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Commentary: Biden administration needs to match rhetoric with action on Africa policy

Last week Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released the Biden administration’s long-awaited Africa strategy during his visit to South Africa. Perhaps the most notable shift in tone during Blinken’s

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The long-awaited Africa policy of the Biden administration was unveiled last week by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken while he was in South Africa. Blinken’s reference to African states as geostrategic players was perhaps the most noticeable shift in tone during his five-day, three-country tour of the continent. This was a clear response to the fact that America’s fiercest competitors on the continent (China and increasingly Russia) have gained ground by treating their African counterparts as partners rather than as charity cases or an afterthought.

Africa will be home to 25% of the world’s population by 2050. As a region, it is the eighth largest economy in the world and is home to some of the fastest growing economies. It is anticipated that by 2063, it will overcome Germany, France, India, and the United Kingdom to take third place in the global economic rankings. The rise in foreign players vying for influence on the continent is explained by this.

In light of this, the United States is aiming to show through the new strategy that it regards Africa seriously. The National Security Council’s Judd Devermont is in charge of Biden’s Africa team, which is aware of the stakes and the harm caused by the previous administration’s patronizing remarks, derogatory slurs, travel bans, and understaffed embassies that lack effective programs to advance Africans and U.S.-Africa relations.

As Congress prepares to enact a bill that represents a return of Cold War thinking in Washington and that reiterates a dismissive approach to the continent, the timing of Blinken’s journey was a little problematic for the Biden administration. The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which has already passed in the House, calls for closely monitoring how the continent interacts with Russia. During his visit, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, highlighted concerns about the Act. Pandor pointed out that the law seeks to effectively punish African governments for their ties to Russia and Russian enterprises, despite the fact that the new U.S. Africa strategy states that governments should be “free to make their own political choices.”

When we talk about freedom, she emphasized that it applies to everyone. You cannot claim that the United States will penalize you because of what Africa is doing.

The minister skillfully drew attention to the discrepancy between the new policy’s emphasis on democracy and openness and the bill’s purpose to keep an eye on African states’ ties with other countries on a sovereign basis. In fact, the bill’s declared goal of bolstering democratic institutions in Africa recycles the tired Western tutelage cliché and neglects to acknowledge how frequently the United States undercuts democracy in its interactions with African countries on an international scale. The fundamental premise of the law is that the United States legitimately holds the world’s top positions in politics, commerce, and morality, and that it is therefore entitled to police any and all individuals who pose a danger to this dominance.

Despite the fact that African leaders’ insistence on nonalignment in the Russia-Ukraine conflict may not be based on an explicit commitment to anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism (as it was in the 1950s and 1960s), memories of European colonialism and the Soviet Union’s support for African independence struggles still loom large.

In fact, the law uses paternalistic language to imply that “malign” foreign players like Russia and China can manipulate or exploit African states. This suggests that African states are unable to use judgment while dealing with other powers. “The big debate is always: Is this or that African country pro-East or pro-West?” asked former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. However, he continued, “these kind of queries are predicated on a very fundamental error — and, I might add, an unwarranted degree of arrogance! They claim that Africa lacks both independent thoughts and interests.

Although Blinken may have used the appropriate rhetorical devices during his tour, we cannot ignore the fact that his ideas run counter to those of Washington’s establishment, which consistently fails to recognize that the tide is shifting. African nations not only refused to condemn Russia at the United Nations in March when the West expected them to do so regardless of their own geopolitical interests, but Indonesia, the country hosting this year’s G-20 summit in Bali, recently joined the African Union’s call for Africa to be given a formal seat at the G-20 table.

African states are seeking tangible projects and positive participation at a time when they are struggling with a variety of problems brought on by the world’s food shortages, mounting debt, and rising oil prices. The Biden administration would do well to give up America’s obsession with dominance and instead acknowledge that in order to forge strong and positive ties with African nations, it is necessary for Africans to be respected and to embrace multilateralism and nonalignment. This is especially true as the administration gets ready to host African leaders at the U.S.-Africa Summit in December.

WHO THE WRITERS ARE

Samar Al-Bulushi is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute. At Wake Forest University, Lina Benabdallah teaches politics and international relations as an assistant professor. “Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations” is one of her works.