Andrew Young's controversial diplomacy made its greatest impact on Africa, land of his ancestors, where he opened a new era in U.S. relations with virtually all the countries making up the continent.
Young's style of open diplomacy was not only badly needed but also much appreciated in black Africa, where American influence had reached an all-time low during the troubled Nixon-Ford era.
Young, his lieutenants at the United Nations and his Africanist colleagues at the State Department campaigned from the first days of President Carter's tenure to turn American policy toward Africa around 180 degrees. Although they did not succeed altogether, they made enormous strides in moving away from white-ruled southern Africa and toward black Africa for the first time in Washington's relations with this continent of young nations.
One sign of Young's success in his design was that white South Africans and Rhodesians considered him their number one enemy among American foreign policymakers, perhaps mistakenly so, since all he sought was a peaceful transition to black majority rule through nonviolent means.
Young's greatest achievement was in laying the groundwork for a reconcilation between the United States and two of Africa's leading nations, Nigeria and Tanzania, both of which had become extremely hostile toward Washington during the Nixon-Ford years.
He converted them from enemies to allies of U.S. diplomacy in Africa and cleared the way for a special relationship between President Carter and their two leaders, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Tanzania's Julius Nyerers. To South Africa and Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, it seemed that U.S. policy virtually had fallen "captive" to these two leaders. They blamed Young for this extraordinary reversal in American perceptions of who and what was important to Washington in Africa.
More generally, Young was the first American diplomat to succeed in convincing a generally skeptical black Africa that Washington not only was interested in its viewpoint but also was taking into account even if the administration did not always adopt it.
The fact that the United States was able to work as closely as it did for 18 months with radical Marxists as well as more moderate black African states in promoting its peace plans for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and Namibia (Southwest Africa) was due largely to Young and his like-minded top lieutenant at the United Nations, Donald McHenry.
Young showed the same disdain for the restraints of formaly diplomacy in Africa as in the Middle East and went out of his way here, too, to meet with hard-core nationalist radicals. At a January 1978 conference at Malta on the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian problem, he held long informal talks with black guerrilla military leaders, the first high-ranking American diplomat to do so.
His British diplomatic colleagues at the conference were horrified by his behavior. But young felt that was the only way to breach the gap of confidence and get nationalist backing or a negotiated solution.
If befriending black Africa for the United States was Young's greatest success, trying to make peace in southern Africa was his single greatest failure. It also displayed the naive side of the ambassador in dealing with the intractable black-white struggles of the region.
Young vastly underrated the probable inevitability of armed struggle to bring about black majority rule in southern Africa and seriously overrated the U.S. ability to pressure the whites of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and South Africa into making any meaningful changes through peaceful means.
He mistakenly saw the key to change in southern Africa through the eyes of a successful black civil rights leader of the American South and initially preached nonviolence to black nationalist guerrillas who already had been forced to take up arms out of white intransigence.
His speech to an antiapartheid conference in Maputo, Mozambique, in May 1977 on the virtues of following the black American way to racial justice appalled even his black African friends and earned him a private personal rebuke later from Mozambican president Samora Machel.
Just as southern African blacks locked in armed struggle often found him naive and his advice misguided, so too did the whites on the other side.
Upon making his first trip to Salisbury in September 1977 to present the latest Anglo-American peace plan, Young issued what seemed to be a public invitation to the white Rhodesian Army to carry out a coup against then-prime minister Ian Smith and make peace directly with the nationalist guerrillas.
He told reporters traveling with him he thought it far more likely that Rhodesia's Army officers could reach an agreement with the guerrillas than Smith, even though he had just won an overwhelming victory at the polls among Rhodesian whites. His remarks were to become a laughing stock later in white Rhodesian political circles.
Like a dozen British peacemakers before him, Young seriously misread the complexity of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian political puzzle and the tenacity of the whites to hold on against seemingly impossible odds.
The same misreading of the prospects for a peaceful transition toward an integrated society prevailed in his attitude toward South Africa. There, Young believed in all apparent sincerity that somehow the whites could be convinced by reason and cajoling alone to hand over the larger share of power to the blacks and the blacks to forego violence.
Ironically, Young helped even with his relatively moderate advice to black South Africans on the tactics of the struggle to alienate the whites to the point where Pretoria gave up all hope for any kind of cooperation with Washington. As a result, it turned its back on the U.S.-British peace plan for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, a key factor in its ultimate failure as Young later came to realize and regret.
In the end, historians may conclude that the American black leader's contribution to American policy toward Africa was more symbolic than substantive -- creating a new and more responsive attitude in Washington toward the views of black Africa rather than solving any of the continent's intractable political disputes.