WASHINGTON D.C. — The world has colossal expectations for incoming President Barack Obama and for changes in U.S. foreign policy. However, the new administration’s approach to Africa will almost certainly be marked more by continuity than change. And that’s good news for Africa — and America.
Policy continuity is likely because the fundamental interests of the United States in Africa remain the same, regardless of the party in power. American interests are to support African initiatives to end conflict and fight terrorism, to address the continent’s enormous health challenges and to expand democracy and economic opportunity. These interests are broad and, if anything, growing in importance to American security and prosperity.
But the principal reason not to expect radical new directions from the Obama team is that President George Bush is leaving behind a strong Africa legacy. To the surprise of many, Bush elevated Africa within the U.S. foreign policy arena. Rather than shy away from the continent’s problems, he launched several major new initiatives that recognized Africa’s significance to America. The aid budget to Africa more than tripled on his watch and the pipeline has been sufficiently filled to put the U.S. well on its way to meet President Bush’s pledge to double aid to Africa again by 2010.
More significant than the money, however, have been new innovations. The President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) are only the most prominent of a multitude of new-style foreign aid programs that also include new ways to combat malaria, promote education and tackle neglected tropical diseases.
Other American investments in Africa include training 40,000 peacekeepers, providing 100% debt relief for the poorest countries and helping to promote economic growth by catalyzing more than a dozen new Africa-focused private equity funds.
In an era where every U.S. government building is a potential terrorist target (and the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania showed that Africa is a key battleground ), the United States opted not to withdraw but rather to build bigger and stronger embassies across Africa—a visible signal of America’s long-term commitment.
In fact, the past eight years have been game-changing for US-Africa relations. A decade ago, Washington was still arguing about whether foreign aid was a waste or not and whether the U.S. had any real interests in Africa. Today, the discussion is about how to innovate, build partnerships, and fix our aid system. It is thus no coincidence that the United States continues to be more popular in Africa than anywhere else.
All this gives President Obama a strong foundation for his Africa policy. Yet the challenges going forward are nonetheless enormous. Here are five things Obama’s Africa team will have to do:
Maintain aid levels. The current economic climate will inevitably put pressure on the budget, and foreign assistance has traditionally been one of the first things cut during a downturn. Obama pledged during the campaign to double foreign aid again, but just holding the line on existing commitments will be a battle. The team will also have to be on guard to prevent U.S. engagement being whittled down to just health and counter-terrorism, two areas that are politically popular but do not alone add up to a robust foreign policy.
Rebuild relationships with regional powers. The United States has strong partnerships with many countries, such as Ghana, Mali, Kenya, and Botswana. But relations with some of the heavyweights have been fraught, especially South Africa. New leadership in both Pretoria and Washington provides an opportunity to mend fences. The Obama team will have to reach out to South Africa but Pretoria will have to respond and exert responsible leadership in the region.
Algeria and Nigeria are other critical partners who should be closer to the U.S. than they currently are. Algeria faces a very real terrorist threat at home and shares American concerns about the spread of extremism in the region. Nigeria faces a different kind of internal threat, one of its own corruption eroding the government’s ability to play the role of regional power broker and bulwark against transnational threats.
Bring new energy to lingering crises. Although seven African conflicts ended during the Bush administration, there are still hotspots. The ripest opportunity for resolution may be Zimbabwe. Obama is certain to continue to squeeze Mugabe and has already threatened to take new actions if the dictator clings to power much longer. A high priority for the new Africa team should be galvanizing new international and regional pressure, along with planning for Zimbabwe’s inevitable transition back to democracy.
Several top Obama advisers have been prominent activists on Darfur and vocal in urging a more aggressive posture towards Sudan. Although practical options are limited, they will have the chance to both push for a political settlement in Darfur and reinvigorate efforts to hold together the north-south peace agreement. Both Somalia and eastern Congo will remain complex and intractable, but neither can be ignored.
Be selectively multilateral. The Obama team will want to prove early on that it is a team player on the world stage, but the lure of multilateralism can too often be a recipe for inaction. Using the United Nations and coordinating policy with European friends is often necessary, but sometimes exerting a little American power is a much more effective option. America’s traditional allies are not always the most influential players in Africa. The new team should not be reticent to engage with China, India, and others on Africa policy.
Manage outsized expectations. Africans are rightly proud of Obama’s links to the continent and that the most powerful person on the planet has a Kenyan father. Yet there are severe limits as to what an American president can, or should, do to help Africa. Keeping those expectations in check will be an ongoing endeavor, but some tough love early on can set the right tone.
The United States remains the sole global superpower and Africa will continue to look to America for closer partnership. An Africa policy that reflects U.S. global interests and responds to the dangers and opportunities of today’s world is not only necessary, but unavoidable.
Todd Moss is Senior Fellow and Director of the Emerging Africa Project at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. He recently served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa in the State Department and is the author of African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors (Lynne Rienner, 2007).