Home / Articles / The Biden Administration’s New Africa Policy
Imagine you’ve just been confirmed to be the US ambassador to a small country in Africa. However, before departing to take up your assignment, you learn that the administration doesn’t yet have an official policy for that country.
For the first year and a half of the current administration, this was precisely the predicament for American ambassadors and diplomats in Africa. The bureaucratic process that churns out the government’s official policy for countries and regions had not come to a decision on the US policy goals for a continent with fifty-four countries and over one billion people. While junior US diplomats might not have noticed as they carried out their day-to-day tasks, the chiefs of mission (ambassadors), who have to explain US policy to the host government and public, certainly would.
When I served as ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2012, for example, I was unable to get an official statement of our foreign policy goals for that country. As a result, I was forced to essentially develop my own during a time when the Zimbabwean government and economy was in flux and bilateral relations were tense, at best. For three years I felt like General Halftrack at Camp Swampy in the Beetle Bailey comic strip waiting for a letter from the Pentagon that never came.
This might seem like a trivial matter to a layperson, but having an unequivocal policy position is critical to an ambassador who is responsible for managing relations between his country and the host country. It’s necessary to ensure coordinated activities of the many agencies that form the ambassador’s country team. Without a clear policy to guide them, diplomats are flying blind.
For regions of the world like Africa, unfortunately, this lack of policy instruction is often the rule rather than the exception. Africa is frequently only given high-level attention when there is a humanitarian emergency or, since 9/11, through the prism of counterterrorism. It is otherwise considered peripheral to global affairs.
In August 2022, the Biden Administration finally released its long-awaited Africa policy, “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” just four months ahead of a US-Africa Leaders Summit. The summit, according to a statement by President Joe Biden, “will demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of U.S.-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities.” While the summit will be important, it is the official written policy that the leaders of Africa will be paying closer attention to in the first instance, and the actions on the ground in furtherance of the strategy that will shape their views at the end of the day.
What’s the Strategy?
On paper, at least, America’s new Africa strategy strikes the right notes—for the most part. The main objectives of the new policy are generally in line with what’s essential to the economic development of the continent: foster openness and open societies; deliver democratic and security dividends; advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition
By and large, these objectives make sense insofar as they are essential elements necessary for the effective economic development of the world’s fastest-growing, youngest continent. It puts the main emphasis on developing partnerships with the nations of Africa, something that was lacking in the previous policy, and recognizes the critical role that Africa will play in the world in the coming decades. Importantly, it signals that Africa does matter to the United States and is not a passive bystander in global affairs. It was also nice to see that this administration acknowledges the important role that the African diaspora plays in the continent’s development. One glaring omission, in my opinion, is the failure of the policy to highlight the important role that women have in Africa’s development. One would have expected at least one of the main objectives would address this issue.
It is not surprising that the policy addresses Chinese and Russian activities in Africa, even though African governments want to be engaged with on their own terms, not as geopolitical pawns among the great powers. While the actions of our two main global rivals have the potential to impact our national security, such as the rumors of Chinese efforts to establish a naval base on Africa’s west coast, or the actions of Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries, the United States must seek collaborative rather than unilateral ways to deal with them.
Actions Will Speak Louder than Words
It will be the actions of the administration, though, that will ultimately determine whether this new policy is effective. In order to overcome decades of feelings on the part of Africans that they have been overlooked by Washington, there will have to be concrete steps on the ground.
The perennial understaffing of American embassies in Africa will have to be seriously addressed. The administration must also consider the impact that the failure to appoint an ambassador has on relations with a country. As of August 24, 2022, according to tracking by the American Foreign Service Association, the United States has no ambassador in fourteen of Africa’s fifty-four countries. While relations with some of these, such as Eritrea, are strained, the lack of even a nominee to countries like Egypt and Nigeria makes little sense and tends to undercut the administration’s message of an “enduring commitment to Africa.”
The Africa strategy was drafted by the National Security Council staff but was only approved after what had to be an exhaustive interagency coordination process. It is, therefore, the result of compromise, so it’s unlikely that everyone involved in the process got everything they wanted. Many in Africa are concerned that the United States will push their interests to the side as Washington seeks to contain China and Russia, and undercut their activities on the continent. While many Africans must understand that a country’s foreign policy addresses its primary interests first, it is incumbent upon the United States to honor its words and deal with African countries as partners in advancing mutual interests.
Africa Is Now at the Center of America’s Africa Strategy
Unlike the previous administration’s Africa policy, which was frankly dismissive of Africa, the new strategy is Afrocentric. The previous policy mentioned China and Russia a dozen times and never named one African country, an omission that wasn’t lost on African leaders and the general public. The current document mentions African nations, large and small, and addresses issues that have a direct and significant impact on the future development of a continent that by 2050 will have 25 percent of the world’s population and is one of the largest United Nations voting groups.
The administration recognizes and highlights the fact that Africa does matter to the United States, and is not just a bystander in global affairs. The policy stresses the need for a change in the way the US government works with Africa and Africans, even those nations with whom it has disagreements. Most notable to me, though, is that the current policy gives a prominent role to the African diaspora, including both African-Americans who are descended from African slaves and recent African immigrants who are among the most affluent and well educated communities in the United States.
While not quite the “pivot to Africa” suggested by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen, it represents a sea change in tone alone.
The Biden administration takes into account the significance of Africa’s demographics, the average age of the population, rate of population growth and urbanization, and its critical role in climate change and future pandemic mitigation. Moreover, the new strategy embraces the need to revitalize trade ties with the continent, not just for Africa’s economic development, but for US prosperity.
There is in the policy, of course, reference to the pervasive and sometimes counterproductive presence of China and the malign activities of Russia in Africa, as well as the desire to see Africa take a more active role in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both issues are a bitter pill for many on the continent to swallow—many African countries have longstanding ties with Russia and more importantly with China, and they are understandably concerned about alienating countries to which they are so financially indebted. In the UN General Assembly vote to censure Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, for instance, only Eritrea voted against it. Over half (twenty-eight) voted in favor and a third (seventeen) abstained. Eight of the fifty-four African members of the General Assembly abstained from voting. Nevertheless, Africans should understand that these issues are part of the global reality that US policymakers have to come to terms with. The key to influencing African countries to America’s way of thinking, or some of them at any rate, however, is not to take a patronizing attitude, but to make America a consistently reliable partner in Africa’s development and, in effect, make a better offer than either of our rivals.
The Devil’s in the (Details) Doing
The Africa policy is a welcome document that says what needs to be said, including acknowledging the need for the United States to address some of its own problems that complicate relations with the nations of Africa. But, at the end of the day, it is deeds—not words—that will make the difference.
The administration must now put some flesh on the skeleton that is the new Africa policy. Embassies and ambassadors must be directed and empowered to engage across a wide spectrum of communities on the continent, including some with whom America has significant disagreements, such as Zimbabwe and Mali, and spend as much time listening to the Africans as talking to them. The United States should ensure that its embassies on the continent are adequately and competently staffed, and that ambassadors are given the authority to truly be the “ones in charge” of US policy in their countries of assignment. While most of the American embassies in Africa have an ambassador either assigned or in the confirmation process, the pace of such assignments was far slower than it should have been.
All three foreign policy tools—diplomacy, development, and defense—should be employed to achieve our foreign policy and security aims. The presence of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda linked extremist groups in Africa will require continued involvement of the US military, but defense actions must be combined with actions to address the root causes of extremism. Counterterrorism operations, especially over-the-horizon drone operations, should be coordinated with the embassies in the countries involved to avoid creating friction between and among countries or undercutting long-term foreign policy interests.
A Missing Element
While the administration policy is a welcome change, one important element seems to be missing. Insufficient attention was given to the role of women in Africa’s development, or the need to address issues that impact women and girls more than any other group. While it’s possible that these concerns can and will be addressed under any or all of the policy goals outlined in the policy, it seems shortsighted, or perhaps an oversight, to not address the status of women specifically and significantly.
One hopes that this is a living document that will be adapted and modified to fit changes in circumstances. For now, we will have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
The views 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 well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.