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U.S. Africa Policy Needs to Restore Brains to Brawn

· Africa

Waging endless wars is a grotesque misuse of funds and taxpayer dollars. It just basically lines the pockets of defense contractors. As Robert Gates argues in his book Exercise of Power, the United States must recover the full range of its power by restoring “brain to brawn”. (Robert Gates, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2020).

Decades of overmilitarization of American foreign policy has been accompanied by the overbureaucratization of the State Department and cuts in non-military investments at home and abroad, with a concomitant weakening of knowing when and how to use military power effectively.

The growing imbalance and ensuing cacophony has perpetuated a dysfunctional status quo based on funding for military force that has already proven several times over that America cannot win by bearing arms. Traditional principles of war need thorough reassessment.

Warfare in the 21st century, particularly in Africa, is strongly characterized by the mixed use of traditional (people-based) and modern (technology-based) communication and methods of information warfare. Communication strategies are combined with dual-use technologies and possible access to weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

This poses new operational problems and threats that require a different military doctrine and different “enemy” strategies, as well as changes in C3I (command, control, communications, and intelligence), equipment, logistics, coalition building and warfare, and war termination. You just can’t fight bad ideas with guns. Nor is security just a question of throwing in more money, arms and soldiers. It cannot be force-sized.

America needs a new New Africa policy

In a 2018 post, I explained why the failure of the Trump administration’s New Africa Strategy, presented in December 2018 by then National Security Adviser John Bolton, “to leverage the competitive advantages provided by micro and small businesses … will limit the effective and productive use of U.S. funds, maintain widespread incentivized patronage from African governments, and reduce the return on and positive impact of both public and private investments.” The administration’s Misplaced Obsession with “beating” China “is clouding U.S. policy. Africa is neither a Strategor board game nor the stage for a popularity contest”.

Promoting the “unrivaled value” of U.S. firms is unrealistic and magical thinking. It not only “reveals the insular nature of American foreign trade and aid and ignorance of the African continent.” It also “disregards African history and culture, as well as American history of entrepreneurship and private enterprise and is oblivious to African regional trade potential. In addition, it forgets that African countries and economic regions are geopolitical actors and trade partners in their own right and have become leading investment destinations for companies worldwide,” and not just for American companies.

Not only does the U.S. need a foreign policy that reinvents America’s leadership role in a world where it no longer enjoys unrivaled dominance and cannot dictate events (William Burns, The Atlantic, July 14, 2020). It also needs one that is transformative in a positive sense, rather than one that denigrates allies, rejects climate science, pulls out of collaborative international institutions, like the World Health Organization, dismantles decades of trade and arms control agreements, implements harsh immigration policies that are further isolating the United States from the rest of the world (William Hartung, Forbes, July 14, 2020), and touts American corporations as the best partners for Africa's economic development.

Africa doesn't need American ambulance chasing

The U.S. may have still have “the world’s strongest military, most influential economy, most expansive alliance system, and most potent soft power,” (Burns), but as Win Without War Advocacy Director Erica Fein wrote in the February 10, 2020 statement, regarding Donald Trump’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget request: The 21st century’s greatest global challenges — climate change, mass inequality, mass displacement, and rising authoritarianism — have no military solutions. Nor will they be resolved through the "big is better" corporate mindset.

Africa needs America’s support, not ambulance chasing. It’s time that support was more in touch with African needs, aspirations and capacities. Innovation, technology transfer and change making must be understood as circular, that is, a seed of an idea that is shared with Africans, who then plant it on their own “turf” to grow its potentialities for responding to African needs and demands; the results are then harnessed to feed back into the American market.

The U.S. can’t just keep using a copy-and-paste approach that sells America first through brawn while putting both American and African brains last. Now is the time for broad stakeholder engagement to work with Africans, not in spite of them. U.S. foreign policy experts and makers can begin by recognizing that America-knows-best kinds of solutions tend to translate into failure. They should, instead, focus on providing support and investment for the development of African solutions. Only by thinking before flexing flagging muscle will U.S. Africa policy be New.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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