There have been some interesting things happening lately in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has been getting rocked by unprecedented levels of unrest and anti-government violence since late 2015. And meanwhile, in neighboring Somalia, the US has been escalating a “shadow war” against Islamist militants — an effort which has depended on close cooperation with Ethiopian military forces since their intervention into Somalia in 2006.
The war in Somalia demonstrates the degree to which the US government has been able to effectively outsource security operations to entities that aren’t closely associated or regulated by the norms and laws that have been pushed by progressive liberals and humanitarians. As the New York Times article points out, the war is being fought largely with “Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies”, in a manner that echoes the way the Obama administration has typically structured its many wars, interventions, and armed engagements, from Afghanistan to Syria to Libya. Not that Obama pioneered this restructuring of US imperialism; as the article points out, recent military engagements in Somalia can be traced back to alliances forged with Somalian warlords by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks, and the backing of Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 — which, incidentally, seems to have been the impetus for the formation of al-Shabaab, the main antagonist in the current conflict.
While the US government is busy with military matters, it seems that European officials are also increasing their outsourcing of security matters. As this article from The Economist discusses, Angela Merkel met with the Ethiopian prime minster one day after the establishment of a six-month state-of-emergency to discuss matters of migration and refugee, and she subsequently urged the African Union to do more to stop the flow of people from Africa into Europe. Attempting to gain the cooperation of the region’s authoritarian regimes to help protect Europe’s borders is nothing new; this has been the main reason for the increasingly warm relations between the genocidal dictatorship of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and the European Union. In some sense, this echoes the efforts by the US government to push policies in Mexico to close off and militarize its southern border, as a way to outsource repression against US-bound migrants from Central America.
All of this should better improve our understanding of contemporary imperialism. Too often, anti-imperialist politics — particularly those in liberal ciricles — grounds itself on rather simplistic understandings of imperialism, thinking that the only “real” imperialism is when a Western country’s core institutions is engaged in a conflict (i.e. a full-scale invasion). Indeed, this is why liberal imperialists like those in the Obama administration defend their military escalations with the excuse that they are working with “regional partners”; but ultimately, this is only a way to contrast themselves with the overtly chauvinist strategies of the Bush administration, which alienated many regional elites who otherwise supported US hegemony. In reality, imperialism has always operated on a transnational basis, dependent on the consent and complicity of local elite classes. The technical tools may have changed, but the social and political strategies remain largely the same.