On February 4, 2021, Joe Biden delivered his first major foreign policy speech as U.S. President.
The crux of his message: “America is back" and "Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”
On a general level, President Biden’s remarks emphasized a return to America’s basic foreign policy principles: multilateralism and cooperation, alliances and partnership, assurance of access to international resources and markets, the protection of human rights and democracy, and patience. They also signaled a return to a status quo ante: a global order with America at the helm and Africa sidelined. This is a cause for concern.
A more progressive relationship is needed
Rising illiberalism, fascism and authoritarianism, and terrorism and insurgency, including in Africa, are certainly important and deserve dedicated focus. But it is more important right now to transform weak U.S.-Africa policy and absentee diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa into a more progressive relationship.
Progressive here relates not to the heirs of Wilsonian progressivism, which emphasizes that “the primary, if not exclusive, purpose of the use of force abroad should be to promote the freedom and welfare of other peoples”, but rather to the depoliticized meaning of the term: a way of thinking that focuses on social progress and a belief that human society is improving over time. A progressive U.S. foreign policy for Africa would aim to represent and respond to the interests of ordinary Africans through the promotion of social policies that will lead to positive social change, based on advancements in science, technology, economic development, institutional dynamics, and social organization. All are vital to the improvement of the human condition anywhere in the world.
Merely going back to the pre-Trump order of things of U.S.-Africa relations is insufficient, short-sighted and dangerous. If the Biden Administration truly intends to “lead by the example of our power and the power of our example”, it needs to restore and reinvigorate America’s relations and engagement with Africa in a way that balances a sense of humility with a sense of urgency in relation to the issues that affect the security and national interests of both America and Africa.
Biden left Africa dangling
In his speech, President Biden scanned the horizon of challenges and friendships. But he left Africa dangling. Africa is integral to addressing some of the world’s thorniest problems – the ripple effects of demographic transformations, climate change and epidemics; trade, investment and economic security; terrorism, criminality and security. Africa is a leader in providing some of the most innovative, out-of-the-box, technological and social innovations to common problems of humanity. Yet, Biden made no mention of Africa in his speech.
Among the challenges America faces, he included China, Burma, Russia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Among the friendships, he listed Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. But like most previous presidents, including Trump, he ignored Africa.
It’s time to do build back better in Africa too
A return to “normality” is not an option when it comes to Africa. Building back better in Africa requires some serious rethinking about the continent and its 5 regions. U.S. foreign policy in Africa needs to be course-corrected.
First, refocus diplomacy. U.S. diplomatic capacity and expertise have steadily eroded since the 1960s and have been replaced by hard power to achieve policy aims and ambitions. The U.S. cannot realistically expect to lead in the face of shared existential threats without a different kind of diplomacy. America needs to stand with Africa shoulder-to-shoulder. This means taking a more out-of-the-box approach to defining America’s role on the continent.
U.S. diplomats need to steer away from counterproductive diplomatic lecturing and start listening. They need to promote and engage in dialogue and pursue broader engagement at the grassroots, including with nonofficial authority figures (traditional and religious leaders, states and localities). U.S. diplomacy in Africa needs to develop what John Campbell, in his recently published book entitled Nigeria and the Nation-State. Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World (2020), refers to as granular understanding to inform good policy making.
Second, the U.S. military footprint needs to be appropriately realigned with U.S. national security priorities. This first requires that the top echelons of the U.S. military fully reconceptualize combat readiness.
U.S. generals Charles Q. Brown (Air Force) and David H. Berger (Marine Corps), in their opinion article in The Washington Post (“The U.S. military must define readiness”, 02/02/21), propose redefining combat readiness: focus less on near-term availability and more on “future capability and warfighting advantage over peer adversaries.” But then they fall back on the traditional, imbalanced, biased approach they’re criticizing: “accelerate investments” in “hypersonic weapons”, new layers of analysis using artificial intelligence and a larger force design. This is no “transformative modernization”.
America’s post 9/11 battlefields are defined by twilight conflicts rooted in geoeconomic disequilibrium. They have no front lines, just innumerable shadowy, amorphous ones. Judicious application of military science, more modern equipment and artificial intelligence doesn’t work against asymmetric warfare and nihilistic enemies or against networks that use traditional methods of communications. Nor does anti-instability and anti-terrorist, load-bearing, on-point, development equipment exist. There are just no quick-fix or big-bang force design models.
It’s not just about equipment or organization. Ensuring our military has the new skills and capabilities required for new kinds of war is essential, as is the effective use of data. But it’s also about the human element that defines the battle on the ground. Devising appropriate action plans for effective military performance depends on: factoring in sociocultural and political-economic elements; using ethnographic knowledge and behavioral and social sciences as strategic tools for gathering relevant intelligence; and deploying culturally-grounded influence resources, including a mix of modern and traditional communication tools, public diplomacy and empowerment of key local civilian change makers. And, as Gordon O.F. Johnson points out in his Letter to the Editor, troop morale and home support and belief in their cause from their families and citizens back home is equally important.
Simply replacing one type of equipment with another and adding a more sophisticated analysis tools without “humanizing” preparedness at home and on the battle ground will simply ensure the military and intelligence structures continue to succeed at failing to be ready.
Third, it is imperative to step out of traditional trade and investment patterns. The U.S. can’t continue to use Africa for it’s own economic renewal. Yes, China and several emerging economies, such as Brazil and Turkey, have increased their engagement across the African continent. Yes, despite the economic fallout from the Covid pandemic and the ensuing recession, it is expected that the continent will rebound, although unevenly across regions.
Many countries, such as Senegal and Ghana, have seized the opportunity within the crisis to move faster on necessary reforms and investments that are crucial for long-term development. But this doesn’t mean writing a new chapter for power competition. It means the African continent has significant potential for structural transformation, industrialization and strategic investments, especially within the context of the coming into force of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The U.S. needs to be smarter in its trade and investment relations and pursue mutual benefit through economic diplomacy that can effect structural change across the African continent. Investing in Africa represents a unique opportunity to enable African domestic revenue, endogenous (versus Americanized) entrepreneurship and local value addition. It’s also an opportunity to step out of exploitative patterns of the past. However, scaling up the amounts invested does not guarantee sustainable results for local populations.
To ensure, quoting President Biden, that “American businesses are positioned to compete and win on the global stage”, American economic partnerships and investments must enable real economic growth in benefit of Africans first. American investors and the African elites can’t continue being the only big winners through high rates of return combined with public guarantees and other support at the expense of local development gains.
The goal of American economic diplomacy and engagement in Africa should not be focused as a renewed race for African markets nor measured through the quantity of investments. It should focus on building equitable partnerships with local involvement in decision making structures, mutual benefit and promoting and protecting local markets and revenues.
Fourth, it’s time to overcome the limitations on U.S.-Africa relations and engagement caused by racial prejudices. President Biden’s recognition of the intimate links between domestic and foreign policy means that the steps to acknowledge and address the legacy of racism and white supremacy at home must include doing the same in U.S. foreign policy. They are an affront to U.S. values and an impediment to achieving the country’s foreign policy goals.
The prejudices still inherent in those goals paralyze the conscience of diplomats, investors, and aid agencies. America cannot afford to continue its abandonment of the principle that “all just government depends on the consent of the governed” in the name of “progress” through the aid of the Anglo-Saxon character. Neither can America continue to promise the regeneration of the world by becoming its trustee of progress if that progress is posited on racial discrimination.
The wrongs of racism and racial discrimination in U.S. policy toward Africans continues to be the source of profound resentment against America and thus a perpetual barrier against progressive relations and engagement between America and Africa. There must be a concerted and substantive effort to break from past.
The goal of practical and reasonable American policies in Africa is not to bring a certain degree of uplift to our “little brown and black brothers and sisters” while increasing American profits. Human Rights begins by recognizing the principle of racial equality and the right to a shared participation in a common benefit.
The rights and bodies of Africans are fully their own, and so are their resources. Paraphrasing the 1919 Japanese Conference for the Equality of the Races for the Paris Peace Conference: unless every racial hindrance and disqualification is abolished, all alliances and partnerships can only be built on sand. (Race and U.S. Foreign Policy from 1900 through World War II, ed. By Michael L. Krenn, 1998).
Drawing the right lessons
This is no time for nostalgia or warped hubris. As William Burns writes in The Atlantic, the Covid pandemic has a wider geopolitical effect that “will likely turbocharge trendlines that were already creating a much more complicated and competitive landscape for the United States” around the world: a less liberal and less ordered world, technologies that solidify authoritarian control and challenges to democracy, teetering international institutions, less free flow of goods and people across borders, a shared sense of insecurity that will intensify rivalries for resources and influence among countries and regions, worsening humanitarian crises in parts of the world already brimming with conflicts and refugees.
In light of these trends, the U.S. must draw the right lessons from its missteps in Africa and learn from the best practices of others, including China. To do so, America must take a fresh look at Africa and reengage better with the continent, without launching another global struggle for its resources.
Africa should not be forced to choose between China and America, nor should the approach to China in Africa be “containment”, because containing China is beyond America’s capacity. “What U.S. leaders can do, however, is shape the environment into which China rises—working with allies and partners across [Africa] who share a profound interest in making sure China’s ascendance does not come at the expense of their own security and prosperity. That’s what diplomacy is all about.”
What it means to lead with diplomacy in Africa
Biden’s vision of America’s place in the world through a “Diplomacy First” approach is predictably different from Trump’s aggressive transactional “America First” approach. But leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners including African allies and partners. It means “and Africa”, not Africa as an afterthought.
In order to engage with the world, once again, with moral leadership in the face of today’s and tomorrow’s accelerating challenges – such as health epidemics, climate change, racial and gender inequalities, ethnic and sexual orientation persecution - America must do so fully. You can’t unite the world by sidelining an entire continent and keep exploiting it with an aid-in-exchange-for-market access and military bases track. And you can’t expect to include in its own right a continent that has been traditionally sidelined from U.S. foreign policy if you don’t give that policy a total overhaul, in both substance and strategic vision.
To keep up with Africa’s transformed and transformative influence on the world stage, U.S.-Africa foreign policy and engagement must be reexamined, repaired and refocused. In brief, it’s time for maturity and a sense of history in U.S.-Africa policy and engagement.