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December 14, 2018

'The west' is not a country

The Star, in a May 6 story entitled “Activists plan demo against Uhuru UK visit” reports that:President Uhuru Kenyatta is set to hold talks with UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron during his three day visit, the first to a western capital since his election.

Human rights activists in the UK are reportedly organising to hold demonstrations to protest what they say is a 'hypocritical manner' manner in which the British government has made a U-turn against in its stand towards the Kenyan government.

In the UK, unlike in the US, the Kenyan election stirred a significant discussion in the national legislature, in this case the House of Commons.

The biggest difference in interests is that Kenya, a British colony within the lifetimes of current political leaders, is important to the British economy.Kenya is not very important to the US economy.

It might be someday, and the US would notionally like to be more engaged economically in East Africa, and not only because the Chinese are; nonetheless, as of today the level of trade and investment is not a higher order immediate interest for the United States.

 Further, in the global system that the US has helped create, the US does not really have the same relationships to even the largest companies that may be headquartered in the US as the British and some other European nations still have with their business champions.

Not to say that the State Department doesn't want to sell Boeing v. Airbus, but there is no American equivalent of BAE, for example. Further, it is British rather than American companies that are the key players in Kenya in banking and finance, tea, horticulture, tobacco, printing, public relations consulting, etc.

 As of the last few years, roughly 60 per cent of the roughly 5,000 Americans living in Kenya, according to the State Department, were connected to missionary work. The British, not as much as far as I know. Moreover, there are perhaps five times as many British passport holders in Kenya as Americans.

The United States has a reported official established presence of more than two dozen federal agencies in Kenya, so we do have interests, but they are heavily weighted toward "global" security matters, along with international crime/drugs, etc., and what we might call diplomatic and security logistics.

In other words, it is convenient for people to locate in and transit out of Nairobi to support a variety of functions that don't relate uniquely to Kenya. It's an easier place to fly in and out of and has lifestyle appeal, along with being a locus of the same type of thing for people in other agencies, from other governments and international organizations. It is not that this geographic interest doesn't matter, its just that it really is not of first order importance.

A lot of the aid programs that we conduct in Kenya could easily be moved to other countries that are even more in need if less convenient, for instance.

When al Qaeda wanted to attack Americans and US interests in East Africa, they bombed our Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania--not some critical infrastructure or something or someplace else that the Embassies are there to protect. Kenya is a tourist destination with direct flights of modest duration from the UK, but still no US direct flights.

In the US, Kenya is on the tourism 'map' along with other various other locations in Africa, but at a much lower relative level; the British are Kenya's greatest source of tourists. The British newspapers cover Kenya in a completely different way, and to a much greater extent, than American papers.

 I have referred to Kenya as Americans' favourite African country, but this is within the context of the whole "Africa is a Country" perception problem. It was one of the British princes who had the bad form to be quoted to the effect that "Americans don't do geography". The British still know their way around their former empire and distinguish Kenya from its neighbors much more readily than do Americans.

Certainly the British MPs wax eloquent about the key importance of training the British military in Kenya, noting that this was said to have played a major role in allowing Britain to mount its Falklands Islands operations some thirty years ago.

Of course, realistically, the UK military in this century is primarily derivative and it is hard to see that the world would be so much different if the British had to train in one of the other former colonies--the US for instance--instead of in Kenya. Military training in Kenya is surely good for British political and military morale, but I think it is the economic issues that really make Kenya uniquely important for the UK, whereas for the US, the scales tip overwhelming to the "security" direction.

 Obviously the International Criminal Court is another area of difference. The British are members, along with other Western European nations, whereas the US is with the Chinese and Russians in standing outside (whether we are nominally favourable or nominally derogatory seems to depend on which of our parties is in power but we seem to have a fixed commitment to stay out).

In this sense, the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto is in one particular respect inconvenient for the British in a way that is not as challenging for the United States, but given the ordinary primacy of the specific over the general, and the immediate dollar or pound over longer term security in democratic politics, it is not really surprising that the UK has been more aggressive and quicker in seeking publicly to "get right" with Uhuru Kenyatta following his elevation to the Kenyan Presidency than has the United States.

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