Last week, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled its long-awaited Strategy for Africa as Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured the continent. The strategy comes at an important time. Nearly halfway into Biden’s term, his Africa policy has focused more on reacting to regional crises. It has not articulated a proactive vision for U.S. partnerships with African countries. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to address longstanding issues, such as stagnant trade with the continent, and security crises in the Sahel and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The strategy itself outlines several pillars of engagement over the next five years. The major rhetorical focus is on pushing for democracy, growing economic development, and tackling climate change in an equitable way. Commentators have been quick to point out challenges in achieving these goals, but the goal of this article is to highlight its shortcomings as a strategic document.
Biden’s strategy was an opportunity to set up a lasting doctrine for engaging Africa, with clear objectives and policy prescriptions. Instead, it continues the decades-long malaise in U.S.-Africa relations. Blinken’s tour leaves us with an Africa strategy that is strategic only in its messaging, a commitment to democracy with few commitments to the continent’s democracies, and a promise of equal treatment that does not address trade inequities.
There are three short-, medium-, and long-term strategic oversights in the document that need to be addressed. In the near term, a U.S.-Africa strategy needs to be explicit in how it will balance a push for democracy with its counterterrorism efforts. In the medium term, the strategy does not delineate between policies meant to counter Russia’s illegal activity and compete with China’s commercial activity. In the long term, the strategy lacks the kind of substance that would show African leaders that working with Washington is better than working with Beijing,
Balancing Counterterrorism with Democracy
The question of the day is how Biden will balance the promotion of democracy with the fight against terrorism. In the Sahel, Mali and Burkina Faso have both had coups in the last two years. Key counterterrorism partners such as Chad and Cameroon are not democracies. Meanwhile, extremist groups are metastasizing to the point where they threaten other countries, like Togo, Nigeria, and Benin.
Amid the chaos, where should U.S. priorities lie? The Africa strategy makes a clear commitment to assist in the fight against terrorism militarily, but to work with partners and only use force when non-kinetic options were impossible. The need to contain and defeat terrorism in the Sahel and West Africa clashes with commitments to reducing intervention when possible, and with the determination to push for democratization and openness. Biden has already shown a willingness to deploy counterterrorism forces in places like Somalia. These priorities entail tough decisions, and the lack of clarity from the Africa strategy is an alarming sign that there is no consensus on how to balance them.
Understanding the Differencing Between Russia and China
Beyond terrorism, Washington’s. Africa policy needs to disaggregate their concerns with Russia from their concerns with China. Moscow and Beijing have very different objectives in Africa. China’s interests derive from its need for raw resources and desire to sell inexpensive consumer goods and construction services. Even as China has reduced its financial commitments to African countries in recent years, and infrastructure projects failed to live up to expectations, Chinese commercial partnerships with African countries are intended to last.
Chinese interest in the global south creates an opportunity for U.S. cooperation. A country that has invested as much in the continent as China intends to will have some interests that align with the U.S., such as working on public health crises, improving physical infrastructure, and keeping trade partners stable enough to do business with. There are still many points of tension, and even if an interest is shared, the approaches the U.S. and China take may be dramatically different. But there is room for the U.S. and China to do more than just cynically compete for influence. Blinken’s acknowledgement during a speech that an open society means that African countries will choose to work with China over other countries on some issues is a positive sign in this regard.
Russia, on the other hand, is a deleterious influence in Africa. Moscow seeks to leverage weak regimes and security vacuums to exploit natural resources, sell weapons, undermine international peacekeeping efforts, and promote the use of Kremlin-backed mercenaries like the Wagner group. Moscow’s efforts are localized but deeply destabilizing, and antithetical to the interests of the U.S. and African nations alike. No single policy will compete with China in the commercial sector and counter the Kremlin’s violent exploitation in the security realm. The two issues need to be decoupled, rhetorically and practically.
Making America an Attractive Trade Partner
In the long term, U.S. policy towards Africa must strengthen its commercial ties in an equitable manner. The Biden administration’s refusal to frame Africans as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard is rhetorically sound, but if the U.S. wishes to present itself as a preferred partner for African countries, it needs to offer substantive trade benefits and work to improve its own regulatory framework. For instance, Blinken’s speech emphasized that the U.S. would help African countries strengthen transparency in their supply chains, but he made no mention of doing the same on the U.S. side. Encouraging African countries to stand up to exploitative corporations, many of which are based in the U.S., is deeply disingenuous if the U.S. is unwilling to do the same. Taking elements that work from Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires U.S.-listed companies to report on the use of certain conflict minerals in their supply chains, and applying them to other industries is the bare minimum the U.S. can do to show that it’s a more ethical partner than the alternatives.
The strategy outlined some efforts, like the Global Fragility Act, but there needs to be a push for trade that doesn’t immediately assume African nations are lucky to have U.S. assistance, or that the U.S. is the only game in town. The scope of Biden’s strategy is limited to five years, with some nods to programs that have been funded for the next decade, but it needed to serve as a springboard for U.S. economic policy in Africa for the new multipolar era – instead, it comes up short.
Overall, a document with some goals and some achievements is not a strategy. If Africa’s growing economies and populations signal a new era of African economic and political power, then U.S. strategy towards the continent needs to shake its dated conceptions. It should focus on sorting its priorities for the short term and building sustainable economic and commercial partnerships for the long term.
Marcel Plichta is a PhD Candidate at the University of St Andrews and a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has previously written on U.S.-Africa policy for Newsweek, Defense One, and World Politics Review.