Author: Sam Wilkins
Site of publication: War on The Rocks
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: April 2nd, 2020
The United States needs a continental strategy because it has real interests in Africa — and increasingly limited means with which to advance and protect them. Chinese activities have sharpened the need for a continent-wide policy, but American interests in Africa go well beyond zero-sum conceptions of competition with Beijing. By 2050, one in every four persons in the world will be African, and African markets are rapidly growing. According to Brookings, combined consumer and business spending from Africa will reach $6.7 trillion by 2030. Observers have dubbed this era “Africa’s democratic moment,” as political reform in Ethiopia, Sudan, and elsewhere has swept away corrupt autocrats and brought decades-old conflicts to an end. Meanwhile, jihadist groups, affiliates of al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, continue to menace and attack American regional interests and even plot international attacks.
America’s broad interests in Africa — from counter-terrorism, global health, democracy promotion, strengthening the American economy, and supporting European allies — demand an Africa strategy that can reconcile these divergent strands into a complete whole. Absent a continental strategy, policy for this critical region will remain vulnerable to distraction and brittle to setbacks — particularly American military casualties. A positive vision for sustained American engagement, supported by congressional buy-in, would provide a ballast against swings in popular opinion around U.S. involvement towards this increasingly important continent.
Continental vs. Country-By-Country Approach
The Trump administration’s Africa strategy was published in December 2018 following a speech by former National Security Advisor John Bolton at the Heritage Foundation. It emphasizes countering what it perceives as uniformly negative Chinese influence while enhancing reciprocal economic activity between the United States and African nations. However, increasing signs suggest that this strategy has been ignored and become irrelevant since the “abrupt removal” of Bolton, the only senior administration official to outline a grand policy statement on Africa.
America’s broad interests in Africa — from counter-terrorism, global health, democracy promotion, strengthening the American economy, and supporting European allies — demand an Africa strategy that can reconcile these divergent strands into a complete whole
In February, The Economist suggested that America’s current Africa policy, might, in fact, be best served by what it asserts has already emerged — a flexible, country-by-country approach under the steady hand of experienced practitioners given wide latitude by “a disinterested administration.” This perspective is far from unprecedented. The Carter Administration, for instance, found Latin America so complex that, in the words of then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, “the best policy overall may be a non-policy.”
While perhaps appealing in the short-run as a departure from Bolton’s adversarial and China-centric vision, such a piecemeal approach would represent a profound mistake with serious consequences for America’s long-term interests in Africa for five key reasons. First, the United States holds limited resources and means, both globally and within the continent itself, and faces tough trade-offs. It is difficult to assess the appropriateness of current and proposed resource commitments absent a continent-wide strategy. A piecemeal approach risks a form of ad-hocery that can create imbalances between America’s globally strained means and ambitious regional ends. Such imbalances risks overstretch. In America’s limited military history in Africa, from the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia to the 2017 Niger ambush, overstretch has repeatedly led to tragedy — followed by American disengagement. Secondly, on the opposite extreme, total disengagement risks sustaining damaging terrorist attacks against American citizens and regional interests on the continent — to say nothing of those of our European allies and African partners.
However, the “lights footprint” approach can also leave the United States with a limited ability to influence situations on the ground. The chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Libya intervention, which was originally hailed as a model partner-led operation, illustrates the potential downside
Third, absent a clear strategy, the apparatus of U.S. statecraft can be left vulnerable to distraction and incoherence, as a variety of interest groups and bureaucratic actors may seek to steer or co-opt policy towards contradictory objectives. Fourth, an ad-hoc or country-by-country approach would likely lack public consensus and Congressional support — leaving it brittle and vulnerable to headline-grabbing crises or military defeats. Finally, the emergence of a true continent-wide geostrategic competitor, China, necessitates the formulation of a truly continental strategy. While America’s interests in Africa go well beyond competition with China, a coherent Africa strategy is required to account for Chinese activity, while maintaining a balanced perspective about how Beijing’s activities in Africa might actually threaten American security and prosperity.
Limited Resources Force Continental Choices
As the recent Department of Defense posture review indicates, resources are inherently limited, especially after the economic and budgetary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Pentagon is far from the only agency facing tough constraints, America’s military posture in Africa offers the clearest illustration of this dilemma in practice. As Frank Hoffman recently noted in War on the Rocks, Africa sits sixth in the National Defense Strategy’s prioritization, behind the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, and Western Hemisphere. While the document emphasizes the need to “support relationships to address significant terrorist threats in Africa,” Secretary of Defense Esper recently reiterated that great-power competition had replaced counter-terrorism as his top priority for the region.
Preventing Overstretch Without Hazarding Disengagement
Doing more with less is always a possibility. This desire for economy informs the core of America’s preferred “light footprint” operational approach to African security issues. Indeed, the U.S. military spends approximately $2 billion, or 0.3 percent, of its overall $700 billion budget on operations in Africa to support an approximately 6,000 troops spread across the continent. The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for a continuation along these lines, emphasizing that the United States “seeks to work by, with, though local partners and the European Union to degrade terrorists” in Africa. The “light footprint” approach has delivered some partial successes, such as helping the Lake Chad nations contain Boko Haram. The United States also assisted efforts by the African Union Mission to Somalia and Somali forces to re-establish a Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu, without the massive troop commitments that characterized many of America’s interventions in the Middle East. In Somalia today, there are only a reported 500 special operations forces, and there are less than 1,000 troops across West Africa.
However, the “lights footprint” approach can also leave the United States with a limited ability to influence situations on the ground. The chaotic aftermath of the 2011 Libya intervention, which was originally hailed as a model partner-led operation, illustrates the potential downside.
Africa Strategy in a Democracy — Passing the “Acid Test”
An American strategy for Africa can only succeed in the long term with the support of Congress. Any local or regional initiative constructed without congressional and public backing, however brilliant or nuanced, will ultimately prove ephemeral. As Henry Kissinger warned in his 1957 A World Restored, “the acid test of a policy is its ability to gain domestic support.” Put plainly, the American people need to know why Africa matters to the United States, or they will not countenance the expenditure of blood and treasure on the continent.
The most effective way to win congressional support for U.S. foreign policy in Africa is to develop and present a continent-wide strategy. America’s Cold War history in Africa highlights the importance of congressional backing. When the Ford administration sought to secretly arm anti-communist rebels fighting in the Angolan Civil War, Congress not only banned funding to that group, but set a strict $40 million ceiling on military assistance to the entire continent. Fortunately, in this contemporary era of partisan rancor, Congress has taken a remarkably bi-partisan approach to Africa policy issues. Recent attempts to cut foreign aid or humanitarian assistance to African countries, for example, have been met with disapproval from both parties. This bipartisan consensus concerning Africa’s importance to the United States represents a solid foundation on which to formulate a collaborative Africa strategy that is resilient to tactical setbacks.
An Absence of Strategy Increases Vulnerability to Distraction or Co-Option
Absent firm central guidance, policy around African affairs can be vulnerable to the influence of various humanitarian, religious, and bureaucratic interests. While far from unique to Africa policy, these sometimes-opposing influences can accelerate the aforementioned risk of overstretch and lead to the dilution of already limited resources. This phenomenon also accelerates the chances of distraction. As scholar Gorm Rye Olsen notes, “because policymaking has been influenced by a number of different actors, American Africa policy may appear incoherent and ambiguous if judged narrowly on the expectation that it only aims to take care of U.S. national security concerns and economic self-interests.” It is, for example, difficult to identify traditional U.S. interests in the now-concluded American Counter-Lord’s Resistance Army mission spurred by the viral social media campaign “Kony 2012.” Dubbed “Operation Observant Compass,” this multi-year commitment cost between $600-$800 million and saw U.S. military forces deployed throughout central Africa in an effort that ultimately failed to capture the notorious warlord.
Towards a Resilient Africa Strategy
The United States should pursue a continent-wide approach to Africa that reflects the totality of America’s significant and expanding interests in the region. Whatever strategy is ultimately chosen will require the backing of the American people and its elected leaders if it is to be sustained. America’s post-1945 history in Africa, from Angola to “Black Hawk Down,” illustrates that military or foreign policy commitments in Africa made absent strong congressional support and active White House oversight, however initially well-designed, will prove ephemeral. Absent this support, buy-in, and oversight of implementation, any initiatives will prove fragile to the strong headwinds of friction and chance, and may ultimately lead to further American disengagement from the continent.
It would be ill-advised to walk away from Africa, a continent of over a billion people with vast economic potential and a rapidly transforming political landscape. This includes a new wave of democratization, most notably in Sudan and Ethiopia, but also increasing Chinese inroads. While Chinese activity is not always a zero-sum calculus, Beijing’s growing presence sharpens the need for a positive strategy that emphasizes America’s unique values abroad, provides opportunities for American businesses to invest in African markets, and protects American interests at home and abroad from the continued threat of jihadist terrorism.
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