The below remarks come from a speech delivered on August 16, at an Area Studies Seminar at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center, Foreign Service Institute, Arlington, Virginia.
I would like to open with thanks to the Foreign Service Institute for the opportunity to talk about U.S. foreign policy priorities in the Sahel and West Africa. I would hope that these formal remarks will help to frame our subsequent discussion.
To state the obvious, we Americans are having elections. Again, to state the obvious. The whole world is watching. During a recent trip to Africa, my interlocutors always moved the conversation as quickly as possible to the American elections, to Hillary Clinton and to Donald Trump. Indeed, the election campaign is shaping international perceptions of the United States. It is hard to judge how lasting the impact will be on African perceptions.
All election periods are uncertain. This one is especially so. The presidential winner is hard to predict. Hillary Clinton usually leads Donald Trump in the polls but by a margin that could be reversed by unpredictable events. “Brexit,” the referendum by which the British people voted to leave the European Union, defied conventional wisdom and reminds us of the fallibility of polls.
Should Mrs. Clinton win, Mr. Trump has already called into question the legitimacy of her victory by raising the specter of election rigging. Hence, the current paralysis between the executive and legislative branches could endure for some time.
With respect to U.S. foreign policy, Mrs. Clinton’s policies are familiar, and with the possible exception of on trade, represent continuity with the Obama administration in which she served as Secretary of State. Her foreign policy advisers are well-known. By contrast, Mr. Trump might mean new foreign policy directions. He has already indicated shifts with respect to NATO and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His foreign policy advisers are largely unknown.
Whoever wins, there will be a transition – and transitions are always difficult, even when they take place within the same party. It can easily take a year before a new administration fills its top policy positions. During a transition, typically, there are few new foreign policy initiatives, but programs already in place do continue.
Foreign policy has played a muted role in this campaign. Africa has figured hardly at all. During the upcoming transition we who are concerned about Africa will be working to get the continent on the new administration’s radar screen.
While acknowledging the present uncertainty, where are American short, medium, and long term priorities in seeking to advance peace in the Sahel?
First, the short-term. We are concerned to contain and roll back violent extremist movements such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and Boko Haram. This includes strengthening African state capacity and that of African multilateral institutions so that they can better respond to security challenges. It also includes working to counter trafficking of narcotics, arms, and people, an important source of funding for violent extremism.
In the medium term, American policy goals include the reform of the security services (military, police). Security service abuse is a driver of violent extremism.
Over the longer term, U.S. policy is to promote better governance, democracy framed by the rule of law, protection of human rights, and economic development.
As for activities, U.S. involvement in the Sahel is growing because of security issues associated with violent extremists. The U.S. military’s Africa Command is perhaps the best example. At the request of host governments, we have established a few drone facilities. Peacekeeping operations training continues, as does U.S. diplomatic and financial support for multilateral peace efforts.
But, the bottom line is that the U.S. security presence remains small. The Leahy amendment limits our training of foreign military and police. More generally, U.S. involvement in the Sahel is limited by the indirect threat to U.S. security posed by violence extremist groups. There has also been caution in Washington in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Small programs to promote democracy and the rule of law, support the electoral process, and advance education for women continue. There are larger heath programs. Power Africa and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) have been signature Obama policies. The first seeks to address Africa’s deficit in the production of electricity, the second to promote leadership skills within a democratic context. There are numerous examples of “soft diplomacy” that have worked well, ranging from various exchange programs to the promotion of mutual cultural understanding. Our disadvantage is that our diplomatic establishments are underfunded and understaffed – and “soft diplomacy” requires resources.
Sometimes, newly elected presidents will ask for a briefing from organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations. The time allowed is very short, perhaps ten minutes. If I were asked to brief on the Sahel, I would make the following six points:
- Violent extremism, in the Sahel is a direct threat to U.S. interests. It destabilizes friends and partners in the region and has caused a humanitarian disaster.
- It does not yet pose a threat to U.S. security, but it could in the future.
- Hence, the U.S. cannot walk away from security engagements in the Sahel.
- That engagement is best achieved through a partnership with African states and organizations and other stakeholders, including the United Kingdom, France, China and the European Union.
- Unlike in the South China Sea, there is no strategic rivalry between China and the U.S. in Africa.
- There is a humanitarian disaster in northeast Nigeria to which the American people will demand a response once it is better known. Estimates are that there are up to two million internally displaced persons (IDPs), and up to 600,000 children face famine.
Over the next six to twelve months – the election and transition time – where could international coordination and cooperation best take place? I would suggest starting with humanitarian relief in northeast Nigeria, and the delivery of food and medical supplies. This will not be simple. There will be the need for the closest coordination with, and support for, the Nigerian authorities. Any such multilateral effort must begin in Abuja. It would also involve international agencies such as the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization.
There will be logistical challenges. Humanitarian efforts would take place in areas that are far from secure. If the Nigerian, Chadian, and Nigerien forces have driven Boko Haram out of the territory it has occupied, Boko Haram is still far from having been destroyed. Over the past few days the Nigerian military has said that it thwarted Boko Haram plans for attacks in Abuja and Lagos. Further, how do we ensure that humanitarian aid does not fall into the hands of Boko Haram?
But, if successful, coordination and cooperation could advance multilateral cooperation is responding to the challenges of the Sahel – in a way similar to the coordinated effort against Ebola.
And it might be do-able during a time of U.S. political transition.