Africa: In U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Visit to Africa, the Need for an African Policy Framework Towards the US.

The African Centre for the Study of the United States (Johannesburg) opinion By Bob Wekesa

Johannesburg — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a tour of Africa with the announcement of the Joe Biden administration’s policy towards Africa as a highlight of visit. It is expected that the new strategy will be launched during the South African leg of Blinken’s three-nation junket that will also take his entourage to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda between August 7 and 12. In a briefing on July 29 ahead of the visit, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Molly Phee stated that “the Secretary … [will] deliver a speech announcing and describing the U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa.”

Significance of Biden’s Africa policy

Blinken’s country-specific discussions in South Africa, DRC and Rwanda are not to be waved away as unimportant. Still, the announcement of the new policy for the entire continent is the most significant development with far reaching ramifications in the immediate, medium-term, and long-term. Why is the envisaged policy so consequential?

First, it is a tradition of most American administrations to institute policy postures towards Africa, whether they are well-structured and articulated or merely ad hoc and disorderly.  The importance of these policies is that they shape relations across trade and investments, political and diplomatic engagements, assistance through various philanthropic agencies and initiatives and military relations. For African governments, civil society, businesses, and individuals, reading an American policy between the lines can, for instance provide a bellwether on where American dollars are likely to flow.

Second, it is evident that the administration of Donald Trump (2016-2020) was marked by the lowering of Africa in America’s global calculus. To be certain, the Trump administration did not entirely neglect Africa. One of the bright spots in the Trump administration’s engagement with Africa was the launch in 2018 of Prosper Africa, an interagency entity that provides a coordination mechanism for trade and investment programs. That Prosper Africa continues during the Biden era shows that something good for Africa came from the Trump administration. Nonetheless, the Trump administration did not design a comprehensive strategy, apart from random statements by then officials – such as former National Advisor John Bolton – often predicated on the need for the US to counter China and Russia in Africa. By contrast, the anticipated Biden administration framework is likely to be built around a set of prudently thought-out priorities.

Third, and related to the previous point, the last comprehensive US strategy towards Africa was made a decade ago in 2012 by the Barrack Obama administration. That policy prioritized the strengthening of democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and, promoting opportunity and development through initiatives in health, food security, climate change and others.While these issues remain relevant for Africa-US relations in 2022, it is incontestable that political, economic, security and geopolitical circumstances have shifted exponentially in the US, Africa and around the world.

The fourth point for why the new policy is important revolves around the unprecedented interest in Africa during the 2020 US election campaigns and the eventual election of Joe Biden as the 46th American president.Throughout the early months of his presidency, optimism was entertained in Africa over better relations with the then new administration. Some of the optimisms were underpinned by the appointment of personalities deemed sympathetic to African causes and interests. Space does not allow for mentioning of the hundreds of officials in the Biden administration with a track record in propagating African interests. It can however be surmised that old Africa hands such as Judd Devermont, National Security Council’s senior director for Africa; Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, and, Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, among many others, have been busy at work contributing to the formulation of the policy. It is also probable that political support for crafting the policy would have received a boost from leaders with a record of promoting African interests such as New York Congressman Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; US representative from California Karen Bass, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa; and Delaware Senator Chris Coons. The bigger point is that a US policy towards Africa cannot emerge in a vacuum but must have the stripes of officials and politicians determined to design one. What is left now is to access and analyse the policy once it is publicly accessible, possibly during Blinken’s visit.

Policy expectations

While analysts, scholars and strategists await the formal policy, there are early indications of the key aspects. At least going by Assistant Secretary Phee’s briefing in July as a primer for the visit, the policy is likely to include “democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights”, which “are longstanding US values.” On the economic front, it can be expected that the policy will include “economic prosperity”, framed in terms of the “promot(ion) [of] inclusive development”.  Assistant Secretary Phee also alluded to the possibility of the inclusion of policy direction on matters climate change.

A Biden administration’s policy towards Africa is good for the continent to the extent that it provides a framework for engagement. At the very least, such a framework can be critiqued with an eye on refining it for the future. However, a US policy towards Africa should not be mistaken for an African policy towards the US. With the US on the cusp of launching its Africa policy, African nations should equally work towards formulating their own policy agenda towards the US. I will return to the difficulties of crafting an African policy towards the US. It is however important to first grasp the value of an African policy framework towards the US.

An African Policy Towards the US

First, an African policy framework towards the US would serve as a response to US’ policy in such a way that areas of agreement are implemented, and areas of disagreements are negotiated. A basic premise is that if the US is launching a strategy towards the continent, then Africa needs to do so as well. A diligent review of the foreign policies of African countries as well as those of subregional organizations and the African Union shows that well-grounded policies towards the US and indeed other global powers are nonextant. This is a major drawback in Africa’s quest for engagement with the US.

Second, if the US has a policy framework while Africa does not, it follows that the agenda setter in the relations is one party – the US – and that Africa is on the receiving end of things. Yet, African agency in international affairs demands that Africa should be seen as an actor rather than being acted on.  Africans cannot expect Americans to develop an engagement framework for them. Americans can be magnanimous in their strategizing towards Africa, but this will always be done with the interests of the American people at the forefront.  The onus is on African leaders to strategize for their people.

Third, many asymmetries have been noted in the relations across politics, diplomacy, economics, and culture. As can be expected, Africa is on the backfooting in its relations with the US for the simple reason that the US is a global power. Yet, Africa can benefit more from the US than it currently does. If Africa looks to effectively engage with the US as a partner, then an African policy framework to help structure the relations is a necessity.

The importance of an African policy towards the US cannot be overstated. An opportunity now presents itself as the Biden administration unveils a brand-new policy. It can be expected that tons of ink will be spilled in analyzing the US policy. This is quite in order. However, a more rewarding effort on the part of Africans is to devise their own policy towards the US. The question then is: how would Africans go about designing a US policy? Responding to this question raises the conundrum of developing a policy framework that incorporates the interests of 55 nations across five regions. This complication can be overcome through a three-pronged strategy development process.

At the continental level, the policy could be led by the African Union and draw heavily on the aspirations of the Agenda 2063, the continental developmental blueprint. The African Union representative office in Washington DC would be instrumental in these regards. At the subregional level, the policy would be led by the regional economic communities in the five regions of western, southern, central, northern, and eastern Africa. At the national levels, each country would be encouraged to draw from the continental and sub regional strategies to craft US policies attuned to their national goals. The diplomatic missions of African countries in the US would play an important role in these regards.

The author is deputy director at the African Centre for the Study of the US at the University of the Witwatersrand,