Book review: David Brydan reviews Alanna O’Malley’s Diplomacy of Decolonisation

Book Review

Continuing our book review series, David Brydan reviews Alanna O’Malley’s new book, published earlier this year. If you have a suggestion for a work to be reviewed, please get in touch via email or twitter. The first 5 people to get in touch will get a free copy of the book to be reviewed!

Alanna O’Malley, The diplomacy of decolonisation: America, Britain and the United Nations during the Congo crisis 1960-1964 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), ISBN 9781526116260.

The Congo crisis of the early 1960s has not featured prominently in histories of internationalism. It is probably best known for controversial deaths of two of the key figures involved: Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered by Katangan secessionists in 1960; and the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was killed in a still-unexplained plane crash in Northern Rhodesia in 1961 en route to a meeting with Katangan leaders. And it is most often told as a Cold War story, one of the many proxy conflicts across Africa and Asia in which the superpowers battled for political and ideological control of post-colonial states.

This new book by Alanna O’Malley, published as part of the Manchester University Press Key Studies in Diplomacy series, shifts our attention towards the UN’s role in the conflict. In doing so it shows how the Congo crisis acted a ‘lighting rod’ for many of the key international debates and developments of the era. In particular, it identifies the Congo crisis as a key moment in the history of decolonisation, one which witnessed a new anti-colonial assertiveness from the Afro-Asian states and placed the UN firmly at the heart of the decolonisation process.

Based on extensive research in African, European, American and UN archives, the book begins with the army rebellion against Belgium officers just a week after independence in 1960, takes us through the subsequent Belgian intervention and Belgian-backed secession of Katanga, the formation of the UN peacekeeping mission, ONUC, and the series of Congolese governments and rebellions which followed. It ends with the defeat of the Katangan secessionist movement and the western military interventions which followed in 1964, and with the rise to power of Mobutu.

But the focus of the book is not primarily on events in the Congo itself. Rather, it seeks to show how the debates about the Congo crisis and its resolution played out at the UN, particularly between the UN Secretariat, the United States, Britain, and the Afro-Asian states. The UN’s central role in the crisis was partly thanks to the deployment of ONUC, the largest international peacekeeping force deployed until the end of the Cold War. But it was also due to the fact that the crisis erupted just as the influx of newly-independent African states marked a decisive shift in North-South relations at the UN. Seventeen former African colonies joined the organisation in 1960 alone, strengthening the substantial majority which Latin America, Asian and African states enjoyed over the traditional western powers.

This new power dynamic meant that the Congo crisis took on a profound significance at the UN. As a conflict provoked by the violation of state sovereignty by a former colonial power, it provided an opportunity for the Afro-Asian states to challenge what they saw as western neo-colonialism and the international order built around it. The UN provided a public platform for these states to air their views, but also, as O’Malley argues, acted as a space of ‘socialisation’ where western diplomats were forced to confront and engage with their ideas. These developments were encouraged by UN Secretary Generals during the crisis, Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant, who saw an opportunity for the UN to play a more activist role in world politics, and particularly in the process of decolonisation.

But the crisis also had a profound impact on Britain and the United States, and on the relationship between the two powers. Up until the late 1950s the pair had maintained an uneasy alliance over questions of decolonisation at the UN; Britain had consistently fought to prevent the UN from ‘interfering’ in colonial territories and the question of decolonisation, while the US adopted a policy of passivity and tried to hold itself aloof from colonial debates.

These approaches shifted during the Congo crisis. Britain’s attempts to prevent UN involvement in the decolonisation debate proved increasingly futile as its Commonwealth networks and ties to former colonies were undermined by the newfound activism and unity of the Afro-Asian states. It’s obstructionist approach also provoked continual disagreements with the US, which was generally keener to use UN forces to bring an end to the conflict. The Congo crisis thus confirmed Britain’s increasing marginalisation, both within the UN and in wider international debates about decolonisation and post-colonial development. From the US perspective, the start of the crisis and the launch of ONUC convinced many in the State Department that the UN could be a force for international problem-solving. But the growing hostility of both Afro-Asian states and the UN Secretariat to US interference in the region ultimately reinforced the conviction that the UN posed a threat to American policy and interests.

O’Malley does an excellent job at setting out this complex material and bringing all the interconnected strands of the story together. But she also makes an important argument about the centrality of these events to the history of internationalism. The crisis, as she writes in the introduction, was, ‘a moment of resistance by the Afro-Asian world against the enactment of Anglo-American internationalism in the Congo and a challenge to American and British ideas of how to order the world.’

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a turning point in the history of post-war internationalism in general, and of the UN in particular. The Anglo-American model of liberal internationalism which had dominated the early years of the UN had been broadly compatible with the persistence of colonial regimes, or at least with the very gradual process of decolonisation. In that sense it built on interwar visions of internationalism which had shaped the work of the League of Nations and which had been closely bound up with imperial interests and perspectives.

These forms of imperial internationalism had been challenged right from the start by alternative anti-colonial international movements, from the communist internationals to the Pan-African movement. But it was not until the explosion of new post-colonial states had entered the UN that these anti-colonial movements gained sufficient institutional power to directly influence international policies. In the Congo crisis, as O’Malley argues, the influence of these new states meant that the North-Side divide challenged, and in many ways superseded, the divide between East and West. This shift also shaped international debates about contemporary conflicts in Algeria, Angola and Vietnam. And it paved the way for new forms of South-South cooperation and Afro-Asian internationalism, from the creation of the G77 to projects such as the New International Economic Order in the 1970s.

As well as documenting this shift in the history of post-war internationalism, The Diplomacy of Decolonization also sheds new light on the influence of the UN on post-war history in general, and on the process of decolonisation in particular. It reveals the UN as a site where multiple competing models of internationalism came into contact and conflict with one another. It was both a space of debate between different visions of internationalism, and an actor shaping the ways in which these visions developed and interacted with each other.

Through the Congo crisis, we can see how these interactions and debates played out in practice, and the impact they had on international policies and practices on the ground. This book, then, offers both an important contribution to the growing literature on the multiple internationalisms of the twentieth century, and a fascinating case study for anyone interested in the dynamics and influence of international organisations.

David Brydan