On December 13-15, Washington DC expects 50 delegations (49 from African countries and 1 from the African Union) to come together to discuss the future of economic relations and development. This is the second such summit in this framework, as the first was held in 2014 on the initiative of Barack Obama. In the following years, especially during the presidency of Donald Trump, this idea descended to the background, and the positive effects of the first meeting were not visible. Recently, however, one can see a shift in the direction of American foreign policy – this year’s summit is described as one of the most important events of the upcoming months for the Biden administration. So where did these changes come from, and do they have a chance to bring benefits to both parties involved?
The three main subjects of discussion during the Summit are COVID consequences, climate crisis and food insecurity. As part of the event, numerous multilateral and high-level meetings are to take place, divided into Civil Society Day (with the African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum and the African Growth and Opportunity Act Ministerial Meeting), Business Day (with the U.S.-Africa Business Forum) and Leaders Day, scheduled for December 15 and focused on meetings at governmental level. According to official news, both politicians and representatives of the private sector hope for strengthening relations, while American side especially emphasises the importance of Africa (which is one of the fastest growing populations) development in the innovative way, with respect for environment and human rights. We can also expect the discussions about strengthening health systems, ensuring energy security, supporting democratic practices, and improving legal systems. The topic of security is also to be addressed at the Summit, with a particular focus on the fight against terrorism and the right, but somewhat belated, approach that assumes that this problem cannot be solved by military action alone. However, for the United States, the Summit is important for at least several reasons, which (significantly) are not indicated directly in the agenda.
One of abovementioned reasons is to strengthen the relations with local governments in order to weaken China’s influence on the continent. Its presence as the Africa’s largest trading partner is constantly growing and economic dependencies are becoming deeper, while those with the US have been decreasing in recent years. Africa is a great market for China and, at the same time, a supplier of minerals as well as area for investments, due to which they have adapted their trade tariff and introduced preferential terms of economic cooperation. Although The U.S. has never colonised African countries, it is still exposed to anti-colonial resentment which is often imported along with Islamic fundamentalism and fuelled wherever the USA tries to get involved in local politics. Although resentment towards the US is not as big as in the case of former metropolises (especially France and Great Britain), its presence is noticeable especially where U.S. military interventions took place (e.g., in Somalia). Unlike the U.S., China, which during the decolonisation era sided with the liberation movements (especially where left-wing parties stood a chance of taking power), is not perceived as a coloniser. Their policy, based on investments not conditioned by the implementation of given political or ideological changes, made their presence less conspicuous.
Currently, another empire – Russia – also tries to expand its position in Africa. It has a different, more aggressive modus operandi than China, especially in resource-rich areas. Its involvement will probably be mentioned during the Summit in the context of the worsening food crisis, caused by a significant reduction in the trade of grain and fertilisers to African countries, which is a direct result of the invasion of Ukraine. However, for the US, an equally important (and – so far – unspoken) issue is the political contacts of some African governments with the Kremlin. Thanks to the Wagner Group, a private army pursuing Russian interests, Putin has access to the extraction of raw materials in return offering his support to undemocratic leaders. It is in his interest to maintain as much destabilisation as possible, thanks to which he has the opportunity to trade goods and monetise them on favourable terms, which in turn provides him with funds to finance his military activities in Ukraine. Due to this, the weakening of Russia’s influence in Africa for the US is tantamount to strengthening on the Ukrainian front, which is currently a huge stake.
It is worth noticing that expanding the African direction in terms of economic relations is important for the United States also in the context of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).[i] The Act was signed by Biden in August and has provoked many unfavourable reactions from other Western countries, especially the European Union. In this perspective, added to China’s economic expansion and Russia’s aggressive policy, strengthening alliances with African countries seems to be a reasonable move.
Diplomatic risky ground
Much has been said about “inclusive” nature of the event, which in fact poses diplomatic challenge for the Biden administration. All countries that have not been suspended from the membership rights of the African Union (Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea and Eritrea, with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations) were invited. Among them are leaders accused of war crimes and military juntas that came to power as a result of coups d’état – Including Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi (Egypt) accused of political repressions, recently participating in one of the most brutal conflicts of modern times Abiy Ahmed (Ethiopia) or William Ruto, who was brought before the Criminal Court in The Hague in the past for crimes against humanity[ii] (Kenya) – just to mention a few examples. Although it is already known that not all leaders will come in person, such a list provokes protests from human rights groups. What’s more, among the African community itself it only reinforces the belief that the flagship values of the West are not much more than hypocrisy and even a tool of oppression. One can argue here whether the isolation of these leaders would bring more good, but it does not change the fact that the adopted solution may raise concerns – especially since the practice so far has shown that cooperation with leaders who break the law only strengthens bad practices. In this context, legitimising governments that are personally responsible for furthering destabilisation can undermine all good intentions for constructive changes.
Vice-president Kamala Harris in the video with remarks on the U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Marrakech, where she announced the forthcoming Summit, strongly emphasised that the meeting in December is to show “commitment to African partners”. The very fact that climate or food security related problems (and not directly the rivalry with China and Russia) are presented as the main objectives of the talks may prove that finally it has been realised that cooperation with African states can become more fruitful when they do not feel like pawns in a game between superpowers.
However, the narrative adopted by the US administration has its strengths and weaknesses. The second one, for example, is relying on the idea of a shared vision of common values. Narrative like this shows how the US is held hostage by its own ideology, according to which it serves as the guardian of freedom and democracy in the global community. This is because the use of narratives about common interests and common values, when their discrepancies have so far been very clear (as manifested, by the example of voting at the UN on matters related to aggression against Ukraine), is limited to a rather empty propaganda message or wishful thinking. Perhaps a better solution would be to admit that each of the actors has their own interests, and even in the case when their challenges seem to be common, each of actor has his own vision on how to face them. This would make it possible to search for more adequate solutions, and above all, it would give space for a thorough discussion of what lies behind these discrepancies.
Sustainable development of the African continent, based on the principles of true democracy, is what we would all like to see. Yet, the reality so far has shown that fine words about cooperation do not settle the matter. Especially on a continent as diverse and with such a difficult history as Africa, good will, even on both sides, is not enough. Well-thought-out ideas and open minds are still needed to be able to learn from past mistakes. The upcoming Summit may be the beginning of changes in the right direction, but it may also repeat the mistakes of its first edition.
The US must realise that as long as the solutions it proposes do not sufficiently take into account Africa’s vision for its own development – reflected, inter alia, in in the activities of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)[iii]and in Agenda 2063[iv] – as long as it will be difficult for them to weaken the influence of Russia and China. But, what’s more, right now also the African leaders have the obligation to use their current geopolitical position to gain real benefits and development to the continent, and not, once again, increased destabilisation. After all, for the first time the United States has shown so much will to include Africa itself in the discussion about its own future, which automatically strengthens Africa’s position and opens up new opportunities.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the paradigm shift in US foreign policy should also make the European Union reconsider its relations with African countries, which could bring many benefits, especially for the security sector. After all, many of Africa’s challenges in the near future will be much more European than American.
Author: Dominika Kulig, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] The Inflation Reduction Act is a federal program to support the US economy, which aims to stabilize prices and support domestic industry (with an emphasis on creating local jobs) while fighting climate change. European countries whose internal market may suffer from this solution express concern, among others, that the proposed changes will raise energy prices in Europe and accuse the US of not adhering to the rules of WTO cooperation.
[ii] The charges against William Ruto, made in 2010, related to crimes (including murder and persecution) committed during the riots after the 2007 election. The charges were discontinued in 2016 due to difficulties in obtaining testimonies of witnesses who were probably intimidated.
[iii] The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a trade initiative aimed at improving and strengthening economic relations within the continent by creating a common market. It includes 55 countries of the African Union and 8 Regional Economic Communities (more info: https://au-afcfta.org/about/).
[iv]„Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want” is a pan-African project of the African Union aimed at the development of the continent, promoting integration, sustainable economic development, building common security system and strengthening the voice of the continent on the international arena (more information: https://au.int/en/agenda2063/overview).