On the Origin of Fear in the World Trade System: Excavating the Roots of the Berlin Conference of 1884
American Society of International Law Proceedings, Vol. 101, 2007
5 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2008 Last revised: 26 Feb 2010
Most experts trace the birth of international trade back to China's Old Silk Road, but Africa too has a long and rich history of commerce. Walk through any marketplace in Africa and evidence of the continent's commercial vibrancy and entrepreneurial spirit abounds. From a small village in Cameroon, to a miles-long bazaar in Côte d'Ivoire, African markets are alive with the shouts of merchants hoping to finalize a sale with a recalcitrant shopper. In Senegal, young boys roam the streets hawking cheap goods made in China to every pedestrian or unwary commuter stuck in one of Dakar's infernal traffic jams. And Benin's "Mama Benzes" keep the economy going while providing for their families in style.
Despite the many examples of its trade-focused and entrepreneurial spirit, however, Africa has failed to join the global economy in anything other than a consumer capacity. What accounts for Africa's failure to prosper from a globalization phenomenon that has brought benefits to countries as diverse as Costa Rica, India, China and Brazil? Some maintain Africans themselves are to blame, while others suggest Africa's woes can best be explained by a system that is inherently biased against it. While there is evidence to support both viewpoints, either taken alone represents at best only a partial truth. A full understanding of Africa's position in the modern economic order must also take into account the phenomenon of fear that permeates much of the continent's interaction with the world trade system.
Until very recently African countries were not a significant presence in the world trading system. What accounts for this hesitancy? "Africa does not want to develop," is the rather provocative response of African scholar Axelle Kabou. This rejection of development, according to Kabou, has its roots in sociological and psychological considerations. At least one of the "sociological and psychological" conditions to which Kabou refers, this article maintains, is fear.
The origin of the fear that dominates Africa and hampers its full engagement in the trade order has roots dating back to 1884. In November of that year, European, American and Australian leaders met to define Africa's role in the "community of nations". The Berlin West African Conference is remembered primarily for having drawn the map of modern Africa by carving up the continent into nation-states, but the conference has its true roots in economic rather than political history. The goal of the conference was to establish free trade as the guiding principle in large parts of the continent. Beyond establishing borders, it succeeded in legitimizing Africa's de facto position as a source of wealth to be exploited for the benefit of others. It is this single act that gave birth to modern Africa's fear and resistance to the globalization phenomenon. What elevates the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 from a relic of history to a pathway towards understanding Africa's place in the world trade system is that the theoretical underpinnings of the conference to this day continue to animate the Western approach to African development.
Drawing on the rich but forgotten history of the Berlin Conference, as well as the emerging literature on law and emotion, this article re-conceptualizes Africa's place in the world trade order through a lens of fear first constructed by the conference. What is the shape, texture, depth and breadth of that fear? How might a full understanding of that fear help us adopt a new set of trade rules responsive to Africa's needs?
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation