Biden, democracy, global governance, and Africa’s perspectives
The change and continuity framework
Since the inauguration of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration in January 2021, Africa-US relations have been reset to pre-Donald Trump levels of engagement. What does this mean for Africa-US relations from the point of view of democracy, human rights, and governance? A germane framework for analysing relations is that of continuity and change in America’s policy towards Africa. This framework is applicable across democracy, human rights, and governance themes.
The ‘America must lead’ agenda
Although the Biden administration is only six months into its four-year term, several developments have taken shape that will have an impact on global governance. Many of these take the form of reversing Trump-era policies. In reversing Trump’s policies at home and abroad, Biden campaigned on the platform of ‘Build Back Better’ and in terms of foreign policy, the platform of ‘America Must Lead Again’. In February 2021 he made a policy speech that gave the Build Back Better agenda a foreign policy interpretation. “I want the world to hear today: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy,”[i] he said in a speech that set the tone of his foreign policy posture. His comments primed the promotion of democracy as a major foreign policy agenda of his administration. Thus, ‘Build Back Better’, ‘America is Back’ and ‘America Must Lead Again’ represent a change from the Trump era and continuation of previous administrations’ approaches, with democracy, human rights, and governance at the core.
The multilateralism of the ‘America is back’ agenda
On his first day in office on 20 January 2021, Biden signed executive orders[ii] reversing many of former president Donald Trump’s actions. These included the US’s re-joining the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change, returning the US to good relations with the United Nations system.
Biden also signed five interrelated orders reversing Trump’s anti-immigration policies. These are the inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the US census; affirmation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy that shielded immigrants from being deported; revocation of a ban on visa issuance for citizens from Muslim countries from entering the US, stopping the power of immigration officials from detaining immigrants with separate orders to stop a special arrangement for long-stay Liberians who have lived in the US for long. More actions that boost multilateralism in global governance have followed.
This is a clear case of change from the 2016 to 2020 period, when Trump instituted anti-multilateralism and isolationist policies under the ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ mantras.
On multilateral governance, the Biden administration is good for Africa on several fronts. As the continent with the world’s biggest socio-economic challenges, Africa needs and favours multilateralism, particularly through global governance in the United Nations systems. Indeed, the world, Africa included, faces challenges that cannot be fully addressed by one nation. They require global solidarity, with Africa fully included. In a broad sense, therefore, Biden’s pivot back to the pre-Trump foreign policies will give Africa an opportunity to be more involved in global governance if African leaders seize their chance.
The democracy promotion agenda
Unlike the neglect of Africa during the Trump administration, Biden has engaged with African leaders, examples being the calls he made to African leaders in January after taking office. In February he addressed the African Union Summit, urging African leaders to be “committed to investing in democratic institutions and promoting human rights of all people: women and girls, LGBTQ individuals … people of every ethnic background, religion and heritage”[iii]. During Biden’s ‘America is Back’ speech, referred to above, he said: “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” Biden’s re-embracing Africa on the basis of democratic ideals is a case of change from the downgrading of engagements under the Trump administration.
Biden’s elevation of engagements with Africa comes with a proclivity towards promoting democracy, a case of a return to the values and norms at the core of the Obama-era engagement with Africa. If Trump’s hands-off approach, coupled with similarity in traits with African strongmen[iv], gave leaders on the continent the leeway to engage in undemocratic practices without facing US consequences, Biden’s reset of relations comes with a return to America’s decades-long democracy promotion as part and parcel of engagements. Indeed, one of the key global democracy promotion strategies that the Biden administration is working on, as promised during the 2020 campaign, is a democracy summit. African countries seeking good relations with the US will have to align with democratic principles, particularly accountability, inclusiveness, openness, human rights, and the rule of law.
Domestic and foreign policy linkages
Critics of the US have pointed out that the country needs to introspect on the challenges at home before proselytising to the rest of the world. The insurrection in Washington DC in January 2021 and strained race relations are but two examples of America’s democratic deficits. However, during the 2020 campaigns, the Biden campaign team propounded the message that “policies at home and abroad are deeply connected”, with renewing democracy as the cornerstone of the campaign. Accordingly, the Biden campaign pledged to host a global democracy summit[v], which seems to have been postponed to 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic. This suggests that African countries labelled as autocratic will not only miss out on the summit, but this will also come with their exclusion from America’s economic policies, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and Prosper Africa. The US has in the past been known to bundle human rights together with economic policies and governance.
If the proposed democracy summit lives up to its billing as an international democratic norms and values-setting event, the mere absence of some African leaders could lead to African countries that are absent from the event being labelled pariah states. This would mean support for developmental initiatives could dry up in a situation where many African countries have not mustered the capacity to raise developmental resources internally.
§ An option for countries that may be targeted by the US for poor democratic and human rights records is to embrace China. It has been noted that African countries often look to the US for democracy, human rights, and governance, and to China for economic engagements. These two are linked and if the US does not step-up economic engagements, then its democracy agenda on the continent will fail.
§ Back to a prominent role of civil society organisations on matters such as abortion and LGBTQI issues
§ The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was a diplomat in Rwanda, an ambassador to Liberia, and assistant secretary of state for Africa. Thomas-Greenfield’s position provides opportunities for enhanced African participation in UN governance that is beneficial to the continent.
§ Universal values and norms are often conflated with American values. Does Africa have its own governance values separate from the US?
Note: This article is based on a presentation during a virtual conference on US-Africa relations held on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 by the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (Lagos), the Centre for Inter-African and Development Studies (Abuja), and the African Centre for the Study of the US (ACSUS, Johannesburg).
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACSUS.
[i] White House. 2021. Remarks by President Joe Biden on America’s Place in the World, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/remarks-by-president-biden-on-americas-place-in-the-world/
[ii] Whitehouse. 2021. Presidential Actions, White House, available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/
[iii] See Africa: Biden’s Message Ahead of African Union Summit, available at: https://allafrica.com/stories/202102060074.html
[iv] Stremlau, J. 2018. Why Donald Trump’s leadership traits resonate negatively in Africa, available at: https://www.africaportal.org/features/why-donald-trumps-leadership-traits-resonate-negatively-africa/