Time to Reimagine U.S. Africa Policy
This article was written following the remarks by Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during a recent online event organized by the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office as part of the U.S. Speaker Series, in cooperation with the U.S. embassy in France.
The election of President Joe Biden offers an opportunity to reimagine the United States’ involvement in Africa after four years of neglectful regional policy under Donald Trump. The previous administration marked a stark departure from U.S. policy toward the continent, with a key focus on China’s presence there and on trade and investment to the detriment of other areas, especially peace and security or democracy promotion. With a growing population that will be the biggest workforce in the world by 2040 and thanks to its countless resources, Africa needs to be a focus for the United States, albeit with a broader perspective. Biden would thus be well advised to engage with this quickly evolving and promising continent. To do so, after years of the United States militarizing much of its engagements in Africa, the new administration should start focusing on promoting democracy and human rights, contributing to vibrant urban economies, and fostering people-to-people ties.
Making Human Security a Priority
Since his election, Biden has pledged to renew the transatlantic alliance and to work in a collaborative way on as many foreign policy topics as possible. According to Judd Devermont, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Biden’s foreign policy goes “back to the future” by getting closer from Obama’s policies and already surpassing Trump’s engagement in Africa. However, the United States and its European partners should always be aware the continent is one of several theaters where they have different perspectives. Biden has pledged to keep supporting French forces who have been engaged there since 2013, but it remains unclear how his administration will engage in this restive region.
In terms of providing peace and security, the United States is still an important actor and conducts several operations in Africa. Most recently, the State Department designated insurgent groups in Mozambique and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as “foreign terrorist organizations,” and U.S. Special Forces will start training Mozambican security forces soon. According to the Pulitzer Center, more than 14 percent of U.S. commandos deployed overseas in 2019 were sent to Africa, the second-largest percentage for any region after the greater Middle East.
In the next years, this approach could be complemented by new ones. This should be in line with Biden’s declaration that his foreign policy will reflect core U.S. values, such as democracy and civil and human rights. These issues are at stake in many African countries, and the U.S. president has already been active in condemning brutal acts of violence and breach of human rights in countries such as Ethiopia, where Senator Chris Coons was recently sent to discuss ways to solve the crisis in the Tigray region. The focus on human rights in Africa policy is also bipartisan in Congress.
Challenging the Storytelling
If the Biden administration wants to renew the position of the United States in Africa, it should capitalize on people-to-people ties and cultural diplomacy. In February, Vice President Kamala Harris called the chair of the African Union, Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, to discuss the situation in the Horn of Africa and economic opportunities. The administration has also shown a clear desire to work more at the level of individuals when engaging directly with the African diaspora in the United States and to step up of its support for inclusive urbanization policies in Africa. Thanks to these efforts early in his presidency, Biden might be able to change the storytelling surrounding Africa and work through challenges that do not directly relate to security crises, but which may very well help prevent future ones.
Another angle the Biden administration could address is the economic one by trying to position the United States on major markets across the territory. If the United States aims to become more of an actor working for development and stability on the continent, poverty is a major issue policymakers in Washington should put to the agenda. An important share of new infrastructures and technologies in Africa are currently provided by China; the consequence is an unbalanced market mainly benefitting Chinese contractors due to credits African trade partners undertake to finance infrastructures. By creating more balanced trade agreements, Biden can introduce the United States as a fair competitor to China while counterbalancing the latter’s influence through proposing fairer prices to African trade partners.
If Biden truly wants to shift the focus of U.S. Africa policy, he should treat African issues such as poverty, urbanization, and human rights as priorities and in the process elevate African voices. A holistic approach should encompass the challenges mentioned above equally, as well as the effects of climate change on the continent and trade agreements that might be outdated. This would truly lead Biden to break from Trump’s policy and would lay the foundation for fruitful relations with the Africa of the future.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.