How Senegal decolonised diplomacy – starting with Kennedy and Senghor

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Sixty two years later, one of the most significant markers of the victory is what I call Senegal’s “de-colonised diplomacy”.

Indeed, one cannot but wonder whether the celebrated political stability of Senegal has been the result of its diplomacy or its cause.

From its effortless presidential transitions to a network of embassies that rivals that of much larger and richer nation-states, Senegal owes its success to a political governance built on a distinctive complicity between domestic and foreign policies.

This has been forged under the country’s heavily “presidential” approach to diplomacy – just like France, its former colonial authority.

But Senegal has kept diplomacy mostly independent from the personal will of its heads of state. This remained the norm even after rewriting its constitution in 1963 and giving almost exclusive power to its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, over international affairs.

In a paper published last year, I examined the decolonising of the country’s diplomacy through the prism of a two year window – 1961 and 1963 – and the relationship between Senghor and his American counterpart John F. Kennedy.

Though Africa has never been of primary political interest to the US, Kennedy took a highly advertised turn toward the continent. He invited more African statesmen to the White House than any President before or since. He appointed first-rate diplomats in charge of African affairs at home and abroad.

My article focused on a brief period when the leaders of Senegal and the US worked together to develop an unprecedented relationship away from the framework inherited from colonialism.

Reading recently declassified correspondence between Senghor and Kennedy, I described an unfinished policy project that, in its essence, framed the possibility of looking at the world through a new decolonised lens. Kennedy’s ‘African policy’ was neither a success nor a failure in policy-making. Rather, it was a terrain where both men fought inherited ethnocentric, colonial and Cold War ideologies to such an extent that a practice of resisting ideologies itself became the new diplomatic goal: decolonising policy.

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