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It’s Time for an Africa Policy Upgrade

Washington has sidelined Africa for too long. The Biden administration should take a new approach.

By , a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.
Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reaches out to shake hands with then Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki after a joint media briefing at the state house in Nairobi on June 8, 2010.
Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reaches out to shake hands with then Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki after a joint media briefing at the state house in Nairobi on June 8, 2010. Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy toward Africa will be remembered by its tone of disrespect, from his calling African nations “shithole countries” to canceled cabinet-level trips to the region. But while he needs to restore civility to U.S. foreign policy, President-elect Joe Biden shouldn’t fully reject Trump-era Africa policy when he takes office. In part, that’s because Africa policy is unique. It has historically been uncontroversially bipartisan, and U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Trump have continued their predecessors’ Africa programs.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have built their policy towards Africa on a series of promising but standalone programs. Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Barack Obama’s Power Africa, and Trump’s Prosper Africa have all, to some degree, been—and continue to be—successful in enhancing trade, improving health, or expanding needed infrastructure on the continent. As a series of siloed programs, however, they have been less equipped to advance 21st-century U.S. geostrategic priorities such as transitioning to a green economy, combating insecurity, and peacefully managing a rising China.

The Biden administration can improve in that regard. Now that African countries are becoming younger, more urban, digitally connected, and globally integrated—and now that great-power competition with China is on the rise—engagement with African nations should have a central place in the United States’ grand strategy, advancing more than just regional interests. It’s time for Biden to give Africa policy an upgrade, while still drawing on elements of his predecessors’ initiatives, so that the United States can truly work alongside African nations to address globally shared challenges.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy toward Africa will be remembered by its tone of disrespect, from his calling African nations “shithole countries” to canceled cabinet-level trips to the region. But while he needs to restore civility to U.S. foreign policy, President-elect Joe Biden shouldn’t fully reject Trump-era Africa policy when he takes office. In part, that’s because Africa policy is unique. It has historically been uncontroversially bipartisan, and U.S. presidents from Bill Clinton to Trump have continued their predecessors’ Africa programs.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have built their policy towards Africa on a series of promising but standalone programs. Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Barack Obama’s Power Africa, and Trump’s Prosper Africa have all, to some degree, been—and continue to be—successful in enhancing trade, improving health, or expanding needed infrastructure on the continent. As a series of siloed programs, however, they have been less equipped to advance 21st-century U.S. geostrategic priorities such as transitioning to a green economy, combating insecurity, and peacefully managing a rising China.

The Biden administration can improve in that regard. Now that African countries are becoming younger, more urban, digitally connected, and globally integrated—and now that great-power competition with China is on the rise—engagement with African nations should have a central place in the United States’ grand strategy, advancing more than just regional interests. It’s time for Biden to give Africa policy an upgrade, while still drawing on elements of his predecessors’ initiatives, so that the United States can truly work alongside African nations to address globally shared challenges.

Before looking ahead, the Biden administration should recognize two positive aspects of Trump’s Africa policy. First, Trump’s approach to Africa was rooted partially in his broader framing of U.S. foreign policy—namely, confronting a rising China, which then National Security Advisor John Bolton mentioned more than a dozen times when he announced the establishment of Prosper Africa in December 2018. While Trump officials’ zero-sum thinking on China is excessive, the administration has correctly acknowledged that African partners are critical to peacefully managing a rising China. Partly, that’s because African nations have an important role in international governance: They maintain a voting bloc of 44 in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and 54 in the United Nations. They’re also increasingly important in the global economy. Each year, citizens of Africa make up more of the global labor force, and the continent is home to elements and minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths, that are crucial to future U.S. competitiveness in energy storage and high-tech industries.

The Trump administration correctly acknowledged that African partners are critical to peacefully managing a rising China.The focus on managing a rising China largely aligns with Biden’s own thinking. In a 2019 speech, Biden acknowledged the need to be tough on China and “to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior.” That front includes African nations, a plurality of which still maintain a slightly higher public opinion of the United States than of China.

Second, through Prosper Africa and the newly expanded Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which provides financing for projects in emerging markets, the Trump administration prioritized commercial ties to African countries. Prosper Africa’s aim to double two-way trade and investment in African markets speaks to African countries’ dual economic priorities of attracting capital and creating millions of jobs. Prosper Africa has brought increased visibility to African opportunities, improved coordination among U.S. government agencies to support U.S. investors interested in African markets, and eased access to Washington’s commercial support for companies doing business in Africa through political risk insurance and long-term trade finance. Since becoming operational in December 2019, the DFC has approved more than $2 billion in environmental and energy projects in the region, including a natural gas pipeline in Egypt, marine conservation in Kenya, and a natural gas power plant in Mozambique.

The Biden administration should build on this progress to further support trade and investment, as African markets continue to evolve rapidly and become more powerful in the global economy. Despite COVID-19’s economic damage, the underlying structural trends supporting African growth and opportunity remain in place. These include a young, increasingly urban population, whose tech-focused, entrepreneurial spirit contributed to African start-ups’ raising $2 billion in funding in 2019 in sectors as varied as financial technology, logistics, energy, and health. And once the African Continental Free Trade Area, the largest free trade area to be established since the founding of the WTO, starts being implemented in January, Africa will begin to integrate its fragmented markets into a single market home to 1.2 billion people. By eliminating restrictions on the free movement of goods, people, and capital, the free trade area will create an attractive opportunity for U.S. companies to sell and invest in a combined consumer and business base of $6.7 trillion by 2030.

Fundamentally, the Biden administration needs to base the United States’ relationship with African nations on respect.Recognizing the shifts in African markets and the continent’s rising geopolitical importance, the Biden administration needs to prioritize Africa more than Trump and his predecessors did. And, fundamentally, it needs to base the United States’ relationship with African nations on respect. The underlying values, tone, and execution of all policies need an overhaul. Trump’s rhetoric and other administration slights, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to cancel his appearance at the U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique in 2019, hurt the United States’ image as a trusted, committed partner. To remedy this, the Biden administration should make presidential and other cabinet-level trips to African nations within the first 18 months in office.

In particular, the Biden administration will need to prioritize and actively engage with regional giants. Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo hold considerable economic and political weight compared with their smaller neighbors. Based on International Monetary Fund data, Africa’s three largest economies—Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt—account for almost 50 percent of the continent’s gross domestic product. While other nations should not be overlooked, Biden should make sure to give these nations attention through meaningful investments and partnership initiatives early on.

The Biden administration also needs to integrate the continent into more of its global priorities—not just competition with China. Notably, these include climate change and the fight against extremism. On these issues, regional efforts should continue, such as the United States-Africa Leaders Summit, a three-day White House summit hosted by Obama with 50 African leaders in 2014 to deepen partnerships in trade, investment, and security. But more than that, in its foreign policy more broadly, Washington should work with African nations along with their Asian, European, and Latin American counterparts to create forums that can systematically address global challenges and opportunities, such as the rise of megacities.

African nations have a wide variety of potential partners—including Japan, Russia, China, Britain, and the European Union—so Biden should also play up the United States’ comparative advantages to position his country on the continent. One way of doing that is to leverage the United States’ most competitive sectors, which include technology, entertainment, financial services, agribusiness and renewables, specialized oil and gas services, and the creative industries. The United States can’t really compete, for instance, with China on large-scale infrastructure projects, but it does have the wherewithal to increase investment in the service and creative sectors—and especially music, movies, and sports—which strengthens U.S. soft power and builds closer people-to-people ties between the continents.

Another U.S. advantage is its African diaspora. As of 2015, there were 2.1 million African immigrants living in the United States—a number that’s risen drastically in the past few decades. The Biden administration should involve the diaspora in the formation and execution of Africa policy, which could include partnering with the International Career Advancement Program and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to recruit African immigrants in the administration and increase the number of Black Americans in the foreign service. Biden’s team should also find ways to support the already extensive financial flows that the African diaspora directs to the continent—in 2017, for example, Nigeria received an estimated $6.19 billion in remittances from the United States, more than from any other country.

Come January, Biden will have the chance to draw an immediate line in the sand from Trump’s approach to Africa while still continuing the commercial progress of the past four years. A new commitment to Africa would come at the right time, since the Biden administration wants to return to multilateralism and heal Washington’s political divisions. The bipartisanship that has always characterized Africa policy would be a welcome break from the divisiveness of the Trump era and promote future collaboration across the aisle. Hopefully, the Biden administration will seize the moment and define a new era in U.S.-Africa relations.

Aubrey Hruby is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and an adjunct instructor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.

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