By Herman J. Cohen *
(FPRI) – When I joined the US Foreign Service in 1954, Africa was seen as our lowest priority in our foreign policy, with little strategic importance to world affairs. Sixty-seven years later, most observers continue to view Africa as a minor item on the US agenda. This is a deeply myopic mistake. The opportunities and risks in Africa, a grouping of 55 dissimilar countries, are staggering: the details of the US engagement could mean the difference between a green and prosperous future, or a repeat of Afghanistan. Yet under President Biden, the foreign policy intelligentsia supports the previous administration’s mistake of viewing Africa as a battleground for competition with China and Russia. The Biden administration must not miss its chance to break this cycle of reactive foreign policy theory designed with little ambition for what reasoned politics can accomplish.
Instead of catching up with China, Russia and others, we should surpass the initiative they took in Africa. We need to be involved enough to spot new opportunities on our own and recognize their intrinsic value, rather than as a conspicuous way to sneak into another victory against distant opponents.
As the war on terror diminishes, the establishment’s preferred paradigm of US foreign policy has shifted to the notion of “great power competition” – a revival of Cold War thinking that states that China, and to a lesser extent Russia, constitute the greatest threats. to American international priorities, and that our end goal must always be to defeat or thwart these antagonists. The purpose and mechanisms of this agenda have always been poorly defined, because of its genesis in American domestic politics: the previous administration officially initiated the theoretical change largely as a means of satisfying its political supporters and its neoconservative allies.
For Africa, the question of what Russia and China are doing there always seems to interrupt more fundamental questions about African activities and how the United States can help. As a result, our African engagements have lately been presented less as a meritorious undertaking in their own right than a displacement of pieces on a continental chessboard located between East and West, reminiscent of a colonial history to which the United States did not. have not participated.
Every recent US president has launched an African signing program: President Trump was Prosper Africa, a brainchild of John Bolton who sought to push for trade deals with African countries with the explicit aim of competing with Russia and China. The Biden administration is promising to “restart” the project, asking Congress for an additional $ 80 million. But under President Biden, competition from the great powers will remain the organizing principle of the underfunded program. Our adversaries do not make these mistakes. When China finances and builds a multi-billion dollar railway in Kenya, their primary consideration is not how that might erode American influence.
Chinese and Russian projects in Africa are, in general, a bad deal for Africans. Data supporting the effectiveness of their national COVID-19 vaccines are wave Where faded away. Most of China’s electricity projects have been in coal and gas. Chinese logging projects are devastating the rainforest of the Congo Basin, and foreign trawlers from China are depleting fish stocks off African coasts. Chinese companies are securing many of their highly profitable projects, as in fishing and mining, through corruption and bribes, while depriving African workers and businesses of their homeland’s resources. When Chinese companies hire Africans, they treat them as cheap, disposable labor and abuse them with impunity. When China delivers large infrastructure projects, they are often attached coercive trap loan programs. For its part, Russia has little to offer Africans beyond more weapons and mercenaries to prolong its wars.
There is no doubt that the Chinese and Russian projects exploit Africa and the Africans, but since Chinese and Russian engagement is a problem for our African partners, we must recognize that it is their problem to manage, and not the role of American diplomats of a second paternalistic hypothesis. Instead, we must demonstrate the unique value of the US engagement on its own terms. We have a strong point to make, but getting there will require a forward-looking redoubling of US diplomacy and engagement – a real backbone for Africa.
Our efforts will be distinguished by their substance. Peace and security are among our strongest historical capabilities in this regard. The United States has a long history of resolving conflicts in Africa through diplomatic means. We must work tirelessly to end the catastrophic wars in Ethiopia and Cameroon, and the militant conflicts brewing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique and across the African Sahel. We must be proactive if we are to prevent the creation of an Afghan-style state led by militants, such as African leaders, civil society, and the United Nations warn. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has declared that African terrorist groups, including those with ambitions to strike the United States, have become so powerful in the face of failed international counterterrorism efforts that they can only hope to “contain” them rather than “degrading” them. In addition to preventing the creation of another caliphate in Africa, the corollary lesson of our Afghan and Middle Eastern experience is that one should not wait for a region-based terrorist attack to be launched on American soil before give Africa the political priority it deserves.
Working to improve the socio-economic conditions of Africans through aid, investment and diplomacy is at the heart of the problem. The popular framework for security watchers in Washington recently has been to focus on increasingly advanced submarines, bombers and nuclear weapons to counter Russia and China, while, as a pass- time he was developing projects in Africa only to stop the encroachment of these enemies. Although often sound in design, the resources and manpower devoted to such programs, like Prosper Africa, are not serious.
We must view African aid, development and investment as worthy security projects in their own right. African investments in sustainable agriculture, clean energy, infrastructure and finance are waiting for the United States to take the lead. Meanwhile, threatening African militias continue, their recruitment fueled more by hunger, desperation, governance failures and repressive repression than by fantasies of global Islamist jihad. A redoubling of our American-African projects will cost much less and bring a value far greater than that of tens of billions swallowed up in another. broken a new plane or a new ship that we may not really need.
It will be crucial to first sell the American public on a pivot to Africa. Despite the diminishing returns, it’s easy to argue to the public that putting more money into the defense budget makes the United States safer while creating jobs. It will be more difficult to convey how essential African engagement is to achieve these goals. Still, I’m optimistic, if only because the risks of ignoring Africa are outweighed by the opportunities for US involvement there. The potential for security, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, trade and better governance is simply enormous. The mutual benefits that could be realized through a more proactive approach would be impossible to ignore. But officials and experts will have to believe it themselves first, and the continued narratives of “great power competition” for US-African relations are a worrying sign. We must not get stuck in this outdated and colonial way of thinking.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish reasoned and policy-oriented articles on US foreign policy and security. national. priorities.
* About the author: Herman J. Cohen was a member of the United States Foreign Service for thirty-eight years, serving at embassies in France, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe . He is now President of Cohen and Woods, an international consulting firm.
Source: This article was published by the FPRI. This article was originally published by American College of National Security Executives, November 16, 2021. The Foreign Policy Research Institute republishes it with permission from the organization and the author.