When I joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1954, Africa was seen as the lowest of our foreign policy priorities, with little strategic importance for global affairs. Sixty-seven years later, most observers continue to treat Africa as a minor element of the American agenda. This is a profoundly myopic mistake. The opportunities and risks in Africa, a grouping of 55 dissimilar countries, are astounding: the particulars of U.S. engagement could make the difference between a green and prosperous future, or a repeat of Afghanistan. Yet under President Biden, the foreign policy intelligentsia is sustaining the previous administration’s mistake of viewing Africa as a battlefield for competition with China and Russia. The Biden administration must not miss its chance to break this cycle of reactive foreign policy theory crafted with little ambition for what a motivated policy can accomplish.
Instead of playing catch-up to China, Russia, and others, we should surpass the initiative they have taken in Africa. We must be so involved as to spot new opportunities on our own and recognize their inherent value, rather than as an ostensible means to sneak in another win against faraway adversaries.
As the War on Terror wanes, the preferred paradigm of the American foreign policy establishment has shifted to the notion of “great power competition” — a renewal of Cold War thinking which stipulates that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, pose the greatest threats to American international priorities, and that our end goal must always be to overcome or stymie these antagonists. The purpose and mechanisms of this agenda have always been poorly defined, owing to its genesis in American domestic politics: the previous administration formally initiated the theoretical shift largely as a means to satisfy its political supporters and neoconservative allies.
For Africa, the question of what Russia and China are doing there always seems to interrupt more fundamental questions about African activities, and how the U.S. can contribute. As a consequence, our African engagements have lately been framed less as a worthy endeavor in their own right than a moving of pieces on a continental chessboard situated between East and West, recalling a colonial history in which the U.S. did not take part.
Every recent U.S. president has launched a signature Africa program: President Trump’s was Prosper Africa, a brainchild of John Bolton that sought to incentivize business deals with African nations for the explicit purpose of competition with Russia and China. The Biden administration is promising to “reboot” the project, asking Congress for an another $80 million. But under President Biden, great power competition will remain the underfunded program’s organizing principle. Our adversaries are not making these mistakes. When China finances and builds a multi-billion dollar railway in Kenya, their primary consideration is not how it may erode American influence.
Chinese and Russian projects in Africa are, in general, a bad deal for Africans. Data supporting their national COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness is sketchy or missing. Most of China’s power projects have been in coal and gas. Chinese logging projects are devastating the Congo Basin rainforest, and foreign trawlers from China are depleting fish stocks off African coasts. Chinese companies secure many of their highly profitable projects, like in fishing and mining, through corruption and bribery, while depriving African workers and businesses of their homeland’s resources. When Chinese companies do hire Africans, they treat them as cheap, disposable labor, and abuse them with impunity. When China delivers major infrastructure projects, they are often attached to coercive debt-trap loan schemes. For its part, Russia has little to offer Africans beyond more arms and mercenaries to prolong its wars.
There is little question that Chinese and Russian projects exploit Africa and Africans, but to the extent that Chinese and Russian engagement is a problem for our African partners, we must recognize that it is their problem to manage, and not the role of American diplomats to paternalistically second-guess. Instead, we must demonstrate the unique value of American involvement on its own terms. We have a strong argument to make, but our delivering on it will require a forward-looking redoubling of U.S. diplomacy and engagement — a true pivot to Africa.
Our efforts will be distinguished by their substance. Peace and security are some of our strongest historical capabilities in this respect. The U.S. has a long history of conflict resolution in Africa through diplomatic means. We must work tirelessly towards an end to the catastrophic wars in Ethiopia and Cameroon, and the simmering militant conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique, and across the African Sahel. We must be proactive if we are to prevent the establishment of an Afghan-style state run by militants, as African leaders, civil society, and the United Nations are warning. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has stated that African terrorist groups, including those with ambitions to strike the U.S., have grown so powerful in the face of faltering international counterterrorism efforts that it can only hope to “contain” rather than “degrade” them. Besides preventing the creation of another caliphate in Africa, the corollary lesson of our Afghan and Middle East experience is that we must not wait for a terrorist attack based in the region to be launched on U.S. soil to grant Africa the policy priority it deserves.
Working to improve socioeconomic circumstances for Africans through aid, investment, and diplomacy strikes at the heart of the problem. The popular framework for security observers in Washington has lately been to focus on ever-more advanced subs, bombers, and nuclear weapons to counteract Russia and China, while, as a hobby, hatching projects in Africa purely to stop the encroachment of these foes. While often of sound design, the resources and manpower devoted to these programs, like Prosper Africa, are unserious.
We must see African aid, development, and investment as worthy security projects in their own right. African investments in sustainable agriculture, clean power, infrastructure, and finance are waiting for the U.S. to take the lead. Meanwhile, threatening African militances grind on, their recruitment fueled more by hunger, desperation, governance failures, and repressive crackdowns than by fantasies of global Islamist jihad. A redoubling of our U.S.-Africa projects will cost far less, and deliver far greater value, than tens of billions sunk into another broken new aircraft or ship we may not really need.
It will be crucial to first sell the American public on a pivot to Africa. Despite the diminishing returns, it is easy to argue to the public that pouring more money into the defense budget makes the U.S. safer while creating jobs. It will be more challenging to communicate how African engagement is critical for accomplishing these goals. Yet I am optimistic, if only because the risks of ignoring Africa are matched by the opportunities of U.S. involvement there. The potential for security, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, trade, and better governance is simply tremendous. The mutual benefits that could be realized under a more proactive approach would be impossible to ignore. But officials and experts will need to believe it themselves first, and the continuation of “great power competition” narratives for US-Africa relations is a worrying sign. We must not be stuck in this outmoded and colonial way of thinking.