This week, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, visited Yale and gave a 30-minute talk followed by a Q&A. Kagame is an autocrat. He has been in power for 22 years. There is not a freedom of the press. Kagame has amended the constitution to allow for a third term in office. Opposition has been repressed, jailed, or killed. Kagame has seen great successes that can’t be ignored either. Rwanda is “economically vibrant, gender and environmentally conscious, technocratically proficient model of what an African state can be.”
Kagame’s presence at Yale was met with protest, unsurprisingly. There is every right for concern about Kagame’s human right’s record. Dan Magaziner, a Yale historian of twentieth-century Africa, was there, listened to the talk, shook Kagame’s hand, and thanked him for his time and perspective. He reports that Kagame’s message to the U.S. was best summarized in a hashtag, “#MindYourOwnBusiness”.
In Kagame’s narrative, the only history that matters is the history that began 22 years ago this past April. The suffering of the genocide and the RPF’s role in ending it is where Kagame’s government draws its legitimacy to condemn foreign hypocrisy (which exists in spades, to be sure) and to shut down its critics. We suffered and you did nothing – so how dare you say something now….
And, apologies Mr. Kagame, but you know that – because you correctly condemn my country for minding its own business in April, May and June 1994. People like you are our business precisely because people who tell others to mind their own business tend to be the sorts of people who leave bodies in their wake.
Kagame, whether intentional or not, brings forward an essential tension of foreign policy. When does a state have a duty to act? It’s not a question to which there is a definitive answer. In retrospect, we can point to cases of United States interference with world affairs that were undoubtedly the wrong choice. That list runs long, and provides legitimacy to Kagame’s stance.
There is no answer to that essential question that a world community would agree on. With every situation brings ambiguity, but it is a conversation worth having. As the two potential United States presidents face off in a debate on Monday, there is a high likelihood that one or both with advocate for regime change as a part of their foreign policy. I caution to slow down whenever that line of thinking is brought into the discussion. The consequences of action are long-term and can extend the suffering of a people. The consequences of inaction, as Kagame points out, can be terrible, as well.
I want to thank Chris Blattman for sharing Magaziner’s article. If someone finds my blog and has not seen his, it is well worth your time.