Africa's Strategic Partners

Africa's Strategic Partners

Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
from Academic and Higher Education Webinars

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

African Union

Reuben E. Brigety II, dean of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs and adjunct senior fellow for African peace and security issues at CFR, discusses Africa's new strategic partnerships and implications for U.S. approaches toward African countries. 

​​​​​​Learn more about CFR’s resources for the classroom at CFR Campus.


Reuben E. Brigety II

Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University; Adjunct Senior Fellow for African Peace and Security Issues, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We are delighted to have Reuben Brigety today to discuss Africa’s new strategic partners. Reuben Brigety is dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and an adjunct senior fellow for African peace and security issues here at CFR. He most recently served as the appointed representative of the United States to the African Union and permanent representative of the United States to the U.N. Economic Commission of Africa. Prior to these appointments, he served as deputy secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs and was responsible for Southern African and regional security affairs. He has a distinguished career of government service having served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. He was the director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress, as well as a number of other positions in the government, including senior adviser for development and security to the U.S. Central Command team in Washington, D.C. and Doha, Qatar. Additionally, he was an active duty U.S. Naval officer and held several staff positions in the Pentagon and in fleet support units.

Welcome, Dean Brigety. We very much appreciate your being with us today.

I circulated in advance several readings, including your article in Foreign Affairs entitled “A Post-American Africa: The U.S. Is Falling Behind.” It would be terrific if you could talk about the state of where we are and why you posit that the U.S. is falling behind in this—in this strategic partnership.

BRIGETY: Sure. Well, Irina, thank you very much.

And good afternoon everybody.

Before I begin to talk a bit about the article, let me just say, as I say in multiple settings, that I remain incredibly grateful for my affiliation with the Council on Foreign Relations. For those of you that are aspiring foreign affairs professionals, I can tell you that, short of my education, it’s been my affiliation with the Council that has been the single-most important aspect of my development as a foreign affairs professional. So I very much hope that you will continue to avail yourself of Council products. And when you get to that time in your career, that you will apply for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations yourself.

Now, let me get to the gist of the article. So as Irina mentioned, I have a background in not only African politics and economics, but also U.S. engagement there, having represented the United States to the African Union and also served as the deputy in the Africa Bureau of the State Department. And what has been generally the case with regard to U.S. engagement in Africa over the last thirty, forty years is that it has enjoyed large bipartisan support on the Democratic and Republican side for a variety of political reasons that are—that are unique to, you know, each party and to the members of Congress in both of those, as well as to multiple presidential administrations.

And the basis for that engagement through the end of the Cold War and about the first decade afterwards has been largely security assistance with partners on the ground, particularly after 9/11. The nature of support for development assistance, on education, on agriculture, for example, support for economic—sorry, support for humanitarian aid in the wake of massive population displacements due to armed conflict or major humanitarian disasters, et cetera.

But the weakest part of that engagement has been economic engagement, particularly trade. Now, in some cases, that has been understandable for many years. The nature of Africa’s share of global GDP as quite small, quite paltry. Indeed, inter-Africa trade only amounts for about, you know, one-and-a-half percent of total trade in Africa alone. That’s true with one major exception and that is with regard to petroleum exports and, to a lesser extent, other extractives such as coal, tin, and copper, in some cases timber, et cetera.

But what has changed in the last sort of decade or so, ten to fifteen years, is that Africa has increasingly been getting its act together economically and politically, both on the basis of individual sovereign nations, but also collectively in regional- and continental-aligned political arrangements.

More or less, independence for most of the continent in the early and mid-1960s, there were at least kind of two competing views towards economic development and growth. There was obviously the more capitalist approach favored by the West, but then also more socialist, even communist approaches favored by Eastern-bloc countries. That debate is now over and it is clear and broadly accepted that the way to long-term job growth and, therefore, prosperity for Africa’s burgeoning and young population is through private sector-led economic growth.

And thus, the question is, how do individual African companies—sorry, individual African countries make their nations more hospital to foreign direct investment? How do you grow African companies indigenously, not only to support their own domestic markets and even their own African markets, but also to integrate in broader global economic markets?

The other big change, just as you all no doubt know, has been the rapid growth of Chinese engagement on the continent, which has started with development assistance in the so-called no strings attached mode, as well as very large economic investments in infrastructure, in light manufacturing, and elsewhere, to the point where, you know, three years ago, China overtook the United States as the largest trading partner in Africa as well as the largest source of foreign direct investment and also the largest source of jobs created by foreign engagement.

Further, the Africans, having recognized that their, in most cases, their economies are both too small and too insular to be viable on their own, are moving more and more towards regional markets and indeed, with the launching of the Continental Africa Free Trade Agreement, towards, increasingly, a common market for, you know, all fifty-four or fifty-five—depending on which day in Western Sahara—countries on the continent.

And it is in the midst of all this that we have seen at the same time a U.S. administration under President Trump that has upended American foreign policy across the board and, frankly, has been asleep at the switch as it relates to Africa. The first lady, Melania Trump, as you well know, is on her maiden solo trip anywhere as first lady and her first trip to Africa ever right now. And the—and the—sorry, one second—and she will be doing what, you know, other first ladies have done on the continent before, taking a look at humanitarian projects, visiting orphanages. I saw just today that she visited Cape Coast slave castles in Ghana, which is a very moving experience.

And while this good-will tour is nice, it also stands in stark relief to, quite frankly, a pretty amorphous approach to Africa under the current administration, both in and of itself and also in particular when compared to our adversaries, quite frankly, China and also other countries that are dramatically increasing their engagement.

Now, one might argue, so what, why does any of this matter? There are obviously the traditional trading relationships the United States has with Europe. The president has just announced a reboot of continental free trade in the Americas, Asia is obviously growing and where, obviously, many people argue the future of U.S. economic power should be. So why care about Africa?

Well, there are several reasons for it. First of all, by 2030, about a quarter of the world’s population under the age of 30 will be Africa—will be African. And that has both, on the one hand, enormous opportunities in terms of creating large labor pools to manufacture many of the things that, you know, were being manufactured in China and East Asia a generation ago. But also, quite frankly, substantial risks if those large numbers of young people are not able to pursue their own livelihoods at home and Africa. And one need only take a look at what is happening with regard to the African migration crisis across the Mediterranean as frankly the leading edge or the tip of the iceberg of what we’re going to be seeing over the course of the next decade if we don’t fix this.

Secondly, with fifty-four sovereign countries that are recognized members of the United Nations, each of those countries has votes in every international forum to which they belong. Typically, when the United States is trying to push through resolutions in the U.N. and elsewhere and other multilateral groups, about a third of the votes come from Africa. And it’s crucially important that the United States be able to maintain, in fact grow its position as a—as the partner of choice of a continent as opposed to others, principally the Chinese which are dramatically competing for that—for that space.

And then, finally, it’s clear that one can’t solve many of the major international problems that we’re going to be facing the next several decades alone, whether it be the spread of pandemic disease, which, as we saw with the Ebola crisis of 2014, knows no borders and can spread not only in regions, but indeed around the world quite quickly, to what the failed or failing states in large number in ungoverned spaces can do to foster an environment where violent extremists can not only sort of grow and find refuge, but also from which they can export their violence into other parts of the world.

So in my view, there is no scenario in which either benign neglect or, frankly, a more hostile approach to the continent is in our interests. And it is vitally important that the United States take steps on a bipartisan basis in the near future to reverse this trend and to reestablish and grow the United States as a partner of choice for Africa.

So thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.

FASKIANOS: Reuben, thank you very much for that overview.

Let’s open it up to the group for questions. And it would be terrific if the students could identify themselves.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Georgetown University.

Q: From Georgetown, Bea Lu (ph), thank you.

My question is, Africa is nowadays also mentioned as an entity, but is there any other countries on the continent as more promising and what sectors of the industry actually is more worthy of watching and observation? Thank you.

BRIGETY: No, it’s a very good question. And there are a number of individual countries that are promising on an economic basis for a variety of reasons. Some are similar to each other, others are quite different.

So in my view, the most exciting place to watch at the moment is Ethiopia, the second-most populous country in Africa. It has a very important strategic position in East Africa as the home to the African Union and, most significantly, is undergoing some political and economic reforms the likes of which we haven’t seen, you know, on the world stage, I would argue, since some of the early days of post-communism in the former Soviet Union, now Russia, in the early 1990s.

They are opening up a variety of sectors that have long been closed or largely closed for private investment from telecoms industry to logistics to agriculture and agribusiness. And if they’re able to pull it off, I think it will be, you know, one of the most exciting stories for democracy and free market capitalism, not only in all of Africa, but also the world.

There is obviously the perennial cases of South Africa and Nigeria, the two largest economies on the continent, but both of them, in different ways, are struggling, South Africa with the, essentially, economic indicators that continue to point downwards some twenty-five years after the end of apartheid and with a ruling party that is besieged by virtue of its failure to not only to deliver services, but with a previous president and a President Zuma who took what was a decent economy with some difficulty and has turned it in just kind of two steps away from crisis before he handed it over to his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa.

Nigeria is the country that everybody constantly looks for to take off, but is also constantly worried about will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Obviously, substantial oil wealth, a really vibrant, industrious population, but with a political system that has made it just about impossible to find public support not only for basic public, you know, solutions, like basic public education and electricity, but also creating an investment environment that is a cure enough to launch the kind of economic activity that Nigeria quite frankly warrants and deserves.

Then there are a number of other countries that are frankly better run, but for—but for reasons of their size and being relatively and/or their location not being terribly advantageous have found it difficult to really fundamentally take off. So Rwanda I would put in that category. Ghana is sort of like that, I think it’s a little less dynamic economically than Rwanda and has a better location because of access to the sea, but his—and clearly has one of the best political systems on the continent, but has not yet found the kind of—kind of dynamism that one could really use to take off.

And then there’s obviously Kenya as well, which is, you know, very heavily engaged economically with the Chinese. As you well know, they have now launched a railway from Mombasa further inland to help make Kenya be one of the most important logistics hubs in the—in the region. There have been some really quite important reforms that have been launched by President Kenyatta to address endemic and rampant corruption, which has been one of the things that has helped to hold back the economy. And then they’ve also largely recovered from the really quite serious security challenges they had with al-Shabaab and the al-Shabaab attacks not only in Nairobi, but also on the coast, which had a real serious impact to their—to their tourism industry, which is something on which the Kenyan economy depends heavily and, therefore, the need to provide for security for their own citizens and tourists is quite important.

So having said all of that, the launching of a common Africa free trade area is meant to be able to create so-called economies of scale so that, for example, light manufacturing of consumer goods or pharmaceuticals or things of that nature can make it much easier for there to be differentiation amongst African markets and, therefore, increase the ability of Africans to be able to trade more easily with each other and take advantage of the natural economic growth opportunities that such further integration would create, not only in terms of being able to export to the rest of the world or, frankly, being able to trade with each other.

So that’s sort of a macro view of how I would take a look at the economy at the moment.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Central Florida.

Q: Hi. David Callahan with the Global Perspectives Office here at UCF.

I was wondering, you mentioned a lot about Chinese investment, and through the news you kind of see that the Chinese investment comes with a lot of strings attached, such as the African Union building that was built and financed by the Chinese having a bunch of bugs that was directly back to Xi Jinping. Does this kind of provide an opening for potentially America to invest? Or are African leaders kind of getting sick of the Chinese strings attached?

BRIGETY: Well, there are a number of ways to answer that question. The first is that our Chinese colleagues would tell you, as they tell African countries, that there are no strings attached, this is a straight business proposition, things are very, very clear. That is obviously not the entirety of the truth.

The $300 million gifting of the AU complex to the African Union was, on the one hand, was indeed a gift. On the other hand, it is—I mean, if you go there right now, there are Chinese nationals all over the place. There are—there are parts of that building that African Union officials themselves aren’t allowed to go into because the Chinese essentially occupy them. I personally would not want to have a private conversation anywhere in that building because you’d expect the Chinese are listening to all of it. So that’s one.

Secondarily, many of these loans that have been given to African states are designed to be very, very low interest initially, but then have essentially balloon payments much, much later on. And by the way, the money that the Chinese are using for these investments is essentially spare money. So the Chinese are not leveraging their own future by investing in Africa, they are basically making, effectively, a series of markers with surplus capital they have for the benefit of being able to reap returns on them, not only economically, but political and geopolitically years later. Let me give you sort of, in my view, the best example of this.

So the tiny country of Djibouti, which is in the Horn of Africa, is basically the landline to Ethiopia which is landlocked having lost the war of independence with Eritrea in the early 2000s and, therefore, took Ethiopia’s northern coastline. So everything that comes into Ethiopia that is not flown in comes via the port of Djibouti, thus servicing a market of a hundred-plus-million people. So the port terminal in Djibouti is an extremely valuable asset.

The other thing to know about Djibouti is that it is home to the largest number of foreign military bases of any other country in the world, to include the largest U.S. military presence in all of Africa. The Chinese now have a base there, the Japanese do, the French, obviously, et cetera.

So the port terminal in Djibouti was built and operate by Dubai Ports World, one of the, you know, largest port operators in the world, in a concession that was negotiated with the government of Djibouti. In February of this year, the Djiboutian government seized that terminal from Dubai Ports World on the Premise that DP World was not being very flexible in rethinking and renegotiating the original terms of the contract. But what is clear, what we now know is that they seized this port largely because the Djiboutians were up to their eyeballs in debt to China. And the premise being that the Djiboutians wanted to renegotiate the terms of the port on an incredibly—on terms that were much more favorable to Djibouti, but that, frankly, would not work economically for any private operator. They will seize it—have seized it and almost certainly in the—in the foreseeable future, I would guess before the end of the year, will turn it over to a Chinese investment firm, which will then allow China to control access of all goods into the second-largest economy of Africa, into the diplomatic capital of Africa, and also, frankly, help position them to help control logistic chains potentially all throughout East Africa.

That kind of play of making long-term debts that countries cannot repay and, therefore, pressuring governments to take other geopolitical and economic actions in response is exactly what you can expect to see elsewhere. There are indications that it’s happening already as well in Zambia and Chad. And, frankly, it’s also why a number of African countries—Ethiopia, I think, probably being chief among them, but certainly not alone—are quite serious about trying to find ways to diversify their investment pool so that they are not beholden to any one investor.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Indiana University.

Q: Hi there. My name is Nathan Ryder (sp). I’m an undergrad in international studies here.

We focus a lot on China’s presence in Africa, but other powers, notably South Korea, also have a large role in African economic development and security. Are there real prospects for cooperation and to further American engagement with South Korea or other U.S. partners? And what are they?

BRIGETY: Well, first of all, I mean, the short answer is yes. And I completely agree you that, on the one hand, while the Chinese get kind of the lion’s share of attention in terms of foreign engagement on the continent, they’re not the only ones. And the South Koreans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Turks, as examples, and obviously, you know, historical colonial powers in Europe, are all looking for ways to find investments. The Australians in the mining industry are also increasingly trying to make plays.

In my view, on the one hand, I mean, the answer is obvious. I mean, there are any number of ways in which the United States could partner with African governments and with firms from more friendly countries, not only for the benefit of African development, but also, frankly, for the financial benefit of the firms involved.

One obvious way is thinking about ways in which financing for infrastructure projects can be done in ways that are more financially viable for American private sector firms. So, for example, I mentioned earlier that one of the ways in which the Chinese are able to do, you know, big development projects on the continent is that they basically have state-owned banks or parastatal banks that provide unbelievably low interest rates for unrealistically long time horizons to be able to finance these projects.

And the inverse of that is that oftentimes the U.S. investment banks and infrastructure banks either, A, not being terribly familiar with African markets or, B, seeing even less risky investments elsewhere, will price the loans for engagements in these—in these—in these areas in ways that, frankly, do not make these projects economically viable for American firms. And there are ways to de-risk those sorts of investments in order to make them much more viable financially and, therefore, make them more attractive for American firms, not only in infrastructure, but also in manufacturing, et cetera. And not only with American financial firms, but also, potentially, with just South Korean banks or with European banks that certainly know the markets much more intimately than most American banks do, et cetera.

But this has to be done as a quite deliberate effort. One of the things that I mentioned in the piece that I wrote, A Post-American Africa, is that the nature of Chinese and Indian and Turkish engagement on the continent, economic engagement on the continent didn’t just happen. I mean, it’s—it is a result of a deliberate strategy on the part of those governments not only to increase official engagement, but also to help support the engagement of their firms on the continent.

And as any number of senior African officials have told me, like, look, we desperately want American companies to engage, we want them to be here, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do business with the—with the folks that are here as opposed to waiting for the Americans to decide that, you know, conditions are ripe for them to be comfortable enough to come engage.

And my note of high caution not only to the U.S. government, but also to the American private sector writ large is that there will be opportunities that will no longer be available and influence that will no longer be had, you know, ten, twenty years out because that space will have been filled by other countries and other firms if we do not substantially change our engagement on the continent soon.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Washington & Jefferson College.

Q: Hi. First of all, thank you so much for speaking with us.

My question is, concerning government corruption within specific countries of Africa, there has been evidence of governments supporting terrorist groups and also government leaders extorting money from first-world countries to support their own personal uses. You speak of the influence of Africa becoming a much higher country by the year 2030. Do you think government corruption will end? And if so, how?

BRIGETY: So several things. First of all, I’m not sure what you’re talking about with regard to evidence of African countries supporting terrorist groups. I’d be—you know, I’d like to know which specific examples you’re talking about.

But with regard to questions of corruption, there are a number of ways to think about this. So first of all, corruption is real, it’s a real issue on the continent. And the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa a couple of years ago did a study and estimated that the continent loses about $40 billion a year every year, on average, lost to corrupt activities. And obviously, that’s money if they’re able to—sort of—(inaudible)—half of it could go a very long way towards supporting development projects on the continent and investments, et cetera.

Now, having said that, if you talk to senior African leaders, as I’ve done when I’ve raised this issue with them, one of the retorts that one often gets is that there is no corruption without corruptors, which is to say that even if there are, and as you correctly note, officials across the continent that are enriching their own pockets privately at the expense of the general public—and there are some countries, frankly, that are—that are—that are worse than others and have elevated this to a complete artform—that can’t happen were it not for private Western or foreign firms being willing to corrupt these local officials.

As an—for example, until recently, until a couple of years ago in Germany, for German businesses that were doing business in Africa, when they had to pay—if they paid bribes, they could write those bribes off their taxes in Germany as literally the cost of doing business as opposed to, for example, in the United States through the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, American firms literally and individuals literally going to jail for participating in corrupt activity.

Now, officially, both the African Union as a whole and most of the regional economic—the economic communities understand that it’s a problem and they publicly have anticorruption issues to fight it. As I say, there are some countries, like Rwanda, like now Ethiopia, Botswana, that are—that are quite public and quite strident trying to sort of fight this. There are other countries, quite frankly, you know, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, and others, that have a much worse track record in this regard.

And at the end of the day, it’s fundamentally a sovereign decision. And I think that as time goes by, it’ll be clear that those countries which make a very specific, concerted effort to fight corruption will be those that will ultimately reap the benefits of greater integration in external markets and will see increases in foreign direct investment as a result.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from United States Naval War College.

Q: Thank you for allowing us to join.

In terms of security, our question—the recent National Defense Strategy focuses Africa on one line and it’s really on countering terrorism. What should U.S. AFRICOM and its interagency partners, other than terrorism, what other concerns should be focused on?

BRIGETY: Sure. Well, first of all, it’s great to hear from the War College having served on the Board of Advisors there at one point. I have a great deal of fondness for the institution.

I think that—let’s talk about terrorism for a minute because I think that, in many respects, the Africans and the African Union as a whole, in particular, have come around in this space. So after 9/11, the United States wanted to talk about, you know, terrorism and counterterrorism strong with the Africans and writ large their response was this is nice, however there are other priorities they had for their security space. And that was largely the case up until you started to see al-Shabaab attacks outside of Somalia in Uganda and Kenya for example and, obviously, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria and what that meant for the entire Lake Chad Basin.

So they have now understood that this is an issue and we have some important partnerships, as you well know, with regard to counterterrorism on the continent, particularly in the Horn of Africa and across the Sahel.

Now, having said that, in my view, the two kind of big underreported and underappreciated security issues on the continent are, one maritime security writ large in the entire space—I mean, the African maritime domain is massive, our Navy has done some important work in partnership and, yet, it is—you know, pun intended—sort of a drop in the ocean relative to the need to provide security against not only sort of seaborne threats for smuggling, which can enhance terrorism networks, but also protection of fisheries, which is a potential major asset for African economies, aqua tourism, et cetera.

And Africa countries, generally speaking, do not have—even South Africa, do not have the resources to provide sort of genuine blue water capability to address these sorts of issues, let alone more coastal approaches to their maritime security.

And then the second one, which is a little outside of AFRICOM’s domain, but I think is an—is an important one nevertheless, is doing much more on preventative diplomacy.

So there are a number of conflicts across the continent that one can sort of see bubbling or, in retrospect, could have been avoided with a robust diplomatic engagement of a sustained nature from outside mediators in advance of things going very badly, so whether that is Central African Republic of Burundi or Burkina Faso or others. And on the one hand, these sorts of in-depth missions are relatively inexpensive, certainly compared to launching a massive peacekeeping mission. But on the other hand, it’s hard to prove a negative and it’s hard to find funding for precisely those sorts of diplomatic missions which can be averting crises as opposed to responding to them.

So one of the things that I’ve written about elsewhere and also support in other sorts of ways is helping to find both the funding and the—and the—and the training capability to be able to seamlessly integrate the issues of conflict prevention across the entire spectrum of security capabilities that not only the Africans have to have for themselves, but, frankly, the partners have to be willing to support in order to create safer environments for everything else so development and economic development can flourish.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Washington and Lee.

Q: Hello. I’m Rafi, I’m a freshman at Washington and Lee.

And my question is that, agreed, that in the past, the United States has shown an interest in Africa, but a large part of that relationship has also been the United States backing dictators like Hissène Habré of Chad and the United States supporting multinationals like ExxonMobil who have gone in and just plundered the continent. So even if the current Trump administration or future administrations come up with a solution for Africa, is it likely that the people of Africa will trust the United States?

BRIGETY: So this is an oft-cited critique of American foreign policy. And I—and I would submit that it’s one that applies not only to Africa, but elsewhere. And it’s also one that clearly has its roots in the Cold War and the sorts of choices that the United States and others made in terms of backing regimes that were—that were hostile to their own populations, that were tyrannical, but that were, quote, “on our side” as opposed to being on the—on the other side. As I say, whether it is Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire or apartheid South Africa or Jonas Savimbi in Angola, there are a whole number of cases in which one can make that critique.

When I was in the State Department, one of the tacks that I would always take is to say—can you hear me? I’m sorry?

FASKIANOS: Yes, we can hear you. Go ahead.

BRIGETY: So when I was in the State Department, one of the tacks that I would often take would be, frankly, to acknowledge that history and to say that, yes, it was completely understandable from the perspective of our African colleagues how distasteful many of these choices were made. But I would also say that in the scope of history we have often been able to make amends and to foster a brighter future.

For example, Japan, the country that, you know, helped basically launch the entry of the United States into World War II and that ended with the United States using the only two offensive uses of atomic weapons in history are now amongst the closest of allies in the world. And with an appropriate view of what is possible in the future, things can be made different regardless of how brutal and ugly the past was. And I think that is certainly true, broadly speaking, across Africa.

I mean, as I say, one must remember that the vast majority of people on the continent today, alive on the continent today, were not even alive during the Cold War and, thus, do not have individual, personal memories of those sorts of choices that were made. The same is true, frankly, in other parts of the world, in Vietnam, for example. And the power not only of American culture and American media, but also of American products and American industry, you’re still—you’re really quite attractive and, quite frankly, more things that the U.S. ought to be trading on.

Now, as it relates to your question about the conduct of American companies, particularly I presume you mean some extractive companies, oil industries and whatnot, I would say that, again, certainly from the Niger Delta, there are really, you know, horrible examples in the past of extraction of those resources with not only very little going to local communities, but, frankly, those communities often being left with, you know, parts of environmental degradation, to which I would say the following.

First of all, certainly in the context of American firms, a lot of those firms now get it. And I know that, for example, the American Petroleum Institute is often looking for ways to be able to give back meaningfully to those—to those communities which they—which they inhabit.

The second thing I would say is that the sort of mistakes the United States and its American companies were making twenty, twenty-five years ago are those mistakes that Chinese companies are making today in terms of how poorly they’re treating local labor, in terms of the nature of how they’re extracting raw materials. And I would also think that, having said that, they also tend to be on a faster learning curve than American firms were.

And then finally, kind of just tie this entire question all up in a bow, at the end of the day, one has to ask, notwithstanding where we were, where are we going? And I think that both individual African countries and certainly in African collectives, the AU as a whole and regional organizations, are becoming more sophisticated about the nature of the kinds of partnerships in which they will engage.

And further, as more established economies are looking for engagement in more frontier markets and those are coming to Africa in greater numbers, it also creates opportunities for them to be more sophisticated in terms of picking their own partners. And that, both, is, on the one hand, generally a good thing for African countries, but also—which is the fundamental point of the article that I wrote—is creating much more competition for the United States; therefore, we have to step up our game in order to make ourselves more viable and more attractive partners.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Texas.

Q: Sir, this is—(inaudible)—Ramirez from the Department of—School of Social Work, University of Texas Rio Grande.

Just the intervention from multiple nations in the continent of Africa, how receptive are the governments, sir, in your opinion, to foreign nations helping them improve and build institutions there as opposed to acquiring or planning instead or accommodating planning that is focused more on profit-making as opposed to improving their institutions?

BRIGETY: So as I understand the question, what is the view of African countries with regard to support for their own democratic institutions as opposed to support for, you know, economic activity and whatnot. I think, you know, it’s a good question. And let me give you kind of two examples of how I think about it and what my experience is, and not just my experience previously, but my ongoing engagement on the continent as a scholar and whatnot.

I think that, as a whole, there is enormous pressure from African citizens and African citizenry, which is increasingly young, on their—on their governments to improve their own governance and to strengthen their institutions.

Now, one must remember, on the one hand, that, with the exception of Ethiopia and Morocco, there’s not a country on the continent that has been fully free and democratic for more than about fifty years, more or less. And as these—and even with that, most of these countries have undergone some significant political changes since independence, moving from so-called kind of quasi democracies to being sort of, essentially, captured by, you know, longstanding leaders and then having to sort of undergo constitutional reform, et cetera, et cetera. And institutions take time and institutions, even the strongest of them, are only as good as the people that decide to be bound by them I think as, frankly, as we’re sort of learning in our own country at the moment.

So notwithstanding that, as I mentioned, there’s an awful lot of pressure amongst young people to see their governments not only perform better, but to respond to them better. And I think probably amongst the biggest examples of that are, one, the general concern that most African heads of state have towards their own youthful populations. Having seen what happened in the Arab Spring, they are, you know, desperately worried that if they cannot provide jobs for the young people, if they cannot provide mechanisms for them to engage productively, healthily in their own political system, that things will go very, very badly for them.

And exhibit A for that recently has been Ethiopia which was basically operating under a very sclerotic political and social arrangement. And as of, you know, January of this year, seeing ethnic protests around the country that were—that were increasingly just about to close in on the capital and let to not only a pretty swift change in political leadership, but has ushered in a young political leader in Dr. Abiy Ahmed who is, you know, by all accounts, you know, part JFK, part Billy Graham, part, I don’t know, Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, he’s just fundamentally changing the nature of Ethiopian economy. And as we—and as we sit right now, literally as we’re talking, the Ethiopian government is having a major political party congress to try to find ways to institute some of those reforms and begin to institutionalize them.

Now, what that means, as I’ve written elsewhere, is that, on the one hand, many African countries, individually and in multilateral agreements, such as the African Union Constitutive Act, have on paper constitutional arrangements that support democracy, that support human rights and whatnot, but there is not sort of an internal flywheel, an internal dynamic as it were, that would help to push African governments to heed many of those reforms. Let me give you an example.

So after the Cold War, in order to be admitted to the European Union, to NATO, many Eastern European countries had to undergo some really quite stringent political, economic, and security reforms. And the—and the incentive for doing so was being able to gain membership in these institutions, which helped to garner not only increased economic growth, but also improve their own physical security. There’s nothing like that inherently in Africa, so it’s not as if, you know, if, you know, if these countries decided today that they were going to hold themselves much more stringently to norms that they have already promised themselves that as a result there would be a massive payout from the World Bank or whatever. And as a result of that, I have argued that the most important thing would be for democratic friends of Africa, led by the United States, to have an explicit pro-democracy, good-governance agenda to support these sorts of institutions on a sort of proactive basis. And our stepping away from democracy promotion, as has been the case under the current administration, is a big strategic mistake because that vacuum will be filled by other countries, led by China and Russia, that will make the argument that you actually don’t have to liberalize politically in order to achieve economic growth and that that will, frankly, lead to other politicalist functions down the road.

So that’s kind of a long way of saying that there is enormous space for supporting governance institutions in Africa largely because there’s so little of it happening relative to the need and that it’s really quite—very much in our interests to be able to do so.

Q: Thank you, sir.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Ohio Northern University.

Q: Thank you very much. My name is Kofi Nsia-Pepra. I’m a Ghanaian with peacekeeping experience in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

My question is, will you agree, in terms of security, will you agree with me that President Trump’s obsession with dictators and his “America first” foreign policy that disregards human rights undermines United States strategic interests in Africa and elsewhere?

BRIGETY: Can you repeat the question please? I didn’t fully understand. Say again?

Q: My question is, will you agree with me that President Trump’s obsession with dictators and his “America first” foreign policy that disregards human rights undermines United States strategic interests in Africa as well as other places?

BRIGETY: Yes in the sort answer. And as a—as a matter of full disclosure, I did not vote for the president. And I am not a supporter of his general orientation towards America’s engagement in the world. I, frankly, think it’s been disastrous, although I note as a matter of objectivity that there are many Americans who do not agree with that and are quite happy with the direction that the president is taking.

But the notion of “America first” then makes all of our other interlocutors ask, well, if America is first, where do they stand in that—in that formulation? To which, you know, the response is, well, you should put your countries first, too, and then everybody is kind of, you know, out on their own.

And I think that we have seen and we regrettably have a very ugly and brutal history about what that looks like, what that leads to in international affairs, which is precisely why a series of structures to help support international cooperation were launched after World War II. Imperfect? Sure. In need of reform? Certainly. But the notion that America has essentially been taken for a ride and, therefore, needs to self-consciously look out for itself without inviting other people to be part of a common set of mutual interests, in my view, cannot end well. And that’s true as relates to not only sort of economic, trade, but also in terms of human rights promotion and across the board.

So I think, quite frankly, you see the rest of the world reacting to that, whether it be with regard to the derisive laughter the president garnered with his speech at the U.N. General Assembly just last week to, quite frankly, many of the private views that one hears from diplomats and world leaders around the world to, you know, other countries, frankly, you know, rethinking their bets and rethinking with whom they want to partner.

And, you know, the dynamics I’ve articulated in the Africa space are just one of the piece of things that are happening, not only as the Japanese and the South Koreans, for example, are having to rethink their own security, you know, separate from a chaotic American approach to, you know, rethinking how our traditional allies in Europe are having to recalculate their own interests to even the Canadians, for God’s sake, who are, you know, our oldest and strongest, you know, neighbors and friends, quite frankly, trying to just—doing more than scratching their heads trying to figure out how to deal with their neighbor.

So, yes, yes, I would broadly agree.

Q: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Berkeley City College.

Q: Yes, good morning. William Sutton here.

Aside from—aside from the security and economic front, what is the impact of environmental degradation on the continent, from fishing to the effects of climate change? Thank you.

BRIGETY: Sure. Well, the—first of all, Africa’s massive, right? So on the one hand, whether it be, you know—you see sort of the, you know, initial effect of the so-called, you know, water wars with places like Cape Town, you know, fundamentally running dry of water, although that has to do also as much with their electricity and wastewater management as it does with just, you know, just climate change and access to water, as well as, you know, the increasing creeping size of the Sahara growing and growing and making the Sahel, the grasslands there, increasingly abate to, you know—you know, massive deforestation. One can see, for example, in the hills around Addis Ababa and Ethiopia, which are quite obvious, to depletion of fishing stocks in the Gulf of Guinea and off the Horn of Africa, which is as much to do with overfishing and illegal fishing, quite frankly, by, you know, Taiwanese and Spaniards and elsewhere as much as it does with changing migratory patterns of fish and pollution and whatnot.

And, look, it’s an issue, it’s a real issue. And frankly, it’s an issue, in many cases, at a higher amplitude for Africa precisely because of the, you know, really quite unique flora and fauna there and how much that can contribute to African economies as a result of tourism, et cetera.

And interestingly, things like environmental protection and, in particular, climate change are not simply environmental issues. I mean, these are wickedly difficult diplomatic problems as well, particularly climate change, because no one—these things aren’t hermetically sealed. Climate change doesn’t stop at borders. There is also a critically important component as relates to industrialization and the relationship of industrialization to economic growth and, therefore, prosperity and what the balances are. And how does one industrialize safely in a green fashion when the other industrialized countries did so, got a big job by doing it sort of the old-fashioned, really quite dirty way?

So the good news is that, you know, broadly speaking, most African countries sort of understand this. But the bad news is they generally don’t have, in most cases, the resources to be able to protect their environments from further degradation, particularly from things as common as, you know, villagers just need to cut down firewood to make their food to, you know, early-model cars that don’t have the same level of efficiency for fuel and also for pollution control. So you can see that especially in places like, you know, Addis Ababa or Rwanda, et cetera, to, frankly, the impacts of climate change that are—that are not happening in Africa, but are happening in, you know, the more polluting countries like the United States and China, but that are impacting other places as well.

So, yeah, no question, no question it’s a big issue, but it’s a global issue. And it’s only, you know, further evidence that this is something that cannot be done alone.

FASKIANOS: Reuben, I’m sorry that we have—I couldn’t get to all the questions, but I’m going to take my prerogative and ask you the final one.

You’ve had a really amazing career. You have been a public servant, you’ve served in the State Department, in the Pentagon, you’ve been in the military. You’re now fostering the next generation of foreign service professionals. And so I just wondered if you could just leave us with a few thoughts on career and, you know, what you—what you would leave this group with as they venture out into the world.

BRIGETY: Sure. You know, I often say that international affairs students are a special breed of student because, by definition, they care about the state of the world and want to prepare themselves to fight the world’s fight. That is a noble thing. It’s a necessary thing, particularly given the sets of challenges that are confronting us today.

I would say furthermore that there are a lot of different ways in which you can engage, but the few things I would encourage you to do are, one, see to your character because your character is your destiny. And whatever it is that helps you make sense of the world and helps you center yourself morally, develop that and trust that because that will help you to make the kinds of choices that you need to make.

The second thing I would say is learn another language. If you graduate from your undergraduate program and cannot operate in more than one language, you are wrong. You should not consider your undergraduate education complete until you have serious professional proficiency in more than one language.

A third thing I would say is, you know, develop a hard skill in whatever it is you’re interested in. So whether that’s the ability to write and do grant proposals or quantitative skills that you can bring to budgeting and then data analysis or whatever it is you’re interested in, being able to marry that hard skill with a regional and functional expertise will set you apart.

And the fourth thing I would say is get abroad. You know, Washington, New York, your hometown, all these places will always be here. But if you want to be a serious professional, you need to get out into the world and spend some time and grow and it will add an entirely different dimension to your understanding, and then that will lead you to other professional vistas to where you can do other further things.

FASKIANOS: Well, with that we are at the end of our hour. And I apologize to all those people, all those universities still on the call and we couldn’t get to all your questions.

But, Reuben, we’ll just have to have you back. We appreciate your taking the time to be with us and to talk for this hour. It’s really been a terrific discussion. So thank you, Reuben Brigety.

BRIGETY: Sure, my pleasure.

FASKIANOS: Our next call will be on Wednesday, October 17 at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Katharine Donato, director and professor at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, will lead a conversation on “Global Cooperation Efforts on Migration.”

In the meantime, I hope you’ll go to and follow CFR Campus on Twitter @CFR_Campus for information on CFR resources, follow our fellows’ blogs, as well as get information about upcoming events.

So thank you all for being with us today.


Top Stories on CFR


The election date for the world’s largest democracy is set to begin April 19 and last six weeks. What would the results of a third term for Prime Minister Modi mean for India’s economy, democracy, and position in the Global South? 


The response to the temporary closure of the Port of Baltimore—from a deadly tanker collision—demonstrates the resilience of U.S. supply chains despite fears of costly disruptions.

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Violence around U.S. elections in 2024 could not only destabilize American democracy but also embolden autocrats across the world. Jacob Ware recommends that political leaders take steps to shore up civic trust and remove the opportunity for violence ahead of the 2024 election season.