Biden Signals Policy Reset, but African Leaders Must Meet Washington Halfway
from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Biden Signals Policy Reset, but African Leaders Must Meet Washington Halfway

African leaders must hold the United States to its vow, even as they put their own house in order.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on the U.S. Africa Strategy at the University of Pretoria's Future Africa Campus in Pretoria, South Africa on August 8, 2022.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks on the U.S. Africa Strategy at the University of Pretoria's Future Africa Campus in Pretoria, South Africa on August 8, 2022. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

In both spirit and language, the newly launched Biden administration’s Africa strategy illustrates the shift in the diplomatic mood in the four years since National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the Trump administration’s Africa policy. Consistent with the temper of the time, Trump’s Africa strategy emphasized three principles: prosperity, security, and stability. If there was one overriding military objective to be achieved, it was “countering the threat from radical Islamic terrorism and violent conflict.”

That threat endures, and evidently, the Biden administration remains committed to the same cornerstone principles. Yet, the emphases of the new strategy reflect the extent to which the tenor of relations between the United States and African countries has altered, hence the tone of accommodation and the overall prominence given to “equal partnership” throughout the document.

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The reasons for the newfangled agreeableness are not far-fetched. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States was startled by the reluctance of key African players to condemn Russia and join the American-backed military campaign in defense of Ukrainian sovereignty. In retrospect, the reluctance had less to do with Russia per se (albeit the scope of Russian influence in Africa until that point had been grossly underestimated) and more to do with the not unjustifiable perception that Washington was wont to treat African countries as subordinates rather than allies. Given their history, African nations had to see the moral point about the injustice of the Russian invasion; what they seemed to resent was being taken for granted and dictated to by a United States that, as they saw it, was not above sacrificing moral principle on the altar of strategic expediency.   

African reluctance to toe the American line on Ukraine was just one concern. The United States was also perturbed by the widening scope of Chinese and Russian economic and military influence in the region, with more African countries seemingly attracted to the idea of Chinese financial aid that arrived sans the moral scrutiny and rigorous conditionalities associated with American assistance. All things considered, the United States would seem to be correct in its characterization of Beijing as aiming to “challenge the rules-based international order, advance its narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments” and Moscow as viewing Africa “as a permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit.”

If the indictment of China and Russia was as expected—it will be music to the ears of African civil society and prodemocracy activists exasperated by Beijing and Moscow’s amoral support for many African dictators—sections of the African public will be quietly gratified by the United States’ admission that “some of our longstanding approaches have become insufficient to meet new challenges in a more contested and competitive world” and its complementary readiness to “affirm African agency” and “elevate African voices in the most consequential global conversations.” That, in addition to the stated commitment to “revitalize and modernize its traditional tools of statecraft” should go some way towards assuaging the quite legitimate concern that the United States—and the West generally—is not always sensitive to the destabilizing effects of its power for relatively weak African states.

On this note, it is just as well that the strategy underscores the crucial importance of “African contributions and leadership” to the achievement of the strategy’s four main objectives: “foster openness and open societies,” “deliver democratic and security dividends,” “advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity,” and “support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition.”

Taking at face value the strategy’s commitment to “bolster the region’s ability to solve global problems alongside the United States,” African leaders should accept the invitation to “work in common cause” with the United States with the aim of putting Africa on the path towards democratic stability and economic prosperity.

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Arresting democratic backsliding is as good a place as any to start. It does not bode well for Africa that, as the strategy points out, “In 2022, Freedom House classified only eight sub-Saharan African countries as free—the fewest since 1991.” While the United States has promised “a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures” as well an offer of partnership “with other governments and regional bodies” in Africa, common sense dictates that those efforts are doomed to failure if the region’s band of “presidents for life” continue to subvert liberal democratic principles and ignore consistently high public support for representative government.     

Nor can the region take advantage of the United States’ vow to “work with African countries to promote a stronger growth trajectory” if it continues to be hobbled by all too familiar high levels of waste and corruption. In this regard, the strategy is right to draw attention to “the strong linkages between poor and exclusionary governance, high levels of corruption, human rights abuses… and insecurity…” in Africa.

To be sure: the aforementioned challenges are by no means unique to Africa. Yet, if the continent’s failure so far to realize its potential exasperates, it is because there is nothing inevitable about it. It is promising that the United States is committed to working in concert with Africa, but success ultimately depends on African countries doing the heavy lifting.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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