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Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War. Nancy Mitchell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.

After the tragic and horrifying murder of George Floyd, questions of race in American foreign policy in general, and towards the African continent in particular, are under increased scrutiny. In Foreign Policy, Salih Booker passionately argued “America’s disdain for Black lives extends to Africa.”[1] Meanwhile, many African commentators have highlighted American hypocrisy around issues of human rights, while others fear that repressive authoritarian regimes, such as Zimbabwe, “feel emboldened” by the “glorification of violence” and harsh police tactics in the United States.[2] African governments and institutions also condemned the murder of George Floyd.[3] The African Union highlighted its own long history standing against racism in the United States, beginning with the “Resolution on Racial Discrimination in the United States of America” in the very first meeting of its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, in 1964.[4]

As the African Union statement highlights, racism in America has long intersected with American foreign policy in Africa.[5] In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, domestic debates about race intertwined with America’s Cold War diplomacy on the continent. Such is the subject of Nancy Mitchell’s remarkable Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War.[6] Mitchell, a Professor of History at North Carolina State University, delivers a brilliant and nuanced assessment of the much-belittled Carter administration through the lens of his Africa policy.

Mitchell skillfully highlights how “race and the Cold War were inseparable.”[7] Inspired by their personal experiences with the American Civil Rights Movement, Carter’s team excelled in southern Africa, doggedly pursuing the end of minority rule in the former Rhodesia. This outcome, finally achieved at the Lancaster House Agreement in 1980, was both morally right and headed off predictable Soviet and Cuban adventurism in the region.[8] However, Mitchell also captures how Carter’s team ultimately struggled to reconcile Cold War imperatives in Africa with their desire to pursue a more moral foreign policy after the shadowy realpolitik of the Nixon-Kissinger era.[9]

Carter’s approach to the region diverged sharply from his immediate predecessors. Nixon and Ford aligned U.S. policy closely with apartheid South Africa, ostensibly as a bulwark against Communism.[10] Mitchell highlights how policy debates around southern Africa “gave conservative politicians,” such as North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, “an opportunity to signal” racialized sentiments to their supporters.[11] The Nixon administration’s Africa policy, which it justified with Cold War logic, likely reflected Nixon’s own well-known racial prejudices, fully on display in secret audio recordings of White House conversations. In one such tape, Nixon is recorded as laughing while then-Governor Ronald Reagan notes “to see those monkeys from those African countries [Nixon laughs], damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”[12]

Mitchell also captures how these racially-informed attitudes transcended party affiliation. Towering figures of the Democratic establishment, such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and George Kennan, author of the containment doctrine, also advocated for warmer relations with southern Africa’s notorious white-minority regimes. Kennan, for example, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1971 that the U.S. should stop “belaboring” its “gestures of goodwill and solidarity” towards Black Africans.[13] According to historian Douglas Brinkley, Acheson viewed apartheid South Africa under Ian Smith as “a beacon of European light in a dark continent being overrun by anarchy, Marxism, and demonic black power propaganda.”[14]

Through extensive interviews and international archival research, Mitchell captures how Carter’s Africa policy was shaped by the experience of the Civil Rights Movement. As a Georgian, Carter personally witnessed both segregation and the transformative power of the Civil Rights Movement. He explained to Mitchell, “I felt a sense of responsibility and some degree of guilt that we had spent an entire century after the Civil War still persecuting blacks and to me the situation in Africa was inseparable from the fact of deprivation or persecution or oppression of black people in the South.”[15] Andrew Young, Carter’s Ambassador to the United Nations and the first African American to hold that role, noted in 1976, that “he [Carter] knows very clearly the evils and dangers of racism, and he also knows that racists can change.”[16]

Mitchell illustrates how these experiences, and the valuable perspective of Young, an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, led Carter to invest deeply in the success of his southern Africa policy. As Carter told the author in one interview, “I spent more effort and worry on Rhodesia than I did on the Middle East.”[17] This time and attention paid off and ushered in the independence of a majority-ruled Zimbabwe that was friendly to the United States. Washington was allowed to establish an embassy in Harare immediately following independence, while the Soviets were left cooling their heels for ten months. While Robert Mugabe’s slide into despotism in that country has tainted the public memory of this achievement, it was nevertheless a remarkable feat of diplomacy that prevented a “nightmare scenario” of Soviet or Cuban intervention in a racialized war.[18]

The book’s broad structure, which covers from the 1976 campaign until his failed campaign for re-election, allows Mitchell to capture both the highs and lows of Carter’s foreign policy towards the continent. This lumping approach, to borrow historian John Lewis Gaddis’ phrase, facilitates the kind of nuanced critiques of Carter’s policy approach and leadership that would not have been possible in a work narrowly focused on one sub-region or crisis alone.[19] This organization allows Mitchell to demonstrate that while the Carter administration articulated and executed an effective strategy for southern Africa based around majority rule, they overestimated the continent-wide utility of this approach, which meant little in the face of stubborn regional rivalries in east Africa. Moreover, as Mitchell highlights, Carter’s team failed to coherently reconcile Carter’s promised pivot towards a “more moral foreign policy” with America’s traditional Cold War interest in limiting Soviet influence.[20] In Cold War crisis situations outside of southern Africa, such as the Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia, the administration floundered.[21] This duality—success in fixed-piece issues and struggles in dynamic crises situations—mirrored the administration’s performance in other regions and flowed from deep flaws in Carter’s own leadership. Carter never resolved his own internal tensions between the campaign promise of “a foreign policy rooted in moral values” and what Mitchell calls his “Cold Warrior” instincts.[22] Instead of outlining a sweeping grand strategy that might have guided his administration’s approach amidst unforeseen situations, Carter preferred personally to review issues on a case-by-case basis. This preference clogged decision-making, encouraged damaging infighting and leaks, and left both those charged with executing American foreign policy and America’s partners uncertain of Carter’s perspective.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance in the Oval Office (Jimmy Carter Library/Wikimedia)

Mitchell also pierces the dominant historical narrative of the Carter foreign policy—the acerbic rivalry between hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance—with nuance and skill. Her story places Carter, for better or worse, at the center of the narrative. In Mitchell’s telling, Carter is as much responsible for the successes—Rhodesia, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the Camp David Accords—as the failures, such as the Ogaden War and the Iran Hostage Crisis. As Henry Kissinger once noted, “One would have to go back to FDR to find a President who took on so much himself of the decision-making.”[23] Mitchell perceptively concludes “that the idea of Carter being torn between Vance and Brzezinski gained currency is a testament to the president’s utter failure to convey to the public a sense of who he was.”[24]

Carter’s team, nevertheless, delivered real successes in Africa, measured in both Cold War and moral terms. As America confronts the ugly influence of structural racism at home, Mitchell’s Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War serves as an excellent reminder that progress towards domestic justice strengthens American diplomacy abroad. As Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “A new Civil Rights Movement is a foreign policy win.”[25] Perhaps the best observation on the impact of this crisis on American foreign policy came from Brian Nichols, the American Ambassador to Zimbabwe, and one of only three African American Ambassadors currently serving overseas.[26] Ambassador Nichols powerfully noted:

Ambassador Brian Nichols (U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe)

“As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body are not my own. I have also known that America, conceived in liberty, has always aspired to be better—a shining city on a hill—and that is why I have dedicated my life to her service...Americans will continue to speak out for justice whether at home or abroad. We can meet the ideals of our founding, we will change this world for the better.”[27]

Ambassador Nichols’ statement demonstrates how America can still be a voice against oppression overseas even as it struggles to become a more perfect union at home. For people striving for freedom and justice abroad—from Zimbabwe to Hong Kong to Belarus—the broad movement for racial equality in America illustrates the aspirational and redemptive qualities that make America’s democracy so exceptional.[28] One hopes that this struggle against structural racism, like the first Civil Rights Movement, will strengthen and inform the future of American statecraft.

Sam Wilkins is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer with deployments to Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Sam is a M.A. candidate in Strategic Studies and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Salih Booker, “America’s Disdain for Black Lives Extends to Africa,” Foreign Policy, June 12, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/12/america-disdain-black-lives-extends-africa-militarization-africom-somalia-trump-police-brutality/.

[2] “Africa Reacts to George Floyd’s Death and U.S. Protests,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 4, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/africa-reacts-george-floyds-death-and-us-protests)

[3] Romain Houeix, “After the death of George Floyd, Africa mobilizes against police violence,” France 24, June 13, 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200613-after-the-death-of-george-floyd-africa-mobilises-against-police-violence.

[4] “Statement of the Chairperson following the murder of George Floyd in the USA,” African Union Press Statement, May 29, 2020, https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20200529/statement-chairperson-following-murder-george-floyd-usa.

[5] Judd Devermont and Travis Adkins, “The Legacy of American Racism at Home and Abroad,” Foreign Policy, June 19, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/19/american-racism-foreign-policy-impact/.

[6] Nancy Mitchell, Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2016)

[7] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 15.

[8] Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 566. Patrick Salmon, “The Lancaster House Agreement 40 Years On,” U.K. History of Government Blog, 23 December 2019, https://history.blog.gov.uk/2019/12/23/the-lancaster-house-agreement-forty-years-on/.

[9] Presidential Directive/NSC-5: Southern Africa,” 9 March 1977, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977-1980, Volume XVI, Southern Africa and Vanessa Walker and David Schmitz, “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History Vol. 28, No.1 (January 2004), 113-143.

[10] “National Security Study Memorandum 39,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XXVIII, Southern Africa. Edgar Lockwood, “National Security Study Memorandum 39 and the Future of US Policy Towards South Africa,” A Journal of Public Opinion, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), 63-72.

[11] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 676.

[12] See “Richard Nixon and Ronald W. Reagan on 26 October 1971,” Conversation 013-008, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), “Richard Nixon and William P. Rogers on 26 October 1971,” Conversation 013-012, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon Telephone Tapes 1971, ed. Ken Hughes] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014), Tim Naftali, “Ronald Reagan’s Long-Hidden Racist Conversation with Richard Nixon,” The Atlantic, 30 July, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/ronald-reagans-racist-conversation-richard-nixon/595102/, and John Farrell “How Do You Explain Henry Kissinger?” The New York Times Review of Books, 28 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/books/review/barry-gewen-inevitability-of-tragedy-henry-kissinger.html

[13] George Kennan, “Hazardous Courses in Southern Africa, Foreign Affairs (Jan, 1971), https://www-jstor-org.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/stable/20037833?origin=crossref&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[14] Douglas Brinkley, Dean Acheson: The Cold War Years, 1953-71 (Yale University Press, 1992), 36.

[15] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 14.

[16] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 674.

[17] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 4.

[18] Alan Cowell, “Robert Mugabe, Strongman who Cried ‘Zimbabwe is Mine, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, September 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/obituaries/robert-mugabe-dead.html). Brzezinski quoted in Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 4.

[19] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford University Press, 1982), vii.

[20] President Jimmy Carter, as quoted in Vanessa Walker and David Schmitz, “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History Vol. 28, No.1 (January 2004), 113-143.

[21] Louise Woodroofe, Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: The United States, the Horn of Africa, and the Demise of Détente (Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2013) and Sam Wilkins, “Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: Lessons from an Obscure Cold War Flashpoint in Africa,” War on the Rocks, 6 September 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/buried-in-the-sands-of-the-ogaden-lessons-from-an-obscure-cold-war-flashpoint-in-africa/.

[22] President Jimmy Carter, as quoted in Vanessa Walker and David Schmitz, “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History Vol. 28, No.1 (January 2004), 113-143.

[23] Kissinger quoted in Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 656.

[24] Mitchell, Carter in Africa, 656.

[25] Chris Murphy, “A New Civil Rights Movement is a Foreign Policy Win,” Foreign Affairs, June 12, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2020-06-12/new-civil-rights-movement-foreign-policy-win.

[26] Robbie Gramer, “Fighting for U.S. Values Abroad, Black Diplomats Struggle with Challenges at Home,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/11/u-s-black-diplomats-state-department-george-floyd-protests-trump-pompeo-state-department-diversity-racial-injustice-police-violence-soft-power/.

[27] “Statement by Ambassador Nichols on his Meeting with Foreign Minister Moyo,” U.S. Embassy Harare, June 1, 2020. Available at: https://twitter.com/usembassyharare/status/1267450903512129536.

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