Africa: U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit – First Test for New U.S. Strategy

Johannesburg — The Biden administration’s foreign policy towards Africa took definitive shape in August when Secretary of State Anthony Blinken unveiled the U.S Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. “Longstanding approaches have become insufficient to meet new challenges in a more contested and competitive world,” the 17-page White House policy document says.

The new strategy will be tested during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit scheduled for December 13-15 in Washington, DC. What, therefore, are the test points as the U.S. moves from a strategy reset toward Africa, to policy actions and implementation?

New foreign policy strategies are occasions for both change and continuity. A major shift in the new U.S. approach is its tone. In proposing to “elevate the U.S. African partnership”, the new strategy states that it will “broaden our vision of and expectations for senior level engagements, treating meetings with African counterparts as opportunities to advance outcomes favourable to U.S. … Even when we have disagreements, we will lean in, agree to meet, and address differences head-on.”

>> What criteria will be used to decide which African leaders receive invitations invited to the Washington Summit?

This and similar statements in the strategy speak to the long-running criticism about an ostensible dictatorial, even disrespectful attitude by Washington towards African countries, particularly its leaders. Here is the catch. Will the U.S. invite all African leaders to the Summit, even those it fundamentally disagrees with on matters of democratic, governance and human rights abuses? This is an important consideration because matters of democracy, governance and human rights constitute firm foundations of American society – the areas of policy continuity.

For instance, will leaders who do not meet the requirements of policies such as the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption be invited to the December conclave? Will leaders be invited even if they have emasculated rule of law tenets and severely abused human rights? Will leaders be invited even if they have taken clearly anti-LGBTQI+ positions in their countries? Based on these issues alone, most African leaders would not meet an invitation criterion.

Notably, the question of who to invite is a paradoxical one. During the virtual Summit for Democracy in December 2021, it was understood that many African leaders were left out because they did not meet democratic credentials. But in some quarters, this was deemed a mistake as it denied the U.S. an opportunity to “disagree” but still nudge and persuade despotic leaders towards democratic ideals.

Leaders versus civil society

In aiming to “Foster Openness and Open Societies” such as transparency and accountability, the strategy seeks to work with and support civil society organizations. Granted, “openness” means the involvement of both governments and civil society writ large. But, in a situation where leaders and civil society do not see eye to eye in many African countries, bringing them together is like mixing oil and water. Invitation of democracy crusaders would greatly offend the same authoritarian regimes that the U.S. seeks to constructively engage with.

Very few African leaders would welcome sharing the Summit with the same activists they battle with at home. How therefore will the U.S. navigate – specifically during the Summit – the chasm between engaging with leaders known to be anti-democratic while at the same time working with pro-democracy organizations?

To stem, the tide of “democratic backsliding and human rights abuses”, the strategy proposes “a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions”. The challenge with this carrots-and-sticks approach is that some of the African leaders would arrive in Washington for the Summit with an eye on the goodies but wary of punishment lurking in the shadows. Some of the leaders would be ready to bolt from the U.S. universe at the slightest hint of punitive measures against them. But bolt to where? Well, the very Russia and China that the U.S. is trying to persuade Africans against. This brings things full circle. The U.S. is trying to woo African back to its fold. But the use of hard power meets perceived soft power from Russia and China. Just how such a paradoxical situation will be navigated during the Summit is dicey.

Should military rulers be invited?

Large swathes of the strategy “seek to stem the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers.” This is potentially one of the most complex agenda items that U.S. strategists would have to think through us they plan the Summit.

First, should leaders who have recently grabbed power militarily be invited or not? To an earlier point, failure to invite such leaders would be construed as cherry picking and not following through with the idea of engaging with leaders even when the U.S. disagrees with them. At the same time, inviting such leaders would be tantamount to mollycoddling leaders who flout rule of law ideology that guides American politics at home and abroad.

Secondly, military coups are linked to intricate webs of other issues: authoritarianism, bad governance, poor delivery of public goods, climate change and its multiple woes, violent extremism and resultant terrorism, and others. Unpacking and determining cause and effect in these respects is a herculean task. Somewhat pared down counterterrorism strategies with an emphasis on “non-kinetic approaches” feature in the strategy. However, many have argued that trade and investments is a better proposition to on the road a more tranquil Africa because poverty is the key cause of insecurity.

Economics versus trade

Just which trade and investment propositions will the U.S. be placing on the Summit table as an antidote the scourge of military coups and indeed other concerns? And to what extent will the pre-Summit planning factor in indigenous thoughts on how to tackle this maze of a problem?

The pledge “to support the region’s economic recovery” will, likely, draw the most attention from African delegations. However, African leaders will be asking themselves several questions. Will the U.S. demand that African countries avoid accumulating unsustainable especially from China? If so, is the U.S. prepared to offer better terms for loans to plug budgetary shortfalls? If the U.S. does not have compelling responses to these questions, then African leaders are likely to listen politely and return home to pile up debt.

As the analysis above implies, political issues will test the relationship the U.S. looks to craft at the Summit. The U.S. positions democratic values at the core of its foreign policy approaches. Economic relations are however less fractious – even though they are tied to political superstructure.

This raises the question: Wouldn’t be more strategic for the U.S. to begin with economic propositions and then woo African leaders towards its political ideals as a follow up? Few African leaders would for instance disagree with the sub sections of the strategy labelled “Strengthen Trade and Commercial Relations”, which provide pathways for investments in multiple sectors.

Indeed, African leaders will arrive the Summit very keen to understand the form and shape that African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) will take after its 2025 expiry and how it’s successor will fit into the African Continental Free Trade Area.

One of the economic avenues presented in the new strategy is the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), a joint initiative of the G7 nations, through the U.S. “to deliver game-changing projects” particularly infrastructure ones. Since its launch in June 2022, the PGII has been seen as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The question uppermost in African leaders’ minds will be: How compelling will PGII compared to China’s Belt and Road Initiative? Does the PGII offer better terms for infrastructure development in both quantitative and qualitative terms?

Small versus big African states

The strategy rightly seeks to “broaden […] engagements, continuing to invest in the largest states while also deepening our relations with small and medium African states.” But this would be a tricky balancing act. Save for a few countries such as Rwanda and Seychelles, most of the small countries do not have the requisite weight to pursue the regionwide goals that the strategy that the U.S. is putting in place in the first place.

Additionally, the leaders of the regional powers such as Nigeria in western Africa, South Africa in eastern Africa, Egypt and Morocco in northern Africa and Kenya in eastern Africa, would arrive at the Summit cautious of what the balancing act between big, medium, and small means for their own interests.

A better proposition would be for the Summit organizers to latch onto the continental blueprint, the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Notably, Agenda 2063 features only in passing in the new strategy. Strictly speaking, the US doesn’t have to latch on the A2063. But it would be strategic to do so as it would help to get the buy in of African leaders on a symbolic, Pan-African level. Indeed, the strategy comes close to recognizing the problem of “the artificial bureaucratic division between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa” even as the strategy is exclusively for Sub-Saharan African Africa to the exclusion of North Africa. In nearly the same vein, “seizing opportunities to support promising democratic openings” in places such as Zambia and Malawi, is a good approach but the downside is that this may draw antipathy from entrenched dictatorships.