Too often, the Trump Administration’s engagement with Africa has been characterized by insults and neglect. In their final days in office, Administration officials have doubled down on that posture, treating relations with the African Union and its member states as an irrelevant detail in their zeal to find quick wins on favored issues. Whether this approach serves the long-term interests of the United States is very much debatable.
On December 10, news broke of a U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between Morocco and Israel. Directly linked to that agreement was a U.S. commitment to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a disputed territory since 1975 and host to a United Nations peacekeeping mission since 1991. The transactional nature of the Western Sahara decision is explicit; it is framed as a reward to Morocco for cooperating with U.S. diplomats and Israel. Not only are the rights of the Sahrawi people living in Western Sahara to self-determination irrelevant in this framework, so too, apparently, is the position of the African Union, which recognizes the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic as a member state. Many African states, particularly those with a recent experience of settler colonialism, view the Western Sahara issue through the lens of their own anti-colonial experiences, and while many also desire positive relations with Morocco, there is clearly no consensus on the continent to simply acquiesce to Moroccan’s claim on the territory.
Tinkering with African borders from Washington to serve the interests of its Middle East diplomacy is highly unlikely to reflect well on the United States, or on Israel. The notion that the African fallout doesn’t matter is extraordinarily shortsighted. Africa holds three non-permanent Security Council seats, is home to some of the most alarming and ambitious violent extremist movements in the world, and is essential to addressing global challenges from pandemics to climate change. How Africa, with the world’s youngest demographics, charts its course in the coming decades will have a great deal of influence on global governance and geopolitical competition. When the United States wants cooperation from African states, Washington uses the language of partnership. Our credibility in those moments, and our security overall, is not enhanced when we position ourselves as contemptuous of African institutions and the rights of African peoples.