America’s African ‘Anchor States’: Cabo Verde | by Abel Djassi Amado

“Given the extremely low ‘hard power’ of Cabo Verde, it is somewhat puzzling that the United States has suddenly decided to list the African archipelago as an ‘anchor state’, joining the ranks of Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Cabo Verde is neither economically, commercially, nor financially significant to the West African sub-region.”

Combat de la Porto Praya, Circa 1781-90
Combat de la Porto Praya, Circa 1781-90

On July 14, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford, in a letter extending US recognition to the newly independent state of Cabo Verde, noted: “As the historic ties of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of the United States and Cape Verde grow and strengthen, I look forward to the opportunity for our two nations to work together in the cause of peace, freedom and the welfare of mankind.” Since Ford’s letter, there has arguably been no other African country with more deeply recognized, and recognisable, historical attachments to the United States than Cabo Verde.

It is this history that perhaps explains what occurred on November 4, 2015, when Bisa Williams, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, with Jorge Tolentino, the Cabo Verdean Minister of Foreign Relations, announced that the United States had placed Cabo Verde on the small list of African ‘anchor states’. For the Cabo Verdean government, such a classification is a major diplomatic achievement. It represents a process of deepening bilateral relations; and in Minister Tolentino’s own words, “opens new perspectives of a more engaging work, in order to better equip Cabo Verde in the struggle against organized transnational crime, chiefly drug-trafficking.” 

But what precisely is an anchor state? The concept first appeared in a 2002 US national security white paper. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America is a document that states the necessity of strengthening America’s relationship with “countries with major impact on their neighborhood such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia are anchors for regional engagement and require focused attention.” Although the subsequent 2006, 2010, and 2015, white papers on national security fail to mention or develop the notion of the anchor state, it is clear that so far as US Africa policy is concerned, the underlying rationale of anchor states is central to America’s security concerns and its engagement with Africa.

Between 2007 and 2011 only 9.5% of Cabo Verde’s exports went to the rest of Africa, whereas 83.4% of exports in the same period were destined for Europe

Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Stephanie Hanson notes that an anchor state in Africa is a state that represents “the financial and infrastructure hub of its sub-region, and has played a robust role in regional peace and security”. In other words, it is traditionally the ‘hard power’ of these states, and their ability to exert that power in their respective regional contexts that forms the major characteristic by which the US government assesses these states to be of ‘anchor state’ value.

Given the extremely low ‘hard power’ of Cabo Verde, it is somewhat puzzling that the United States has suddenly decided to list the African archipelago as an ‘anchor state’, joining the ranks of Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Cabo Verde is neither economically, commercially, nor financially significant to the West African sub-region.

Despite Cabo Verde’s membership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), trade with its West African partners is at best negligible. Between 2007 and 2011 only 9.5% of Cabo Verde’s exports went to the rest of Africa, whereas 83.4% of exports in the same period were destined for Europe; with import figures similarly imbalanced.

By emphasizing the supposed success of electoral democracy in Cabo Verde, the attempt to export liberal democracy to ‘trouble’ spots within the continent continues a very traditional strategy of US foreign and security policy.

It is possible, however, that although hard power play has usually been the determining factor in analyzing ‘anchor state’ status, Cabo Verde’s soft power as well as its geopolitical relevance have contributed to the country’s incorporation into the list of African anchor states.

In geopolitical terms, Cabo Verde has historically been of significant value in major global crises, particularly in the Atlantic World. European and North-American conflicts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often spilled over into Cabo Verde; and as the historian Thomas Duncan writes, during much of the first three centuries of the Atlantic World, Cabo Verde can be considered as the “crossroads of the Atlantic.” The 1781 Battle of Porto Praya, a naval conflict between the French and British navies in the territorial waters of Cabo Verde serves as a potent example.

During World War II and much of the Cold War, as part of their various strategies to dominate the middle Atlantic, global powers such as Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, sought either to control the archipelago or to influence its independent government. The end of the Cold War meant the geopolitical depreciation of the Cabo Verde Islands—as was the case for most of the African continent.

However, the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent development of the ‘War on Terror’ gave new impetus to the archipelago’s geopolitical position. This was evidenced by the events of June 2006 when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched a major training exercise outside its normal area of operations. The operation, dubbed ‘Steadfast Jaguar’, brought more than 6,000 troops from different NATO member-states, involving land, air, and maritime units to Cabo Verde. The goal was to test the organization’s “ability to deploy well outside [its] traditional areas of operation.”

Whether it will go the full length to see Cabo Verde transformed into a launch pad for American military incursions further into West Africa, as was the case during the mid-nineteenth century, when the islands were the base for the US Navy African Squadron, only the future will tell.

Although Cabo Verde’s geopolitical positioning partially explains the country’s seemingly recent relevance to the long-term security concerns of the United States, the other critical element is the country’s regional ‘soft power’. Cabo Verde’s ‘soft power’ credentials are largely held in the country’s example of political stability and its purported electoral democracy; relatively rare features in the region.

Since the late 1990s, various US administrations have hailed the country as a successful story of African democratization. In 1998, Bill Clinton held Cabo Verde as a ‘beacon’ for Africa, while current US President Obama more recently asserted that the islands were “an example for Africa.”

Cabo Verde as a US ‘anchor state’ in West Africa, is best explained by the fact that the United States sees in Cabo Verde, a political model that it would like other states in the region to copy. By emphasizing the supposed success of electoral democracy in Cabo Verde, the attempt to export liberal democracy to ‘trouble’ spots within the continent continues, what is in fact, a very traditional strategy of US foreign and security policy.

This policy position was made implicit in the recent letter from the US State Department to Cabo Verde, marking this year’s elections of March 20 that resulted in a change of government after fifteen years. “The elections and the peaceful transfer of power they brought about”, the letter states “reaffirm Cabo Verde’s position as a model of democracy in Africa.”

It is too early to examine what Cabo Verde’s new ‘anchor state’ status truly means for the islands and, particularly, for its relations with other West African states. There is little doubt, however, that this status will lead to further securitization of US-Cabo Verde relations. Whether it will go the full length to see Cabo Verde transformed into a launch pad for American military incursions further into West Africa, as was the case during the mid-nineteenth century when the islands were the base for the US Navy African Squadron, only the future will tell.

Abel Djassi is a native of Cabo Verde. He holds a doctorate in Political Science from Boston University. Abel is a lecturer of ‘African Politics’ and ‘Politics of Race and Ethnicity’ at Boston College. He is also a board member of the West African Research Association, a network of scholars with a focus on West Africa.

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