FOREIGN AFFAIRS POLICY
Geopolitical realities may shape the US’s ambitious ‘new strategy’ for engagement with Africa
The new strategic partnership for Africa as set out by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in his Africa trip actually fits into a larger history, and there are many challenges to making it come true.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been in South Africa as part of a multination tour of Africa, a trip that in effect has two key objectives. The first has been to announce the roll-out of what it called a new US strategy for engagement with Africa. The second — even if it was not stated explicitly — has been to counterbalance efforts by Russia and China (among others) to enhance their efforts to build deeper influence and connections with Africa’s nations.
The South African visit included a stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto as well as events celebrating Women’s Day and the political, economic, scientific, and other achievements of South African women. Core elements of the visit were his bilateral exchange with South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, as part of the two nations’ “strategic dialogue”, and then his speech at the University of Pretoria where Blinken set out the ideals and values the two nations share, as well as the US’s new, proposed strategic partnership with Sub-Saharan Africa. In public moments, the two leaders demonstrated “bonhomie”, but there was no agreement on the two nations’ respective approaches to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the Israel/Palestine knot.
In understanding this new strategic framework, it is helpful to look at the evolution of US-Africa policy since the end of World War 2. Over the past three-quarters of a century, there have been several key themes in the US’s engagement with Africa. In the early post-war period, this relationship was largely seen through the US’s relationships with colonial rulers such as Britain, France and Portugal. Inside the US State Department, there was no separate geographical bureau (its basic structural building block) specifically for African affairs until the wave of independent states began.
From 1961 onward, however, as Africa comprised a growing number of independent nations, the continent became a location for a competition between the US and the Soviet Union, both eager to exercise influence with those new African nations.
In a study carried out in the early years of the Obama era for the Centre for Policy Studies on the evolution of US policy towards Africa, this author wrote: “After World War , American relationships with Africa began to assume an increasingly geopolitical, strategic texture. First was the increasing importance of international trade lanes for a revitalised international trade regime — via the Suez Canal route and the passage around the Cape of Good Hope. Second was the place of Africa as a supplier of strategic materials — gold, chromium, diamonds, copper, petroleum and rubber, among others. Third was Africa’s increasing position as a stand-in or proxy for the increasingly global US-Soviet conflict… African states with histories of conflict or unresolved post-colonial border issues sought (or were sought out) external support from the US or the Soviet Union to gain an upper hand in their respective, more local disputes…
“However, American interests in or concerns about Africa rarely reached far beyond core constituencies — whether based on strategic or racial solidarity grounds, for religious motivations, or from business interests. Larger concerns in other geographic areas: the post-war reconstruction of Europe, the Cold War and then the aftermath of the Cold War; conflicts in China, Korea, then Vietnam; the Mid-East in all its manifestations; then concern Cuba might represent (regardless of which party held the presidency or congress) possible socialist penetration into Latin America, all remained higher strategic issues for the US.”
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, “If the Cold War (roughly 1945-1989) represented the pre-eminence of global strategic perspectives in American thinking about Africa, the immediate post-Cold War period drew American attention further from Africa (with the exception of euphoria over the end of apartheid in South Africa) as the US turned to the restructuring of Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union…
“…South Africa was a key exception. International and American enthusiasm for the Mandela administration led to a range of bilateral engagements — the bilateral commission led by Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Vice-President Al Gore, key among them — and an understanding by the Clinton administration that South Africa would exercise its natural leadership and location to serve as regional hegemon…
“However, growing concern about Islamic fundamentalist terrorist activity, after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa (in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam), and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden’s harbour in 2000 began to refocus American attention on Africa. Africa was now seen as a site for terrorist acts, or as the site of refugees and operational bases for those connected with an upswing in terror activity… [T]he concern was that African states could be the location where state collapse could make it a preferred base for terrorism or terrorists. Such activity would have to be combated vigorously and aggressively…
“Such ideas gained further impetus from the Global Trends 2010, 2015, 2020, and 2025 analyses prepared by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA’s in-house think-tank,” positing “a world — and especially an Africa — increasingly afflicted by transnational problems, including pandemics, cybercrime, terrorism, climate change and forced population migrations.
“Such analyses helped encourage US government thinking that linked economic growth with government effectiveness, transparency, governance, and relatively low levels of corruption as key requisites for African stability. These approaches underpinned advocacy for [the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a unilateral tariff and duty-free measure for African exports]” and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)…
“Another element of this new paradigm was directed against one of the crucial public health issues affecting Africa, becoming a concrete organisational effort during the Bush administration. Building on the coincidence that one person was Bush’s White House ‘envoy’ to Christian fundamentalists (a key political support bloc), the White House monitor on HIV/Aids, and its informal Africa watcher — as well as Bush’s chief speech writer — Michael Gerson’s signal contribution was to advocate a White House initiative on HIV/Aids to appeal to all these constituencies, the result becoming the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or Pepfar.”
Meanwhile, by the middle of George W Bush’s administration, in response to those transnational destabilising trends, “The Pentagon sought to bring together all its African operations under one specific coordinating structure, rather than under three disparate commands dealing with Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia (and then from there on through to the Indian Ocean littoral)… The resulting command structure quickly generated considerable controversy in Africa…”
Then, as Barack Obama sought the presidency, setting out what he saw as core objectives, if he won, in an article in Foreign Affairs before the election, Obama focused largely on how to build better ties with nations like Nigeria and South Africa over how to deal with transnational terrorism. As he said, “We need effective collaboration on pressing global issues among all the major powers — including such newly emerging ones as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa.” The only other major reference to Africa came in his desire to build a more secure human rights regime in such places as Darfur and Zimbabwe.
Once he took office, the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs still asserted: “The Bureau’s priority is conflict resolution. With U.S. support, since 2002 violent conflicts have ended in Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the North-South element of the Sudan crisis.” It was only when Obama made his first presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, to Ghana, in July 2009, that he spoke directly about the future of the US-African relationship.
The Obama administration argued more responsibility needed to be taken by Africans who would, in turn, find a partner in the US, rather than the US as a perpetual dispenser of aid or a nation that would parachute in to solve the continent’s problems. In Ghana, Obama said the “partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect… We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
That Obama promise of a new partnership with Africa was, however, significantly hamstrung by the pressure to address the domestic (and international) financial collapse, as well as the ongoing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, carried forward from the previous administration. By the time Donald Trump became president, his disdain for (and ignorance about) Africa had become abundantly clear to all and so US commitments in the region, beyond Pepfar, largely remained as campaigns against non-state terror groups — or decrying Chinese and Russian engagement in the region.
When the Biden administration came into power, until the release of this strategy, it has largely been preoccupied with issues precluding much attention towards Africa. These include the Covid pandemic and the global economic crisis paired with it, as well as finding a way out of the remaining military participation in Afghanistan and Iraq (although not in ignoring Iran’s presumed nuclear and regional hegemonic ambitions).
More recently, absorbing the Biden team’s energy has been a sharp downturn in relations with China over the challenge of the latter’s growing economic heft and military capabilities. This litany of problems does not even include the topic that has occupied much of the Biden administration’s energies — the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the need to resupply that nation’s military, and efforts to reinforce Nato unity in the face of the onslaught.
This new strategy for US engagement with sub-Saharan Africa has evolved through debate about what should lead US involvement with Africa aside from military engagement against transnational or local anti-government forces — often in partnership with unstable (or unsuitable) regimes. Instead, the idea seems to be to create a partnership responsive to Africa’s growing economic and demographic weight. Presumably, this new strategy will gain muscle at an African leaders summit in the US, now scheduled for December.
In some ways, this plan draws on some of the approaches advocated in the Clinton and Obama administrations (and the two Bush administrations — father and son). In this regard, the argument is: more trade begets economic growth; economic growth begets more economic opportunity; and increased economic opportunity fosters democratic transitions, stability, and a shift away from autocratic “big men”.
That logic underpinned the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and kept up support for it through multiple presidential administrations. However, there is no real sense that Congress will renew Agoa when it expires in 2025. Accordingly, attention should turn towards bilateral or even multilateral free trade treaties where the understandings of mutual benefits are clearer. (There is now only one such agreement — between the US and Morocco.) This could help respond to today’s protectionist instincts in the US.
Key to the success of this new strategy, beyond the African buy-in, will be funding to make such ideas live. That will call for funding for trade and investment initiatives, funding to underwrite the bureaucratic instruments needed to make things happen, and budgets to support all the other commitments implied in those four principles. Also important will be the willingness of US businesses to embrace the strategy and help implement it via their capital. It will also require the US government to support the initiative in spite of any African government’s choices to disagree with US policies in other spheres — such as choices made by some two dozen African states not to decry Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN, or to continue borrowing for development plans tying them to Chinese banks and its government, despite US warnings.
Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations
Responding to the initiative, The New York Times has cautioned: “‘History shows that strong democracies tend to be more stable and less prone to conflict — and that the poor governance, exclusion and corruption inherent in weak democracies makes them more vulnerable to extremist movements and foreign interference,’ Mr. Blinken said in a speech at the University of Pretoria, on the first stop of a tour of Africa that will also take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It is unclear how his message will be received at a time when some African countries are turning away from democracy and settling into authoritarian rule — sometimes by military officers who carried out coups. The United States could risk alienating those African leaders who prefer the authoritarian model or see Washington’s governance push as imperial power projection. Some might call it hypocritical, citing the recent erosion of democratic practices in the United States.”
In effect, the paper is warning that the plan’s idealism may need to adapt to the continent’s geopolitical realities.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have been watching the US’s reaction to their own efforts and have attacked Blinken — while he was still in South Africa — for his words in a television interview which they saw as an anti-Chinese bias in the US position on Taiwan. The Russians are surely reminding friends there has been a history of US meddling in African conflicts (without noting their own efforts via the Wagner Group’s actions in several nations nowadays). The jockeying for influence and cooperation is because of what Blinken spoke about — the rise and rise of Africa. There is money to be made through sales, from trade in commodities, and in garnering support for geopolitical issues.
This strategy, released as the secretary was travelling, says: “Sub-Saharan Africa is critical to advancing our global priorities. It has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, largest free trade areas, most diverse ecosystems, and one of the largest regional voting groups in the United Nations (UN). It is impossible to meet this era’s defining challenges without African contributions and leadership. The region will factor prominently in efforts to: end the Covid-19 pandemic; tackle the climate crisis; reverse the global tide of democratic backsliding; address global food insecurity; strengthen an open and stable international system; shape the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies; and confront the threat of terrorism, conflict, and transnational crime.
“This strategy reframes the region’s importance to U.S. national security interests. In November 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that ‘Africa will shape the future — and not just the future of the African people but of the world.’
“Accordingly, this strategy articulates a new vision for how and with whom we engage, while identifying additional areas of focus. It welcomes and affirms African agency, and seeks to include and elevate African voices in the most consequential global conversations. It calls for developing a deeper bench of partners and more flexible regional architecture to respond to urgent challenges and catalyze economic growth and opportunities. It recognizes the region’s youth as an engine of entrepreneurship and innovation, and it emphasizes the enduring and historical ties between the American and African peoples. And it recasts traditional U.S. policy priorities — democracy and governance, peace and security, trade and investment, and development — as pathways to bolster the region’s ability to solve global problems alongside the United States.
“This strategy outlines four objectives to advance U.S. priorities in concert with regional partners in sub-Saharan Africa during the next five years. The United States will leverage all of our diplomatic, development, and defense capabilities, as well as strengthen our trade and commercial ties, focus on digital ecosystems, and rebalance toward urban hubs, to support these 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. [Italics added.]
“This strategy represents a new approach, emphasizing and elevating the issues that will further embed Africa’s position in shaping our shared future… The United States will both address immediate crises and threats, and seek to connect short-term efforts with the longer-term imperative of bolstering Africa’s capabilities to solve global problems. The strategy’s strength lies in its determination to graduate from policies that inadvertently treat sub-Saharan Africa as a world apart and have struggled to keep pace with the profound transformations across the continent and the world. This strategy calls for change because continuity is insufficient to meet the task ahead.”
Blinken himself had to caution any sense that all this would be easy. As he said in an interview in Johannesburg: “Well, I can only speak for our administration and for the president. Our focus is not on saying to friends, partners: you have to choose. Our focus is on providing a choice. We have a very affirmative vision of what our partnerships, what our relationships can and should be around the world and in Africa. And part of my responsibility is not for us to just talk the talk, but actually to walk the walk, to demonstrate that we mean what we say when we really want to work in partnership with — not just saying we’re going to focus on certain areas, but actually doing it.
“So a lot of what we’ll be talking about is how, together, we’re actually working on strengthening healthcare systems, how we’re creating capacity here in Africa — for example, not just producing vaccines for the future, but food security. This is something that’s touching people around the world right now. We’ve seen a dramatic rise in food insecurity, a result of Covid, a result of climate change, a result, unfortunately, of conflict — the Russian aggression against Ukraine has taken a lot of food off the market.”
The strategy contains ambitious words and Blinken has tried to put the most optimistic face on the ideas. But the realities of international and regional conflicts, plagues and famines, unanticipated global economic and financial troubles, the urgency of the global climate crisis, and medical emergencies will also shape how the US and Africa engage. It remains to be seen how much progress on this agenda can be made before domestic concerns, fights over government spending, and political debates in the US will distract attention from Africa and the Biden team’s hopes for a new model of cooperation. DM