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Foreign Policy

Does the US-Africa Leaders Summit Reflect a Shift in America’s Strategic Thinking?

Aug 29 , 2014

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington D.C. from August 4-6. Leaders from fifty African states attended the three-day summit, which was the first time in American diplomatic history. The summit’s theme, “Investing in the Next Generation,” covered a wide range of issues including trade, investment, security, public health and youth training. The summit launched a new version of the U.S. -Africa cooperative plan on trade and security. It is more active in training African “young leaders,” which is a highlight. The summit serves as a link between past and future, as it is not only Obama’s periodic summary for his second term, but also an overall planning and outlook of future relations between the United States and Africa. 

Results of the summit reflected the shift of American strategic thinking to Africa. Firstly, U.S.-Africa relations are at the service of the American economy and the rebirth of manufacturing. In the three-day summit, the issue of economic and trade accounted for two days. During the summit, President Obama stressed the importance of African markets to America several times. He stated that six African countries appeared on the list of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies, and he believes that the next economic miracle will appear in Africa. The summit put forth the goal that the U.S. and Africa should become economic partners of “equality and cooperation,” as the United States strives to eliminate African trade barriers for American goods and investments and accelerates the development of bilateral trade. 

Secondly, U.S.-Africa relations are at the service of reducing U.S. military intervention and security burdens overseas. The summit indicates that the method of security cooperation between the U.S. and Africa may coincide with the crux of President Obama’s speech at West Point. The United States will increase peacekeeping aid to Africa and support African regional organizations playing a bigger role in security issues, which indicates that the U.S. would not be directly involved in African conflicts, but hopes that African countries and regional organizations could solve these questions by themselves. The U.S. emphasized that African development and security depend on its own capacity building, and the U.S. would only provides training, funding and equipment while leaving military actions to Africa. 

Thirdly, America pays more attention to investing in Africa’s future by using soft power. Figures show that 60 percent of Africa’s population of one billion are under 35.  As early as 2010, the United States launched the “President’s Young African Leaders Initiative,” which is a long-term effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders and strengthen partnerships between the U.S. and Africa. It aims at training young African leaders who are friendly to America or who advocate democratic transformation. At this summit, the U.S. institutionalized the training program for African youth, which reflects its intention to shape Africa’s future using American soft power. 

The shift of American strategic thinking to Africa is caused by two factors. One is that Africa’s economy is growing faster in the world; and the other is that the emerging powers have entered into Africa faster than the U.S., leading to the relative decline of American influence in Africa. However, in general, we should understand that the Asia-Pacific is still the priority of American diplomacy. The Middle East is still the base and core interests of the American hegemony. With Europe being America’s ally, the continuous fermentation of crisis in the Ukraine makes cooperation between the U.S. and Europe even more important. The competition between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe and Central Asia make the area a core area of conflict, and its strategic importance to the United States rises. Latin America, which has always been regarded as “America’s backyard,” now becomes a rising concern for the United States as emerging powers such as China and Russia have entered into the region even faster. Under these circumstances, Africa’s strategic importance for the United States would not surpass the areas mentioned above. Thus, U.S. concerns for Africa would be reflected more in words than in deeds. One summit cannot substantially raise the strategic position of U.S.-Africa relations, nor will it bring about a significant change in America’s global strategy. 

The U.S. Africa Leaders Summit indicates that as the first black President, Barack Obama does wish that he could build a political legacy on U.S.-Africa relations. However, the influence of a summit is limited. It is hoped that this new mechanism will continue and the U.S. will earnestly care for Africa and sincerely help the continent as a whole so that the United States, together with other nations, contributes more to this continent full of hope and opportunity. 

Dong Chunling is an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of American Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Wang Lei is an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of African Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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