Marcel Proust wrote that a true voyage of discovery consists not in looking for new landscapes but in having new eyes. However, paraphrasing a tweet by Ijeoma Oluo, this does not mean making Africans swim through America’s tears for its own national decline and directional confusion. Nor does it entail making “a play for Africa”, to use Riva Levinson’s expression in a The Hill article, in what could be the nastiest political competition in U.S. history.
Africa is not a joker card
After consistently being relegated to a footnote in U.S. foreign policy, the American presidential election teams for Donald Trump and Joe Biden are using Africa as a joker card in their political maneuvers. Unfortunately, both presidential candidates share the same detrimental view of Africa as a battleground for U.S. influence and “goodwill” abroad while at the same time failing to see Africa for what it is: a major player in international relations, despite or perhaps because of the challenges it faces from climate change to inadequate public education and health.
The Trump administration is using Africa as the Joker for competing against China on its geoeconomic and geopolitical playing board. The recently created $60 billion U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) is establishing regional investment teams in Africa to compete against Chinese investments on the continent. It is part of the “New” U.S. Africa strategy and in tandem with Prosper Africa, a U.S. Government Initiative that aims to unlock opportunities to do business in Africa.
Meanwhile, following the much-ado-about-nothing, hollow, November 2018 threat to reduce forces for U.S. Africa Command by 10% troop levels, the checkered effectiveness of military presence across the continent makes evident a belief in the world as America’s reign, in which Africa is a mere side show where the U.S. has the self-righteous right to project itself to preserve and advance order. It’s what Patrick Porter, in his recently published book The False Promise of Liberal Order (2020), refers to as the “ordering” through the exercise of dominance in “mitigating” the forces of anarchy (violent extremist organizations) with steps that actually heighten insecurity.
Contrary to Trump, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has extensive foreign policy experience. But like Trump, he frames the rise of China as a serious challenge to America’s exercise of power in the world and a vital threat economically and strategically. Joe Biden would do better by addressing the essential strategic questions posed by Fareed Zakaria in his Foreign Affairs article (“The New China Scare, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2020): Is China really a vital threat, and to the extent that its illiberal policies and political control and statism explain it as such, how should that threat be addressed? What would an acceptable level of influence for China be in Africa, and elsewhere in the world, given its economic weight globally?
Instead of using Africa to advocate for racial solidarity at home, a wiser U.S. policy for Africa would be to focus on course corrections geared to better and more use of what Robert Gates (Exercise of Power, 2020) calls the symphony of national power and influence, a more balanced use of U.S. foreign and defense tools through creative and adept leadership sensitive to the strengths and limitations of American power.
U.S. presidential candidates need new eyes to see Africa
Both presidential candidates approach Africa as if they were putting on lip gloss for their campaign events. But they share a view of Africa as a battle ground for U.S. influence and “goodwill” while indirectly using it as a scapegoat for home-made problems. Both candidates also share the misguided conviction that American leadership will enlighten, save and guide “lesser” peoples. What they both fail to realize is that this conviction continues to foster a complacency and sense of triumphalism that result in unproductive investments and false declarations of U.S. success in Africa.
What neither Trump nor Biden sees is that Africa has become the world’s greatest teacher about interdependence and an economy of affection, how to deal with diversity, how to reconcile, and, yes, how to live together peacefully and respectfully between different religions. Africa is not, as is often argued, the last frontier in the world economy. Africa is the new frontier for global transformation, human achievement and economic prosperity through cooperation beyond borders.
It’s time for American foreign policy experts and makers to reexamine the perverted approach to statecraft in Africa. It is still based on the conviction that the U.S. has a God-given Manifest Destiny to create a pluralistic world order under American leadership and business acumen that will enlighten, save and guide “lesser” peoples. It is a misguided conviction based on underlying racist feelings of white supremacy and superiority.