Notes on an ‘Introductory Algeria Foreign Policy Reading List (I)’

This post is a follow on to the post, ‘Introductory Algeria Foreign Policy Reading List (I),’ which covered books. A second list is still forthcoming. This post is a kind of meditation on the literature on Algerian foreign policy generally as well as some of the features of Algeria’s foreign policy in very general terms. The second part of the list — made up of journal articles, reports, dissertations and the like — is still forthcoming.

There is a serious literature on Algerian foreign policy in English and in French as well as in Arabic. For the English-speaking analyst, there are many studies from theoretical and journalistic perspectives, particularly in the period before the 1991 coup d’état. There is also a nearly substantial literature on Algeria’s foreign policy since 1999, though this is somewhat less extensive and less systematic than work on earlier periods; the best works are nonetheless essential for Algeria analysts.

It is worth noting that Algerian foreign policy does have important themes over years. Algeria’s foreign policy was traditionally activist and non-allied. There were always inconsistencies on this front: its leaders often condemned American imperialism and capitalism during the 1960s and 1970s but actively cultivated the United States as a market for Algerian energy. It spoke out against the capitalist countries more generally and against colonialism but tended to avoid direct public criticism of France except for on specific occasions (due to economic dependency in the first 20 years of independence especially; under Ben Bella this was the key contradiction in foreign policy, he would did not criticise Gen. Franco in Spain as he did Salazar in Portugal because Franco sought to purchase energy from Algeria). It placed emphasis on large international organisations, sometimes believed to be the result of idealism on the part of its leaders in the early period especially, though the broad pattern is that this commitment to large, relatively ineffectual organisations like the Non-Allied Movement, the G-77, the African Union (where Algeria has invested significant energy and resources, even more so, perhaps, than in the Arab League), and the United Nations have abided over time while its interest in regional organisations and trade blocs has remained essentially luke warm, probably the result of a number of internal and ideological factors. Algerian hesitancy to rapidly and seriously expand economic or defence cooperation with Europe or NATO or even the other Maghreb states is related significantly to the ideological [and pragmatic] imperatives of self-reliance and independence and sovereignty for their own sake as it does with specific internal or internal dynamics (simultaneously the failure of internal economic reforms can be linked strongly to points in the economic culture that come in part from ideological/dispositional symptoms of its rentier model). (This is not to downplay the major political or opportunistic causes of such issues, especially the reliance of the Algerian political system on clientelism and rent distribution and the resultant protectionist culture that is pervasive in business, or even to say that ideology trumps pragmatism at any given point.)  Algeria has for some time been keen on the rhetoric of Arab and Maghreb unity but cool on integration itself, again because these are ideologies not deeply or widely assimilated within the political culture (though there are influential interest sectors where they are), and economic nationalism is still pervasive. The mixture of these internal and ideational dynamics is strongest in the regional economic and security domains.

The ideological component is clear, for example, in terms of non-intervention, which has been most evident in the cases of Libya and Syria. The Algerians have held this principle since independence and it derives in part from its colonial experience and its early struggles with its neighbours. When Algerian leaders say they oppose no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors, back ‘dialogue’ or some other measure short of humanitarian intervention in a specific conflict it is not only from cynicism and a desire to support other authoritarian governments. For Algeria’s elderly leaders, this is often a red line, a matter of principle: humanitarian intervention is perceived as a pretext for western policies in third countries. A country whose leadership comes from a colonial experience and domestic background rife with paranoia and manoeuvring, the prospect of outsiders taking sides in another country’s internal conflict betrays the entire idea of national self-determination. For a man like Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a veteran of the war of independence and a figure in the Third Worldist camp during the Cold War, self-determination and non-intervention are inextricably linked; there is not a contradiction in external support for armed resistance to foreign occupation, though external support for armed or other resistance to an oppressive regime in a sovereign state is a direct affront to the ability of a people to determine its own direction. Thus Bouteflika has thus spent much time, both as foreign minister under Boumediene, and as president seeking to use African Union institutions to mediate disputes in Mali and Eritrea; the Malian case is an example where Algeria’s role came from a direct interest in preventing a conflict in a neighbouring country from spreading into its own territory by seeking to uphold colonial borders, the Eritrean one shows that the Algerians are not above pragmatism in their interpretation of the he who has keeps principle among African states so long as border are changed consensually and without external interference. Algerian opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya and to American, French and Qatari efforts to increase international involvement in Syria on humanitarian grounds proceed from similar, legalistic views of international politics that are strongly held by Algeria’s diplomatic and political leadership.

One important consideration in all this is Algeria’s decade-long Civil War. The internal war is not yet over; low level violence and relatively sophisticated assaults on military targets continue into 2012. While Algeria’s political situation has stabilised in general, one of the features of the current regime is that it is managerial and pragmatic in addressing social and political violence; despite favourable energy prices and copious revenues, rent is distributed strategically so as to contain frustrations and grievances rather than to eliminate or resolve them. This is partly the result of the manner in which the Civil War was dealt with and in part the result of the country’s longterm political culture. This attitude is also projected onto its relationships with its neighbours — especially Morocco and the Western Sahara question and Mali.

The substantial, academic studies on Algerian foreign policy tend to be dissertations more often than books or lengthy journal articles. Discreet studies of its relationships with the other Maghreb states, France, the United States and so on dominate the field. In the late 1970s and early 1980s English-language edited volumes sometimes-included chapters on Algerian foreign policy, especially as it related to the Cold War superpowers and North African regionalism. Algerian foreign policy is usually not analysed in ‘global’ terms, even in the most comprehensive studies. French books on the Boumediene foreign policy have occasionally made an attempt at this but a round history of Algeria’s foreign relations and its place in the international system on these terms. Much of what has been produced is quite good on the grounds it covers, especially in the academic field, being written largely by specialists or those with a more or less intimate grasp of the situation.