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The Cognitive Dissonance of American Power in Africa

A critique of Exercise of Power, by Robert Gates. Part 1


· Africa

The recently published book Exercise of Power, by Robert Gates, who served in eight U.S. government administrations, is an absorbing read about what must be done to restore America’s global leadership role in the world. Analyzing the specific challenges faced by the American government in the post-Cold War period, Gates reflects on the successes and shortcomings of the U.S. in the post-Cold War global stage. He argues that it is imperative for American global leadership to recover and restructure a “symphony of power”, the integrated use of military, civilian and private sector tools.

The July 15 USLGC virtual Town Hall with former Secretary Robert Gates made for an engaging discussion about the existing disparity in American foreign policy between military power and nonmilitary instruments of power. According to the author, the latter were dismantled after the end of the Cold War, consequence of a failure of political leaders to understand the complexity of American power.

Gates makes clear that the successful exercise of power encompasses, in addition to military might, diplomacy, economics, intelligence, strategic communications, development assistance, technology, ideology, and cybernetics. A new world order is being reshaped by COVID-19 and its inherent destabilizing impacts. America needs to reimagine its approach to the world, restructure its national security strategy, and revitalize the non-military instruments of power.

Unfortunately his analysis of American exercise of power in sub-Saharan Africa falls way short of a deconstruction of the ways America’s political leaders have failed in Africa. It doing so, it demonstrates a failure to understand Africa’s complexity and the limited focus and approach to the sub-Saharan region that still characterizes American political leadership towards the region. It’s time American foreign policy experts heed the call to learn, abide by lessons of the past and reimagine the approach to Africa.

Africa is no success story of America’s exercise of power

The over-militarization of power has indeed weakened the America’s effective exercise for good in the post-Cold War world. However, Africa is no success story of America’s exercise of power, either before or after the Cold War. The author is certainly not shy about pointing out the failures in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, or North Africa. But why the shyness in pointing out the consistent and repeated failures in sub-Saharan Africa?

The chapter on Africa (limited to sub-Saharan Africa) is a great disappointment for such an accomplished and experienced foreign policy expert and practitioner as Robert Gates. The shortest one in the book, it sidelines sub-Saharan Africa from global affairs and, surprisingly, hails Africa as a success story in the use of post-Cold War American global power. In doing so, it reflects the sustained misunderstanding in U.S. foreign policy of the region as a charity and assistance case and the concomitant romanticized belief of American intervention as the best, smartest and effective partner.

While PEPFAR is a success story, it is only one isolated example that does not define, replace or explain the string of military and foreign aid investment failures that have characterized U.S. interventions in Africa, both before and after the Cold War. In relation to MCC, its translation of theory into practice is no example of a successfully working aid model.

Two questions

It’s unfortunate that such an accomplished foreign policy expert and practitioner focused on only one of the few success stories of the exercise of American power in sub-Saharan Africa, glossing over the many stories of failure. Robert Gates’ exclusive focus on PEPFAR as proof of success of American exercise of power in Africa and his idealistic vision of MCC raises two questions:

1.- How do you explain the spreading insurgency and terrorist threat across the continent?

How do you explain 1 billion U.S. dollars per year + 100 million euros in military expenditures with no results? So let’s call the exercise of American power with guns what it is: a failure.

Increasing military presence, with boots on the ground in 30 of 47 sub-Saharan African countries has been accompanied by an increase, not a decrease. This has been complemented by the geographical spread of terrorism in the region, from North to South, with the influx of arms and mercenaries from the Libyan disaster, and East to West across the Sahel. But the lesson has yet to sink in: You can’t fight bad ideas with guns.

There are over 6,000 U.S. troops currently stationed throughout the continent in approximately forty-six sites, including forward operating bases, cooperative security locations (such as drone installations), and contingency locations. Yet the “war” in the Sahel has been growing rapidly. Violent incidents involving jihadist groups are beginning to jump borders south of Burkina Faso, and expanding recruitment networks into coastal countries.

According to a July 11th article in The Economist (Fighting a spreading insurgency), ten times more people were killed in 2019 than in 2014 (excluding deaths in north-eastern Nigeria). Once American forces leave Afghanistan, the Sahel will be the biggest combat zone for the U.S and its allies. Continued failure to understand the contextual dynamics fueling how jihadists gain ground will continue to spell failure in the exercise of American power in the region. Supporting militias, blindly backing the “return of the state” and a dogmatic insistence on building infrastructure in densely populated areas to maximize returns on investment is not the answer.

American foreign policy experts and makers must stop ignoring the elephant in the Sahel. “Building effective security and resilience in the Sahel region is not about power or money, it’s about agency and communication.” The use of military power in the region must stop ignoring the real needs of the average African, expressed by Africans for Africans - and start listening, especially to African women and African elders. Because when Africans find solutions, American policy experts more often than not don’t back them, usually because they think they know best. They obviously don’t.

The growing lack of human or non-military security - which includes economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security - is the greatest impediment to achieving effective military security goals. Yet the perceptions and misperceptions of foreign policymakers and experts still have an overriding dependence on a hard power framework for conceiving security and power. Americans must learn to listen to Africans before exerting power, because Africans have a very clear grasp of the situation. They want to be empowered, not hampered, by American military support and training. And they don’t want others (i.e., the U.S. or France) to do the job.

2.- Is elite capture, land-grabbing and “peasant” herding a winning approach to improving economic opportunities through big infrastructure projects?

Foreign aid investments delivered through USAID projects and MCC Compacts have not counterbalanced the failures and weaknesses of “hard” power dynamics. In fact, their interventions leave much to be desired. Instead of working as prime energizers for building America’s power in the region through “soft” power dynamics, USAID and MCC are creating more problems or exacerbating existing ones.

The Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was created in 2004 as an independent U.S. foreign assistance agency to address the inefficacies and inefficiencies of USAID. It is tasked with delivering “smart U.S. foreign assistance by focusing on good policies, country ownership, and results. MCC provides time-limited grants promoting economic growth, reducing poverty, and strengthening institutions. These investments not only support stability and prosperity in partner countries but also enhance American interests.” However, the translation of the theory into practice has not proven to be as promising as its stated principles.

For all practical purposes, MCC’s theoretical approach to improving, for example, power, transport, and irrigation infrastructure in Benin, Senegal, and Niger, respectively, translates into misguided country ownership, exclusive or imbalanced stakeholder consultation and participation, and limited participation of U.S. businesses. In Niger, which is a jihadist hotspot, MCC intervention has direct consequences for insecurity (food, livelihoods and physical) and the increase in the spread of insurgency.

So, contrary to Gate’s assessment of the exercise of American power in sub-Saharan Africa as a success and MCC as a winning model for aid, the U.S. has not created a leap in development and security value. A misguided understanding of country ownership too often falls prey to “elite market capture” and is biased in benefit of specific groups in power or for investment. Both USAID and MCC in reality, even if perhaps unwittingly, to a great extent work against those who can bring real and lasting change in knowledge, attitudes and practices in benefit of Africans: micro and small businesses.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness and impact of the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC). Established by the Trump administration in 2018 with $60B as America’s development bank, IDFC partners with the private sector to finance solutions to the most critical global development challenges, advance U.S. foreign policy priorities and generate returns for American taxpayers.

One thing is clear, though: the role of foreign aid is to be catalyst for change through synergistic, collaborative partnerships. If IDFC investments do not enable culturally-sensitive and context-specific investments that are productive and provide solutions with local buy-in at all levels, it will be another example of the consistent failure of the non-military exercise of American power in Africa.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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