Tendai Biti tells the story of being on a plane to an international conference with Robert Mugabe. Mugabe approached his finance minister and prodded his shoulder accusingly. “Biti,” he said. “Your trouble is that you forget that we are a sovereign state.”

“No,” replied Biti, unflinching in his retelling of the exchange at least, “we are part of a global community.”

The man charged with running the Zimbabwean economy, a job he once called the hardest in the world, was in New York last week, sharing a platform at Columbia University with Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and the writer Peter Godwin.

The task Biti faces today is identical with the one he began to tackle as a student activist in the late 1980s. His life’s ambition – then as now – is to reverse permanently a national history he understands as an unrelenting tale of “state-imposed thuggery” stretching back to the earliest period of colonization.

“We must find our own, fundamental, Jeffersonian principles,” he says.

“And we must take violence out of the political landscape.”

Without the historical backdrop of what he calls “the vandalized state” to remind us of his radicalism, Biti’s hopes for Zimbabwe might sound banal. He wants a constitution based on peaceful political process and the mistrust of power, a strengthening of domestic institutions, participation in a “global village,” and the enforcement of international law. Biti jokes that he is still a Marxist, but, striving as he is to bring

Zimbabwe out of its three decades long nationalist malaise, his demands are those of a liberal.

Both Biti’s diagnosis of Zimbabwe’s troubles and his ambitions for the country’s future are concerned with international law. In globalism he sees the promise of “certain minimum standards,” a promise too often unfulfilled. “International law has failed Africa,” he says. “The UN has failed Africa.”

He dismisses UN Charter article 2(7) – the doctrine of non-intervention – as outmoded. He adds that he hopes the doctrine is abolished soon, perhaps with the upcoming elections in mind.

Zanu PF’s hold on power depends on how much cash it can bring in from outside the country. Most thought that Zimbabwe had nothing more to sell off, but in the alluvial diamonds of the Chiadzwa fields, Mugabe has found one big final pay-check.

There have been a couple of major diamond sales since Chiadzwa stones were cleared for legitimate sale under the Kimberley Process. and Biti was previously on record as not having seen a cent of diamond money enter his national coffers. Last week he confirmed that some money had come into the treasury, but added: “I’ve no doubt it’s not ‘the full monty.’ There are lots of leakages. There are big fish that are stealing.”

Among the biggest of those fish is China, which has built an air-strip at Chiadzwa and whose state weapons manufacturer Norinco has long been shipping arms to the country. Biti cited Dambisa Moyo’s chapter in ‘Dead Aid’ as the most prominent case of dangerous “romanticism” about China and the Chinese in Africa, but was reluctant to go into much detail.

“You know, I love Chinese food,” he said, smiling, “so I should be careful about what I say.”

* Elliot Ross is a graduate student at Columbia University.