US Africa Policy, A Response

This is a guest post by friend of the blog Matthew Kustenbauder responding to a previous post.

On the question of human rights guiding America’s foreign policy in Africa, I agree with you; it shouldn’t be the first priority. The US needs a more pragmatic development diplomacy strategy, which would help African countries develop just as it would help American businesses thrive.

But I disagree with your characterization of Hillary’s position in this respect. Here’s Secretary Clinton’s own words:
“Last year I laid out America’s economic statecraft agenda in a series of speeches in Washington, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and New York. Since then, we’ve accelerated the process of updating our foreign policy priorities to take economics more into account. And that includes emphasizing the Asia Pacific region and elevating economics in relations with other regions, like in Latin America, for example, the destination for 40 percent of U.S. exports. We have ratified free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. We are welcoming more of our neighbours, including Canada and Mexico, into the Trans-Pacific Partnership process. And we think it’s imperative that we continue to build an economic relationship that covers the entire hemisphere for the future.” 
“Africa is home to seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. People are often surprised when I say that, but it’s true. And we are approaching Africa as a continent of opportunity and a place for growth, not just a site of endless conflict and crisis. All over the world, we are turning to economic solutions for strategic challenges; for example, using new financial tools to squeeze Iran’s nuclear program. And we’re stepping up commercial diplomacy, what I like to call jobs diplomacy, to boost U.S. exports, open new markets, lower the playing field – level the playing field for our businesses. And we’re building the diplomatic capacity to execute this agenda so that our diplomats are out there every single day promoting our economic agenda.” 

One of the problems, however, is that the pragmatic approach articulated by the Secretary doesn’t trickle down through the bureaucracy. This is especially true, ironically, of the State Department’s primary development diplomacy arm, USAID, which has a deeply entrenched culture of being anti-business. It’s a huge problem, and part of the reason why American foreign policy in Africa has been so slow to adjust to new economic realities.

Security drives US Africa Policy

Security drives US Africa Policy

Academics schooled in all the latest development orthodoxies but lacking the most basic understanding of economic or business history have flocked to USAID, so that the suggestion that American economic interests should guide development policy – making it a win-win for Africa and America – is anathema. It’s also why the Chinese are running all over the US in Africa.

As a prominent economic historian recently remarked in the Telegraph, “While we [Western governments] indulge our Victorian urge to give alms to the Africans, Beijing is pumping black gold.” And this is just it. As long as the US approaches Africa as a beggar needing to be saved and not as a business partner worthy of attention, both sides will continue to lose out.

In this respect, what Africa does not need is another “old Africa hand” steeped in conventional development ideas and old dogmas about what’s wrong with Africa and why the US must atone for the West’s sins. For this reason alone, John Kerry – not Susan Rice – probably stands a better chance, as the next Secretary of State, at putting American foreign policy toward Africa on a more solid footing.

- Matthew Kustenbauder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

Kerry or Rice? The View From Africa

The window is closing fast on the chances of having an Africanist as US Secretary of State (Minister of Foreign Affairs). Republicans in the US Congress, human rights activists and a section of Africanists have come out in opposition to Ambassador Susan Rice. Republicans insist that she lied to Americans about the real masterminds of the attack on the US embassy in Libya that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador. The Africanists and human rights activists are not enthused by Ms Rice’s cozy relationship with the regimes of Paul Kagame of Rwanda and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. A section of African elites (the elitist sovereignty crowd) may also be wary of her support for interventionism on humanitarian grounds.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

As things stand Pres. Obama might be forced to choose Sen. John Kerry over Ms Rice in order to avoid an unnecessary war with a section of Congress at a time when everyone and their dogs and cats should be worrying about the fiscal cliff.

John Kerry would not be a terrible choice. His past focus on drug trafficking in Latin America, free trade agreements and climate change would make him useful to Africa.

As I have written before, Africa is increasingly becoming a transit point for drugs from Asia and Latin America destined for the European market. Africa also needs more trade with the US beyond AGOA. And climate change will probably affect Africans the most since the vast majority of them depend on rain-fed agriculture and live under conditions that can least withstand natural disasters. But Kerry is not an Africa expert and has done little on the region beyond his support for the South Sudanese cause. This makes it hard to see how he will connect his global focus on these important issues to the African context.

Susan Rice on the other hand has studied Africa and has in the past shown a pragmatism that you want in the top US diplomat. Plus it helps that Ms Rice would have Obama’s ear as she is reported to be very close to the president. She has had successes at the UNSC, the highlight of which was the intervention in Libya to stop Gaddafi from butchering civilians in Benghazi. Rice is a smart straight-talker whose undiplomatic streaks can be a plus in a region full of under-achieving strongmen.

For a very long time Foggy Bottom has seen Africa through a humanitarian lens. Even Hillary Clinton, with all her awesomeness, has done little in new initiatives for Africa beyond human rights issues and a campaign that involved providing cameras for rape victims in eastern DRC. These are not unimportant issues. I am not saying that human rights catastrophes in Africa should be ignored. Just that this should not be a secretary of state’s pet project for the entire the region.

In my opinion Ms Rice’s biggest plus is that she gets one of Africa’s biggest challenges: state incapacity.

It would be nice to have a US secretary of state who takes state capacity development in the region as her pet project (and has the guts to at times subordinate democracy promotion to this project). Her praise of Kagame and Zenawi (no doubt both rabid and at times murderous autocrats) was centred around this very same idea (and to be honest, the ghosts of Rwanda circa 1994). Democracy promotion is a noble cause. But it must be done with a sober mind. The last thing you want is a procrustean approach to the promotion of rights, freedoms and liberties like we have seen in the past.

(Just for the record, I am pro-democracy and have criticized the likes of Kagame here and here, among other forums).

Anyone who reads the development reports side by side with the human rights reports from Rwanda and Ethiopia must be conflicted. I have talked to a senior opposition figure from Ethiopia who told me that she thinks the biggest challenge to fighting Meles Zenawi (at the time) is that “people see the dams and the roads.” It is hard to ignore revealed competence. I would hazard to guess that most people would rather live in autocratic Singapore than democratic Malawi. Yes, it is not an either/or argument with these regimes. All I am saying is that interventionism has to be constructive and not lead to the rolling back of hard fought gains against disease, illiteracy and poverty in these states.

As I opined following Obama’s reelection, I think that security will be at the top of the US Africa policy, of course dressed up in rhetoric about democracy and human rights. John Kerry will handle that on auto pilot. His focus will be on the Middle East and South Asia. It would have been better to have an Africanist at the helm who understands more about the continent and could sneak in a few policy agendas here and there that could make a difference on the ground. An aggressive focus on state capacity development could have been one of those policies.

This is a missed opportunity for Africa. For the first time in history Africa had a chance to have the number one American diplomat be a person who is an expert on a section of the region (Ms Rice wrote a thesis on Zimbabwe). Her defense of a couple of African autocrats aside, I think Ms Rice would have been better for Africa than John Kerry – who in all likelihood will focus on the Middle East and South Asia and continue Sub-Saharan Africa’s designation to the “humanitarianism column.”

What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.