative (in both security and economic terms). In the Great Lakes RSC, power is dispersed among four states and relatively thick among Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, which compete, but thin in the eastern DRC where a UN Mission (MONUSCO) has maintained security for more than two decades and where Rwanda and Uganda maintain spheres of influence.65

Starting in 2004, Eastern African states began to develop the East African Brigade of the ASF that spanned most of the larger RSC, ranging from Ethiopia to Burundi and from Comoros to Sudan. In 2007, Uganda and Burundi commenced the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) to stabilize Somalia and stop spillover into the region. Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti joined AMISOM in 2011, which constituted another step toward a larger Eastern African RSC—bound together in the Somalia peace enforcement and reconstruction project. However, the AU, ASF, and AMISOM and the emergence of the larger RSC were dependent on funding, logistics, and training from the EU, United States, and UN.66

The Central African RSC is one of the weaker emerging complexes with less thickness and concentration of power than other RSCs. Central African states have been unable to resolve two major intrastate conflicts in the region—in the Central African Republic and the DRC—and have depended on external support from France, the UN, and Russia.67 The RSC has been dominated by a personalist old boys’ club, in which presidents tend to support each other and refrain from criticizing or sanctioning their peers for misrule and unconstitutional changes in government (such as ignoring term limits), thereby maintaining a veneer of amity and stability. Central African leaders fear that sanctioning one of their neighbors may destabilize that country and spill instability over into their own territory. Also, sanctions by some states against another could lead to increased enmity by the criticized country, which may start an insurgency targeted at its critics. When an RSC features enmity and instability, it is often difficult to prevent conflict from spinning out of control.

This analysis of African RSCs and their foreign policies has demonstrated significant differences. The concentration of power in South Africa and relative thickness of the Southern African RSC have produced foreign policies that evolved from enmity, confrontation, and destabilization through a transition period of soft balancing to one of amity, cooperation, and collective security. The Southern African case shows how change is possible in an RSC with a change in regime. In contrast, the North African RSC’s bipolar concentration of power and clashing identities have led to long-lasting enmity as well as competitive and conflictual foreign policies. The West African RSC’s relatively weak development demonstrates how RSCs can rise and decline. This weakness is also evident in the Eastern African RSCs and Central African RSC. There is considerable overlap and interaction between security complexes, especially in Eastern Africa. Table 1 encapsulates the variation in thickness and concentration of power in RSCs and emerging RSCs and the differences in foreign policies:

Table 1: Regional Security Complexes and Foreign Policies

Thickness of power by Concentration of power



Less thick



Southern Africa (1990s soft balancing by Zimbabwe, Angola vs. hegemonic South Africa)

Post–2000 cooperation)


Horn of Africa (soft balancing by Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea vs. hegemonic Ethiopia)


Less concentrated

North Africa

(bipolar à Morocco balancing vs Algeria)

West Africa

(1990s soft balancing by Francophonie vs. hegemonic Nigeria. Post–2000 cooperation)

Central Africa (personalist cooperation by autocrats)


East Africa (competition & cooperation by

Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda)


Great Lakes RSC

(competition by Rwanda vs. Uganda, Burundi, DRC)

Lake Chad Region

(Post–2014 Nigeria cooperates with Chad, Niger, Cameroon vs Boko Haram)


Comparative analysis of African RSCs and their foreign policies has demonstrated the utility of regional security complex theory in explaining foreign policies as well as the theory’s limits. Variation in thickness and concentration of power in three RSCs has been shown to help cause variation in foreign policies. Relative thickness of power and a bipolar concentration and conflicting constructions of identity are associated with foreign policies featuring enmity and power-balancing. Regional instability and a multipolar concentration and thickness of power help increase interstate competitive behavior and enmity. A bipolar rivalry between two more developed North African states has stymied regional foreign policy agency and the development of regional cooperation. Also, constructivism is significant in explaining the strong rivalry between a state based upon the remnants of empire and a new state based upon a revolution.

In contrast, a similar level of thickness and unipolarity and a conflicting construction of identity were initially related to foreign policies of enmity and soft balancing against the hegemon. However, the hegemon's regime change and a more accommodating leadership’s different construction of regional identity led to change in RSC foreign policies—from soft balancing and distrust to growing amity and cooperation. However, the Southern African RSC’s unipolar economic structure has led to the slow development of an FTA and customs union, due to the caution of other states.

RSCs with less thickness and concentration of power have led to cooperative foreign policies to prevent conflict and spillover caused by VEOs. However, leaders and states have experienced greater difficulty in mobilizing sufficient cooperation to deal with security issues, especially where states have failed and insurgents operate. Especially in such cases, leaders securitize a range of challenges and reach out to external powers to provide multidimensional forms of security to slow decline and prevent collapse. The weakness and dependence of certain African RSCs validate Buzan and Waever’s contention that some regions do not have fully formed complexes where their states’ foreign policies focus on each other and where they can provide their own security. Instead, those states’ foreign policies are focused as much on dependence on external powers as they are on interaction with regional states. Therefore, Buzan and Waever’s skepticism about African states, RSCs, and foreign policies, given state weakness, still has validity. Only the Southern and North African RSCs are fully developed and autonomous from external powers.

The analysis provides findings about the formation and rise and decline of RSCs and their effect on foreign policies. In North Africa, power was sufficiently thick and concentrated and states were strong enough to ward off security challenges, which enabled the RSC to form and develop with foreign policies that were focused mainly inward. Similarly, in Southern Africa, the hegemon’s regime change transformed the developing RSC and its foreign policies developed toward amity and cooperation. The West Africa RSC formed and developed with the end of the Cold War and with the willingness of Nigeria to expend resources to act as a hegemon that led to soft balancing at first and cooperation later. However, the thickness and concentration of power were never great enough to enable the West African RSC to stabilize once Nigeria reduced its resource expenditures and hegemonic behavior. The weakness of some states and security challenges from insurgents led to the decline of the RSC and to foreign policies that became externally oriented. A similar RSC rise and decline occurred in the Horn of Africa. Central African and the Great Lakes RSCs never fully developed, and dependence remains. One must conclude that RSCs can change and can be weakened by external and internal forces. Intervention by external powers to bolster security in West, Central, and Eastern African RSCs varies from complex to complex, based upon the interests of those powers, and affects foreign policies in those RSCs. Eventually, external intervention is intended to strengthen RSCs and make them self-sufficient, but RSC regeneration is a long-term process.

This examination of African RSCs and foreign policies has demonstrated the utility of constructivism, neoclassical realism, and different levels of foreign policy analysis. Conflicting constructions of regional identity have played a role heightening enmity among leaders and states, an inability to compromise in resolving disputes, and insecurity. Congruent constructions of identity and the development of personal relations among leaders have led to regional solidarity, cooperation, and compromise in dispute resolution. However, personalism and solidarity in foreign policies often prevent states from applying the pressure for reforms that could make an RSC more durable in the long run.

Dr Stephen Burgess

Dr. Burgess is a professor of international security studies at the US Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL.

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2 Christopher Clapham, Africa and the International System: The Politics of State Survival (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 267–74.

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4 Buzan and Waever, Regions and Powers, 211.

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6 Jeffery Herbst, States and Power in Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

7 Pierre Englebert, “The ‘Real Map’ of Africa: Redrawing Colonial Borders,” Foreign Affairs, 8 Nov. 2015,

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9 Eric Rittinger, “Arming the Other: American Small Wars, Local Proxies, and the Social Construction of the Principal-Agent Problem,” International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2017): 396–409. Norin M. Ripsman, Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell, Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 33–57.

10 Ripsman, Taliaferro, and Lobell, 33–57.

11 Herbst, States and Power in Africa.

12 Ripsman, Taliaferro, and Lobell, Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Relations, 3357.

13 Buzan and Waever, Regions and Powers, 40–82.

14 Buzan and Waever, 40–82.

15 Buzan and Waever, 346–50.

16 Buzan and Waever, 144–71.

17 Peter J. Schraeder, “Cold War to Cold Peace: Explaining U.S.–French Competition in Francophone Africa,” Political Science Quarterly 115, no. 3 (Aug. 2000): 395–419. France also played a major role in the foreign policies of West and Central African states after the Cold War.

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19 Buzan and Waever, Regions and Powers, 219–53.

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22 Robert Pape, “Soft Balancing against the United States,” International Security 30, no. 1 (Summer 2005): 7–45.

23 Pape, 7–45.

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25 Horst Brammer, “In Search of an Effective Regional Security Mechanism for Southern Africa,” Global Dialogue 4, no. 2 (Aug. 1999): 21–2.

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27 Gilbert M. Khadiagala, “Foreign Policy Decision-making in Southern Africa’s Fading Frontline” in Gilbert Khadiagala and Terence Lyons, eds., African Foreign Policies (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001), 131–58.

28 Francois Ngolet, The Inter-Congolese Dialogue (Berlin: Springer, 2011), 83–105.

29 Nina Wilen, Justifying Interventions in Africa: (De)Stabilizing Sovereignty in Liberia, Burundi and the Congo (Berlin: Springer, 2012), 92–115.

30 Naison Ngoma, “SADC’s Mutual Defence Pact: A Final Move to a Security Community?” Round Table 93, no. 375 (July 2004): 411–23.

31 Nicholas Bayne, “Managing Globalisation: The Commonwealth in the International Economy,” in James Mayall, ed., The Contemporary Commonwealth: An assessment, 1996–2009 (London: Routledge, 2010), 103.

32 Johannes Muntschick, “SADC,” in Sebastian Krapohl, ed., Regional Integration in the Global South (Berlin: Springer, 2017), 179–207.

33 Ngolet, The Inter-Congolese Dialogue, 237–45.

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37 Alden and Schoeman, “South Africa’s Symbolic Hegemony in Africa,” 239–54.

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40 Victor H. Mlambo and Mfundo Mandla Masuku, “Terror at the Front Gate: Insurgency and Its Implications for SADC and South Africa,” Journal of Public Affairs 7 (June 2021),

41 Zoltan Barany, “Military Influence in Foreign Policy-making: Changing Dynamics in North African Regimes,” Journal of North African Studies 24, no. 4 (2019): 570–98.

42 Benjamin Stora, “Algeria/Morocco: The Passions of the Past. Representations of the Nation That Unite and Divide,” Journal of North African Studies 8, no. 1 (2003): 14–34.

43 Melani Cammett, “Defense Integration and Late Developers: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab Maghreb Union,” Global Governance 5, no. 3 (1999): 379–402.

44 Christopher S. Chivvis and Benjamin Fishman, “Regional Foreign Policy Dynamics and Their Implications for the Mediterranean Region,” Rand Corporation, 2017, The decline of Egypt and Libya as Pan-Arab states and regional fragmentation led to foreign policies that were increasingly idiosyncratic, with growing engagement with the United States and France.

45 Anouar Boukhars, “Maghreb: Dream of Unity, Reality of Division,” Al Jazeera, 3 June 2018,

46 Miguel Hernando de Larramendi, “Doomed Regionalism in a Redrawn Maghreb? The Changing Shape of the Rivalry between Algeria and Morocco in the Post–2011 Era,” Journal of North African Studies 24, no. 3 (2019): 506–31.

47 de Larramendi, 506–31.

48 Ademola Abass, “The New Collective Security Mechanism of ECOWAS: Innovations and Problems,” Journal of Conflict Security and Law 5, no. 2 (Dec. 2000): 211–29.

49 Wilen, Justifying Interventions in Africa, 39–62.

50 Adekeye Adebajo, Building Peace in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 43–5.

51 Adebajo, 79–80.

52 Adebajo, 111–12.

53 Adebajo, 211–29.

54 Ayodele Akenroye, “ECOWAS and the Recent Coups in West Africa: Which Way Forward?” IPI Global Observatory, 8 May 2012,

55 Angela Ndinga-Muvumba and Abdul Lamin, “West Africa’s Evolving Security Architecture: Looking Back to the Future,” Centre for Conflict Resolution (Durban), Oct. 2006, 1–50.

56 Isiaka Alani Badmus and ‘Dele Ogunmola, “Re-Engineering Nigeria’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Military Era: Olusegun Obasanjo’s Presidency and Nigeria’s African Foreign Policy,” Journal of International and Global Studies 9, no. 1 (2017): 56–76.

57 Kwesi Aning and Fiffi Edu-Afful, “African Agency in R2P: Interventions by African Union and ECOWAS in Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Libya,” International Studies Review 18, no. 1 (March 2016): 120–33.

58 Aning and Edu-Afful, 120–33.

59 Jean-Herve Jezequel, “Mali, a Coup within a Coup,” International Crisis Group, 27 May 2021.

60 Ramatu Jaji and A. Y. Ayotunde, “The Contours and Depth of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy under Goodluck Jonathan,” International Affairs and Global Security 48 (2016): 13–7.

61 Robin A. Hardy, “Countering Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: What Policy Makers Need to Know,” World Affairs 182, no. 3 (2019): 256–72.

62 Olowojolu Olakunle, “Mid Term Report of President Muhammudu Buhari’s Foreign Policy,” Journal of Arts and Contemporary Society 9, no. 2 (2017): 8–9.

63 Aning and Edu-Afful “African Agency in R2P,” 120–33.

64 Ernest Amoabeng Ortsin, “The ECOWAS Common Investment Market Vision: A Conceptual Preview,” in Diery Seck, ed., Financing Africa’s Development (Berlin: Springer, 2020), 221–45.

65 Walsh, “Revisiting Regional Security Complex Theory in Africa,” 300–24.

66 Paul Williams, Fighting for Peace in Somalia, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 343–52.

67 Kiven James Kewir, “Rethinking Regional Security in Central Africa: The Case of the Central African Republic,” International Journal of African Renaissance Studies 15, no. 2 (2020): 115–33.




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