On Africa-US Relations, Biden Is Kinder but not Transformative

Joe Biden began his presidency with a great deal of goodwill from the international community. His foreign policy platform promised to undo the tense relationships former President Donald Trump’s administration often had with its allies and partners, including those in Africa. However, Biden’s approach toward the continent thus far shows that a willingness to reset relations does not presage a fundamental shift in U.S. Africa policy. Given the rising challenges of Chinese and Russian influence across the continent and the metastasizing threat of terrorism, simply restoring the cordial yet detached Africa policy of pre-Trump administrations may not be enough.

The Trump administration’s legacy in Africa was shaped by rhetorical hostility and a series of policy missteps. Trump himself offended many on the continent when he invented the nation of “Nambia,” and, more seriously, when he reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” His wife Melania’s decision to tour the continent in a colonial-style pith helmet did little to endear the administration to Africans. The administration’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, some in Africa, was also a point of tension, forcing the president to revise the list and ultimately remove Chad altogether to preserve security cooperation with that country in the fight against the Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram. 

Trump’s efforts in the latter half of his presidency included a semi-successful initiative called “Prosper Africa,” aimed at countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and a belated Africa strategy presented by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton. But these efforts did little to alter the downward trajectory of U.S.-Africa relations.

Since taking office in January, Biden has sought to repair relations with African countries and focus on humanitarian issues. One of his first actions as president was rescinding Trump’s travel ban. And in February, Biden delivered a speech virtually at the 2021 African Union summit, his first address to an international organization. The administration also ended Trump-era opposition to appointing Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian economist and former finance minister, to head the World Trade Organization—the first African to do so. Lastly Biden’s State Department has been more assertive on human rights issues across the continent, most notably Ethiopia’s conduct in Tigray, as well as abuses in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Egypt. 

There has also been some continuity from the Trump era. In late July, Dana Banks, Biden’s senior director for Africa on the National Security Council, gave a speech resurrecting Trump’s “Prosper Africa” initiative, saying the revamped effort would be the “centerpiece for U.S. economic and commercial engagement with Africa.” The program promises to connect African and U.S. businesses to spur private sector engagement and trade. The administration requested $80 million from Congress to support the effort—$5 million more than Trump’s 2020 funding request.

By failing to break the mold on Africa policy, Biden is missing opportunities to fulfill his broader strategic agenda.

Ultimately though, despite the new tone from Biden’s administration and the welcome departure from Trump’s damaging rhetoric, his Africa policy is old wine in a new bottle. The continent remains at the periphery of U.S. policymakers’ attention. In the Foreign Affairs article Biden wrote as a presidential candidate in March 2020, in which he laid out his foreign policy vision, Africa is only mentioned once. And $80 million in support of a Trump-era initiative is insufficient to get the most out of America’s trade relations with 53 separate countries that averaged 3.5 percent GDP growth over the past decade. Similarly, the administration’s deployment of military advisers to support Mozambique’s fight against ISIS-aligned militants in the northern Cabo Delgado province is entirely in line with previous U.S. administrations’ superficial and reactive approach to security assistance on the continent. 

By failing to break the mold on Africa policy, Biden is missing opportunities to fulfill his broader strategic agenda. Stopping the spread of COVID-19 and reducing carbon emissions are huge priorities for Biden and issues where the administration can find common ground with African governments. Greater economic engagement with African countries would also give the administration opportunities to pursue great power competition with China and Russia, without making it the central focus of U.S. Africa policy. 

While America’s trade with Africa as a whole fell by 50 percent over the past decade, China has steadily expanded its commercial and investment ties on the continent. Beijing’s volume of trade with African countries is four times higher than Washington’s. With Chinese investment comes Chinese influence, both in terms of securing access to rare earth mineral deposits on the continent, needed to manufacture electronics and high-tech military equipment, and a growing number of state-aligned security contractors to support the estimated 2 million Chinese expats working in Africa. 

Russia has also expanded its influence, albeit with significantly less economic investment. Putin held a Russia-Africa summit in 2019, and Russian private military contractors have been involved in several conflicts across the continent. If the Biden administration is serious about focusing on great power competition, presenting the U.S. as a competitive and trustworthy partner for African countries is a relatively painless way to do so.

At the same time, violent extremist groups are expanding in many parts of the continent, including the Sahel, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, fomenting violence that could impede the administration’s broader humanitarian agenda. But framing this issue simply as one of counterterrorism—as previous administrations have done—would limit the Biden administration’s ability to address the social and economic roots of the violence. In some cases, a focus on security assistance for African countries could also work against Biden’s human rights agenda: Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian troops fighting Boko Haram and other terrorist groups have been accused of human rights abuses, for example, and many of them have received U.S. training. As long as the U.S. strengthens the tools that oppressive regimes use to remain in power, it will struggle to push for recipients of U.S. security assistance to improve governance and democratize at the same time.

Biden entered office with promises to restore dignity and civility to U.S. foreign policy, but fixing its approach to Africa will require more than kinder rhetoric. Maintaining the predominant view in Washington, which holds that Africa is marginal in global affairs, could stymie Biden’s broader agenda. Given that substantive engagement would lay the groundwork for strong commercial partnerships with Africa’s growing economies and help counter great power rivals, it would be an unfortunate opportunity to miss.

Marcel Plichta is a doctoral candidate in
international relations at the University of St. Andrews and a former
analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He has previously written on
sub-Saharan African security issues and U.S.-Africa policy for Defense
One and Geopolitical Monitor. All views expressed are his own.

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