Obama’s Mission in Kenya

The president has tough task as he visits East Africa. He can’t revive British colonialism, but he must provide an alternative to Chinese cynicism.

An man rides a bicycle and a trailer with messages reading "welcome Kenya Obama" in Nairobi on July 23, 2015, on the eve of the US President's visit. On the eve of his trip to Africa, US President Barack Obama said he was excited about the impending visit to his ancestral continent, which he said had great resilience and enormous potential for growth. AFP PHOTO / TONY KARUMBA        (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
An man rides a bicycle and a trailer with messages reading "welcome Kenya Obama" in Nairobi on July 23, 2015, on the eve of the US President's visit. On the eve of his trip to Africa, US President Barack Obama said he was excited about the impending visit to his ancestral continent, which he said had great resilience and enormous potential for growth. AFP PHOTO / TONY KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

When you drive down the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, the commercial artery that links Kenya’s major coastal port to its booming capital, you see two railway lines: one British, one Chinese.

As if a metaphor of their divergent ambitions, the two tracks don’t run in parallel but, rather, carve their own paths through the Kenyan landscape. When U.S. President Barack Obama lands in Nairobi on Friday for his first visit to the country while in office, his own path, in Kenya and East Africa more broadly, will be determined by how far he can distinguish U.S. foreign policy from these two legacies: one a European history of colonialism and the other a Chinese future of mercantile capitalism untethered from any democratic vision.

The old railway track, built by the British between 1896 and 1901, is still in operation, but creaking. Nicknamed the “Lunatic Line” at the time for the scale of its engineering ambition, it connected Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda, via Nairobi; the city itself grew from the rail junction. The line was a colonial project not just to open up trade, but to consolidate British rule in the East Africa Protectorate. The British wanted to control both the public domain of governance and the private domain of commerce.

The new track from Mombasa, still under construction, is being built by a Chinese state-owned company. After the track reaches Nairobi, the plan is to connect Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The Chinese line is a commercial project tout court. The Chinese are here to invest, not to rule. The railroad is but one of the largest of many Chinese commercial operations across Kenya, from major road-building projects to the Chinese hawkers on the streets of Nairobi’s town center selling Chinese exports to locals.

The Chinese are not interested in governance. But companies, like individuals, still need the protective umbrella of the public domain, from physical to legal security. Insofar as this justifies China providing limited aid to support Kenya’s public domain, including military and intelligence equipment, so be it. But human rights, corruption, or anti-ivory poaching? Forget it. Likewise, in the regional context, Chinese military contributions to U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa have generally been in states where China has substantial investments, like Sudan and South Sudan.

In historical perspective, the Chinese approach to Kenya and East Africa more broadly tells us that we have arrived at an inflection point to which U.S. foreign policy will have to respond, and this turns on a contemporary disjuncture between public and private international order.

In the 19th century, to control the public domain was to control the private domain. Imperial armies, navies, and courts guaranteed imperial commerce. That world died, but the Cold War world was not so different. To buy into a U.S.-led public international order was to buy into a U.S.-led private international order. Where the U.S. security umbrella covered, U.S. investment followed. And so did American culture: to wear blue jeans, drink Coca-Cola, and listen to rock-and-roll music affirmed a positive connection to the Unites States. Democracy and capitalism were presented as the double helix of the free world. (Even if the quality of democracy, from Suharto’s Indonesia to Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, was sometimes superficial, they were America’s allies).

But today even jihadi terrorists buy iPhones. They do so, in their minds at least, without any affirmation of U.S. values whatsoever, real or superficial. When we say that it is deeply ironic that someone should love Apple but hate America, that irony flows from a default association of a public and private U.S.-led international order. Yet the reality of the 21st century is staring us right in the face: that there are a large number of people — and admittedly, the jihadis are at the extreme end of the spectrum — who enthusiastically buy Apple products but passionately reject an American-led public international order. So what happened?

To my mind, it was the United States’ own overwhelming victory in the Cold War that split the double helix of democracy and capitalism in a U.S.-led international order. There is virtually not a single state in the world today not plugged into the international markets that in the Cold War world were once essentially the preserve of America’s allies. Today, these international markets are underpinned by a relatively effective global regime of private international law that enables private actors, regardless of their public affiliations, to form strong legal relationships. The meteoric rise of international arbitration (private international dispute resolution) over the last 20 years is a metric of the extent to which, in the post-Cold War world, a private international order has been increasingly able to disconnect itself from the public international order.

This predicament allows China to take a minimalist approach to bearing the cost of supporting the public domain — in Kenya, East Africa, and globally — because the underlying private international order it needs to support its commercial operations is already in place. There is no need for China to control the public-domain gateways to private markets when its hosts already operate open-door policies, the legacy of the free market’s Cold War victory. Conversely, there is today no necessary link between the free market, democratic freedoms, and a specifically U.S.-led international order. China and Sudan are repressive states, but the global regime of private international law does not see their commercial interactions any differently from international business transactions between democracies.

The world produced by the United States’ Cold War victory, a quarter-century on, leaves its foreign policy standing with an uncertain posture. On the one hand, Americans reject the European history of colonialism; on the other hand, they reject the Chinese future of mercantile capitalism untethered from democratic values. The result is deep uncertainty as to the degree to which the United States should make a claim that “Western” democratic values are universal and promote them over the sovereign concerns of less powerful states in a way that is often perceived as patronizing.

We see how this uncertain posture refracts across a range of issues in states where there is U.S. engagement and China is a commercial competitor — and Kenya is a case in point. Take, for example, what is from an objective perspective the most sensitive issue surrounding Obama’s visit: Will he promote LGBT rights or not? The response of Kenyans is typically to imagine what the U.S. reaction would be if an African head of state arrived in the United States pushing for how Americans should organize their family units. Would an African president not be shouted down on the basis that it wasn’t his or her place to tell Americans how to run America? In short, regardless of the substantive issue in question, many Kenyans simply want to be treated as equals. It will be Obama’s challenge not to be seen as imperious.

The stakes are high, because if the United States gets it wrong, it could soon find itself increasingly marginalized in East Africa, having lost the geopolitical center ground to China. As in so many other parts of the post-Cold War world, China offers a fundamentally different kind of relationship, one based on maximal private-sector links and minimal public-sector reform, as opposed to the United States, which tends to want both maximally. (The Afghanistan experience tells the same story: minimal Chinese support to the Afghan government with its fight against the Taliban, while ending up with substantial mining concessions in the wake of the U.S.-led mission.)

The United States’ military superiority in many ways reduces the pressure on U.S. foreign policy in the region to have to be crafted strategically, and this will remain the case for some time. The Chinese military is no match for U.S. forces and has nowhere near the same expeditionary or intelligence capacity. But it’s plain to see that the United States nonetheless does not get much buck for its bang in the region: Despite 4,000 U.S. personnel in Djibouti, U.S. training teams across East Africa, and a substantial naval presence, the Chinese, with a far smaller military presence, are in a more dominant position commercially.

Still, many Kenyans have substantial misgivings about the degree of Chinese commercial influence in Kenya and its rapaciousness. They recognize that the West in many respects offers them a better deal in the long term: They look at the great work that the U.S. Agency for International Development is doing in the anti-HIV/AIDS fight in Kenya and see no comparable Chinese effort. (Because the Chinese see no commercial advantage there.)

The challenge for the United States is to form equal partnerships in East Africa with states like Kenya that want to work with the United States on a range of issues, from security to trade to promoting civil society against the fundamentalist menace of al-Shabaab — but on an equal basis.

In this respect, the new U.S. program to “counter violent extremism,” known by the shorthand “CVE” and launched at a White House CVE summit in February, is a step in the right direction. It is based on a genuinely common interest, primarily in countering the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. It combines military and intelligence support with a realization that the health of civil society is the long-term key to beating the fundamentalists who refuse to acknowledge any civic identity other than their own.

So it’s about public values, not just the military fight. This stance was repeated at the Regional Conference on Countering Violent Extremism organized by the Kenyan government in June, which I attended. The new CVE program should provide a vehicle for the United States to work with Kenya on an equal basis to solve common problems. It is a valuable contribution to U.S. strategy in East Africa.

More broadly, the emerging triumph of a mercantile private international order over an emaciated democratic public international order is a story we are seeing in many parts of the world, not just in East Africa. In the long term, the challenge for U.S. regional policy is to tame the triumph of the mercantile private international order that it has allowed to race ahead of a democratic public international order in the post-Cold War world: The two should complement, not compete, with each other. Fundamentally, to maintain the geopolitical center ground, U.S. foreign policy must develop a regional story that is more persuasive than China’s commercially effective but morally etiolated view of the world. And that’s a lot harder than building a railway line.

Image credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

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