Main Image Credit In for a bumpy ride? The US's engagement with Africa is entering a more turbulent geopolitical environment. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, August 2022. Image: Andrew Harnik / Reuters / Alamy Stock
To take forward its new strategy for Africa the US needs to do more than preach about values and frustrate its adversaries. It can capitalise on longstanding relationships but, with a declining global status, should position itself as a reliable partner that is willing to listen to African concerns.
On 21 September US President Biden addressed the UN General Assembly. Aware of the economic pain that the Ukraine war and Western sanctions have created for many developing countries he stated: ‘It’s Russia’s war that is worsening food insecurity, and only Russia can end it’. The Chair of the African Union, Macky Sall, responded: ‘[Africa has] suffered enough of the burden of history [and] does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War’. The blunt, equivocal response might serve as a temperature check for the US as it considers how to start implementing its new US–Africa Strategy released in August 2022.
What’s in the Strategy?
Issued at the level of the National Security Council, the document attempts to move away from the uncertainties of the Donald Trump era by offering a clear, compelling direction for US–Africa relations. The strategy is structured around four objectives – promotion of democracy, security, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and economic opportunity, and climate/energy – to be pursued through a whole-of-government approach. These themes are not new, but there is an attempt to strike a new tone and to foreground the issue of working as partners. This comes across both in the document and the associated diplomatic messaging from Secretary of State Antony Blinken who was dispatched to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda to promote the agenda. Despite this, the document is broad in nature. While individual countries and sub-regions do not get specific mentions, there are interested references to broadening engagements and to deepening relations with small and medium African states while supporting the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
Blinken’s visit received mainly positive commentary. Strong messaging on working in partnership, about African agency and Africa’s geopolitical significance has hit the right tone. The Joe Biden administration wants clearly to distinguish itself from that of former President Trump. From an African perspective, there was much to lament about the Trump administration’s tone and behaviour, with its America-first direction, unpredictability and sometimes brash messaging. US flip-flopping over issues such as Afghanistan, the Iranian Nuclear Deal and travel bans – all issues that go beyond the Trump administration – have frustrated African leaders among others. But the Trump administration’s pre-occupation with transactional politics was not entirely lost on African leaders, many of whom thrive amid febrile politics.
Plotting and executing a strategy that is both coherent and attractive to African partners is, however, no easy task. US interests, pre-occupations and objectives range across divergent areas from trade to counterterrorism, democracy promotion, safeguarding economic interests and countering its great power adversaries. These circles that are difficult to square and the continent of 54 states presents a confusing array of competing priorities and attitudes towards the US. Africa is more diverse politically and culturally, and a more competitive environment for the US and others to Western allies than ever before. The range of external diplomatic initiatives towards Africa from others illustrates the point. The EU, the UK, Turkey, Russia, China, India and Japan are either offering conferences, grants or undertaking diplomatic tours in parallel to the US. Each party tends to be seen in a different light on the continent.
How Others Compare
Although heavy-footed politically, the EU is perceived as cash-rich due to the large and predictable grant budgets it offers. It has however suffered from a narrow focus on countering outward migration, an agenda that wins few supporters on the continent. While it was not alone in withdrawing from the Sahel stabilisation missions, France’s reputation has suffered in the wake of political and security deterioration that it promised to address through troop deployments there.
Plotting and executing a strategy that is both coherent and attractive to African partners is no easy task
The UK can still be seen as an attractive partner, at least in countries with which it has legacy connections and to which it has long-provided generous levels of aid. But as RUSI’s research in East Africa seems to indicate, there is a growing perception of diminishing UK influence among elites arising from Brexit, decreasing aid commitments and erratic domestic politics. While the UK government has not published an Africa Strategy, East Africa did feature in its 2021 Integrated Review, although the governments of South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana that were name-checked for close partnership were apparently not consulted in advance. Such perceptions and missteps are reversible with focused attention and investment, but, with Ukraine and domestic politics grabbing attention, cabinet ministers have not visited Africa since January 2021.
Russia has stepped up security cooperation from Libya to the Central African Republic to Chad and Sudan, but is no direct competitor of the US – rather, it is a potential spoiler. A cash-strapped Russia has generally sought commercial recompense in return for diplomatic and security assistance it provides through intermediaries, at the same time as maintaining historic ties whether in Egypt, Angola or South Africa. Its anti-Western and anti-imperialist messaging around the war in Ukraine has found traction in some quarters, gaining some diplomatic support. For those who favour close Western ties with Africa, whether on grounds of shared values, history or high aid expenditure, this surely raises doubts.
In contrast, Chinese engagement broadly follows a commercial logic. Interventions such as the Belt and Road Initiative are mainly a response to its need for new markets, investment opportunities and secure access to raw materials. Criticisms of China, such as that its dealings can drive corruption, are not without merit. China’s star has also declined somewhat as the cost of loan repayments has become clear. China nevertheless remains an attractive partner, offering an attractive range of concessional loans and services with little conditionality.
India and Japan are relatively new players in Africa, but, for now, focused on specific interests. Turkey, like the Gulf States, has considerably upped its diplomatic, aid, and trade and security investments from the Sahel to Somalia, as part of a 10-year strategy to grow influence among countries with Muslim populations. To use Blinken’s own language, it is increasingly a ‘partner of choice’.
The Challenge Ahead
Despite the range of competitors, the US can content itself with close ties that survived the Trump years. US–Africa linkages are deep in structural terms and not easily severed due to diaspora populations, and economic, cultural and historical ties. Yet, on some metrics, the relationship overall is in gradual decline. US trade with Africa has roughly halved in the last decade, while China–Africa trade continues to grow. According to the 2022 African Youth Survey a majority of 18–25-year-olds now see China as the most influential and constructive external actor on the continent, and the US’s influence as being in decline. While a majority hope Africa will see increased trade and security cooperation with the US and are committed to democratic norms, only 26% of respondents in 2021 saw the US’s influence as ‘very positive’ – a decline. In reflective moments, many African commentators will point out that the West’s legitimacy has been in decline since the Iraq War, helped along the way by the ructions of the 2008 economic crisis and major flip-flopping over events from Iran to Afghanistan.
If the US is to successfully manage its own gradual decline from global hegemon to a peer multipolar power, it will need to be more consistent in its behaviour, and remain mindful of African perspectives
In hindsight, Barack Obama’s 2014 Africa summit probably set a high-water mark for recent US diplomacy, successfully bringing 50 African leaders together. Although Biden can draw on his association with Obama, a well-liked leader of African heritage, the operating context has markedly changed for the worse. Few African leaders would squarely blame the US for the challenges they face due to rising global inflation, erratic aid flows, climactic or security pressures. Many however see the West as pursuing clumsy or self-interested policies which contribute to the continent’s woes. One example is the Western responses to the ongoing catastrophic drought in East Africa which has been slow and limited in comparison with previous cycles. Little action has been taken to buffer Africa from ever-rising prices of fuel and staple foods, while contradictory responses to coronavirus have simultaneously seemed to harm (lockdowns, trade and travel restrictions) or neglect the continent (the availability of drug treatments and personal protective equipment).
The real challenge for the US in executing its strategy may one of which value or objective to foreground at a particular time in such a complex context. Behind the dulcet tones, initiatives around the US strategy are also about countering what it sees as an increasing challenge from China and Russia in Africa. The strategy document is littered with negative references to both countries. There is more continuity than change here. It is worth recalling that the concept of strategic competition with China was first ushered in not under President Trump but Obama, and that US hostility to Russia before the invasion of Ukraine centred on now-discredited Russiagate allegations generated with the connivance of Democratic Party loyalists. Nevertheless, foregrounding strategic competition with others in Africa, principally China, would have significant pitfalls for US relations in Africa. African leaders are mature and confident enough to understand American needs in the round. But, with an array of alterative avenues for cooperation, they are increasingly confident in handling Western demands. South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation was just one of many who openly criticised a draft US bill, the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which would monitor governments working with Russian entities under US sanction, as ‘offensive legislation’. With this increased confidence also comes an ability to plan ahead and think strategically about relationships with external powers. This factor pushed many African states towards a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine as they sought to protect important relationships across the board.
The Bottom Line
If the US is to successfully manage its own gradual decline from global hegemon to a peer multipolar power, it will need to be more consistent in its behaviour, and remain mindful of African perspectives. The apparent surprise of Western leaders at many African states’ equivocal response to the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine is telling in terms of how well they understand those perspectives, and perceptions of themselves. Going forward, the US and others must be mindful of how they manage the tensions between their own policy commitments, from democracy promotion, to geopolitical competition, African development, counterterrorism and prosperity. Pursuing any of these without due regard for others is not a recipe for success. We already see that placing broad economic sanctions on Russia that stand to undercut African economic wellbeing, while expecting others to comply with them, is tin-eared. The West will clearly need to do more than blame Russia for increasing prices – ‘explaining harder’ is not a winning strategy. Similarly, foregrounding competition with China in dealings with African states who enjoy marked benefits from cooperation with China could just damage perceptions of the US.
The bottom line is that with US leadership in decline, African countries and leaders, despite the many challenges they face, now have an enviable array of choices when it comes to diplomatic, security and economic partners. The US should look to position itself above all as a reliable and predictable partner for African states, one that can combine enlightened rhetoric with transactional politics and which will not unduly harm African interests when they do seek to compete with ascending rivals. Without this kind of guiding thread, the US is unlikely to compete effectively with Russia and China in winning over African leaders. Whatever their flaws and drawbacks, both can combine their focus with a degree of predictability, and make attractive offers. This could act as a guiding thread for what is otherwise a wickedly difficult strategic task ahead in Africa. With difficult mid-term elections looming, whether the US administration will be able to craft and sustain this course is an open question.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Senior Research Fellow, African Security