Author: Chris Olaoluwa Ògúnmọ́dẹdé
Affiliated organization: World Politics Review
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: September 9th, 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned for the 2020 Democratic nomination promising not only to restore the defense of human rights and democracy to a central position in U.S. foreign policy, but also to “build back better” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But for Africa’s 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, despite a welcome change in tone from the administration of former President Donald Trump, there is little to show for the first nine months of Biden’s presidency when it comes to engagement on values—or anything else of substance.
In his first foreign policy speech as president, Biden triumphantly declared that “America is back,” pledging that the U.S. would pursue “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values” by “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
Biden followed that up with some immediate gestures aimed at reassuring African countries that he would be true to his word. He immediately reversed immigration restrictions on Nigeria and other African countries imposed by Trump. He and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held calls with several of their African counterparts in the first few weeks of the new administration. In advance of the 34th African Union Summit in February, Biden sent a prerecorded message emphasizing Washington’s commitment “to rebuilding our partnerships around the world and re-engaging with international institutions like the African Union.” And his administration withdrew U.S. opposition to the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala—a two-time former Nigerian finance minister and former foreign minister—for director-general of the World Trade Organization.
There’s just one problem with the change of tone: There hasn’t been any accompanying substantive change in policy, despite a decades-old bipartisan U.S. approach to Africa that is in need of a revamp. Nowhere is this lack of ambition more readily apparent than in West Africa, where last weekend’s coup d’Etat in Guinea served as a stark reminder of the United States’ failing strategy for helping regional and international partners combat democratic deconsolidation, violent extremism, poor governance and other drivers of socio-political instability in the region. After a promising start, West Africa, and indeed the continent writ large, has scarcely drawn the attention of senior members of the Biden administration. Where it has, they have generally stuck to the same old script of counterterrorism and strategic competition with China.
Despite years of diplomatic support as well as security and development assistance from the U.S. and other Western partners, governments across West Africa continue to struggle with issues of economic growth, corruption, governance and weak state capacity.
Nevertheless, nearly 20 years after the creation of the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, or TSCTP, Washington’s engagement in the Sahel remains overreliant on military instruments, at the expense of its diplomatic, development and cultural tools. Millions of dollars spent annually on security assistance and technical support for central governments in the Sahel have yielded few benefits, with the security situation in the region continuing to deteriorate amid a growing humanitarian crisis.
Biden’s decision to continue these counterterrorism efforts inherited from Trump, but also former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, is a mistake that calls for a course correction. While there are no easy answers to complicated problems the U.S. and the region’s other international partners barely understand, there are options Washington could explore as part of a reconsideration of its engagement in the Sahel and West Africa.
In this effort, coronavirus vaccines should be considered low-hanging fruit. With less than 2 percent of Africa’s population fully vaccinated and the rhetoric of multilateralism drowned out by vaccine nationalism in wealthier countries, the time for decisive action to release more of the U.S. vaccine stockpile and commit to a clear strategy for African vaccination is now. When it comes to achieving Biden’s values-oriented foreign policy objectives, the administration couldn’t possibly do any better than an accelerated U.S. response that prioritizes sending vaccine doses to the least vaccinated part of the world. The humanitarian and diplomatic implications are just as consequential as the epidemiological ones.
In the longer term, the U.S. is well-positioned on the continent in terms of the values it purports to cherish. Despite more than two decades of deepening economic and commercial relationships with China, not to mention four years of a hostile Trump administration, the majority of Africans still prefer the U.S. over China as a development model, including in West African powerhouses like Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. U.S. programs such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, imperfect as they all have been, have had an impact. Even if they are not scaled up dramatically, they could be improved upon.
The value preferences and policy priorities of West Africans—if not their governments—broadly align with Washington’s stated values and the development initiatives that form the basis of U.S.-Africa cooperation, such as democratic norms and social investment. For all the positives in the Africa-China relationship, Beijing’s weak public diplomacy efforts in the region and the Communist Party’s support for authoritarian leaders pose obstacles to the democratic aspirations of young West Africans and could weaken Chinese credibility in the long term. The English language continues to grow in popularity and ubiquity, particularly among younger West Africans seeking to break with the French colonial legacy, and American popular culture is a significant outlet for those expressions of interest. U.S. brands and companies like Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola and Google remain popular and in demand from Cotonou to Conakry. Put simply, U.S. soft power continues to have an enduring hold in what is the youngest geographic subregion in the world.
In light of all this, it’s time for Washington to use other options in its engagement toolkit besides security cooperation in building a direct relationship with West Africans and, through them, their governments. An approach that empowers ordinary citizens would be a smart way to make the U.S. more competitive, while safeguarding its geopolitical interests, on the world’s youngest continent.
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