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Foreign Policy

Obama’s African Policy in Dilemma

Jul 31 , 2013
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

As the least developed region, Africa has been the focus for global governance. However, in recent years, Africa’s economy has seen rapid development, especially after the financial crisis when steady economic growth in Africa attracted global attention. In 2000, The Economist described Africa as a “hopeless” continent, but this changed into a “hopeful Africa” in 2011. Actually, the impact of Africa’s rise has gone beyond the regional level and gained far-reaching global significance. For the rest of the world, Africa’s rapid development means these countries offer more investment choices, broader overseas markets. But for the United States, Africa also becomes an important region to maintain and expand its global interests.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has affirmed the importance of Africa in U.S. national strategy, and clearly defined the core U.S interests in Africa, including: (a) ensuring the security of the United States, its citizens, and allies and partners; (b) promoting democratic states that are economically vibrant and strong partners of the United States on the world stage; (c) expanding opportunities for U.S. trade and investment; (d) preventing conflict and mass atrocities; and (e) fostering broad-based, sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation. These can be generally summarized into four categories, namely security interests, political interests, economic interests and development interests.

To this end, the Obama administration has committed to enhance its efforts in four areas: (1) strengthen democratic institutions, increase assistance for responsible government efforts, while promote U.S.-Africa partnership based on shared responsibility and mutual respect; (2) expand its military presence in Africa to support African peacekeeping capacity, and attach importance to the interacting effects of military and diplomacy; (3) create a favorable trade and investment environment, support African economic self-development, while improve the awareness of U.S. companies to invest in Africa and promote US-Africa economic and trade relations; (4) strengthen public health care, ensure social justice and equality of opportunity and promote sustainable development in Africa. The United States tried to improve relations with African youth leaders, eliminate racial prejudice and discrimination against women, and closely cooperate with international/regional institutions like the United Nations, African Union.

Obviously, the Obama administration has made some adjustments on the traditional U.S. diplomacy in Africa since its first term, both in diplomatic concepts and actual policy measures. However, these adjustments haven’t brought ideal results, with the manifestation of widespread criticism from the United States and African countries, which reflects the dilemma of the United States’ African diplomacy.

The Obama administration tried to expand trade opportunities between Africa and the United States and promote U.S-Africa partnership. However, it seems the Obama administration has failed to effectively extend US-Africa trade volume, especially compared with the significant growth of China-Africa trade. In 2011, China-Africa and US-Africa trade volume reached $127.3 billion and $94.3 billion respectively. Actually, since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trade partner.

President Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of Africa and tried to develop the U.S.-Africa partnership, but so far with out concrete actions. Analysts noted that President Obama in the first term only visited one African country, Ghana, forless than 24 hours. Moreover, the U.S. has always regarded itself as the preacher of African governance, which makes U.S.-Africa relations unequal. South African President Jacob Zuma made it clear that Western countries must change their old “colonial” approach to Africa. In view of this, the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust wrote in an editorial: “Obama’s challenge is to break from that legacy and work with Africa’s leaders in a partnership of mutual trust and confidence to found an Africa united in purpose, political stability and economic progress.”

For African countries, Obama’s African diplomacy in the first term sounded beautiful, but failed to meet African countries’ expectations. First, Africa’s security situation has not improved. The Obama administration focused on using more drones, establishing secret intelligence agencies and deploying special forces to strengthen its military presence in Africa. However, these measures do not ensure African security, and even make the situation worse as terrorists establish new bases in African countries. Second, African countries do not fully agree with the Obama administration’s “prescription” for democracy building and national governance. Andrew M. Mwenda, founder of the Ugandan newspaper The Independent, has pointed out western leaders’ suggested solutions for Africa’s problems, like corruption and poor governance, are based on prejudice and stereotypes. According to Mwenda, western leaders think subjectively by “copying and pasting” the western political system and hoping it can solve all of Africa’s problems. But actually, “our problems are largely (certainly not entirely) domestically generated, as are the demands to solve them…They cannot be solved by foreign diktat.” From this perspective, Obama’s policy in Africa faces a serious “trust” crisis.

It should be noted that some African countries are still very hopeful for the future Obama’s African policy. Lindiwe Zulu, international relations adviser to President Jacob Zuma said after Obama’s victory in the U.S. election 2012: “We also hope that in the next four years Africa will occupy a higher space in his agenda.” However, efforts to restore the U.S. image, reputation and influence in Africa still have a long way to go.

Firstly, the Obama administration faces a number of international and domestic challenges, such as ending the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, reviving the U.S. economy, resetting U.S.-Russia relations, etc. These challenges are more urgent and important for US than the African issue.

Secondly, Obama’s African strategy has grand, long-term goals, but lacks maneuverability now. In other words, Obama’s policy in Africa does not fully comply with the current actual requirements of African countries. For most African countries, the desire is to strengthen infrastructure construction, promote economic development, and improve people’s livelihood.

Thirdly, the zero-sum strategic competition has been the main logic for the Obama administration, which limits the effectiveness of U.S. African policy and creates the barriers for major powers to jointly help African development. Chris Coons, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, made a comment in the report Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential: “China, which has made dramatic inroads across the continent in recent years, may undermine or even counter value-driven U.S. goals in the region…” In fact, the relationship between China and the United States in Africa is not doomed to be competitive. It can be cooperative. In many fields, such as strengthening Africa’s own capacity building, maintaining African security as well as preventing and controlling infectious diseases, there is a wide range of common interests for China and the United States to cooperate.

In late June and early July, President Obama made his first trip to Africa in the second term, visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania with the aim to reinforce U.S. commitment to expanding economic growth, investment, and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and investing in the next generation of African leaders. This can be considered the concrete actions of Obama administration to change its poor performance in African diplomacy in the first term. During his visit to South Africa, President Obama made these remarks at a joint press conference with President Zuma: “I actually welcome the attention that Africa is receiving from countries like China and Brazil, and India, and Turkey…I don’t feel threatened by it…it’s a good thing.” If that is indeed the case, it is good news for all the countries related.

Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.

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