How to Restore U.S. Credibility in Africa

By standing up for democracy and free trade, the United States can outflank China and Russia, its authoritarian rivals on the continent.

Kingsley Nebechi illustration for Foreign Policy

Despite the immense potential of U.S.-Africa relations, China has been more engaged with the continent and in several ways is now ahead of the United States in the scale of its diplomatic and economic ties. China is now Africa’s largest trade partner and the largest bilateral lender to many African countries, creating an asymmetric power dynamic with the potential for dependency. China has also outperformed the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of higher education, becoming the primary destination for English-speaking African students. China even trains African journalists, about 1,000 each year, who are the ones forming the global narrative about the continent. Furthermore, Chinese President Xi Jinping has committed to giving African countries priority access to a successful COVID-19 vaccine developed in China, and Beijing will build the headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

While China has been making such tremendous progress on the continent, the United States has lagged behind. Although the Trump administration adopted a U.S.-Africa strategy that created high expectations in the African policy community, the lack of timely implementation, along with President Donald Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric and failure to sufficiently engage at a high level, has since undermined what could have been a great improvement in U.S.-Africa relations. Restrictions on African immigration, including student visas, have been put into place without sound evidence of threats to national security, and a new rule was recently issued requiring visitors from several African countries to pay thousands of dollars in bond money to travel to the United States. In 2019, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross canceled his participation in the U.S.-Africa Summit, forgoing a huge opportunity to facilitate trade and investment by engaging with African heads of state, government officials, and CEOs. The White House further spoiled what would have been good Africa policy by threatening to slash funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization, indirectly impacting many African nations.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to change course and positively shape the legacy of U.S.-Africa relations. If the Biden administration focuses on areas of strong U.S. competitive advantage and crafts a values-based foreign policy that takes into account Africans’ preference for accountability and democracy, the United States still has a chance to outperform China on the continent—but it has to act fast.

The United States has a strong competitive advantage on several key issues that are critical to Africa’s future. Afrobarometer surveys show that nearly 70 percent of African citizens prefer democracy and accountable governance over other forms of government. U.S.-Africa interests also converge in terms of advancing prosperity through trade, investment, and commercial relations, including through the newly adopted African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In fact, African publics prefer the U.S. model of development (32 percent) over the Chinese model (23 percent) and that of other countries. In terms of power, peace, and geopolitics, a stronger U.S. presence on the continent will promote peace in Africa while helping to prevent violent extremism, state fragility, and illegal immigration. It will also give the United States an advantageous position over China, Russia, and other countries in the global power struggle.

Successes in the past decades—initiatives such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the President’s Malaria Initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and U.S. trade and investment hubs—have generated tremendous opportunities for millions of Africans and Americans. But the current era—and competition from other global powers—will require new ideas and a new approach to several key issues.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could make a mark in his first year by developing specific solutions to critical challenges, such as those in Sudan, Zambia, Mali, and Angola, as well as the broader challenges of implementing the new free trade area and shaping post-AGOA trade strategy, after the agreement, which granted preferential trade status to African countries for certain goods, expires in 2025.

After decades of violent conflict, Sudan is slowly starting to make progress toward peace. Now is the perfect time for the United States to take the lead in promoting democracy and economic development and in preventing violent extremism in Sudan while countering Chinese and Russian efforts to increase their presence in the country. China has already indicated its public support for the political transition in Sudan, and there are expectations that it may expand its role in infrastructure development there.


From the Foreign Policy Archives

On Democracy


No End

The global expansion of democracy does not mean that we are at the end of history but rather that we have reached a critical turning point in history.

—Larry Diamond

FALL 1997

Democratic Decline

If people believe that government is incompetent and cannot be trusted, they are less likely to provide such crucial contributions as tax dollars and voluntary compliance with laws, and bright young people will not be willing to go into government.

—Joseph S. Nye Jr.


Out of Many, One

While at the United Nations, I used to joke that managing the global institution was like trying to run a business with 184 chief executive officers—each with a different language, a distinct set of priorities, and an unemployed brother-in-law seeking a paycheck.

—Madeleine K. Albright


State of the State

The nation-state is not exactly working out as well as it may appear. The question becomes: How can human beings organize themselves? It is our nature to cluster together in groups. How can we undertake that project in a way that is in some sense affirming to human life, rather than the opposite?

—Taiye Selasi

Subscribers get full access to Foreign Policy’s 50-year print archive. Excerpts have been lightly edited for space and clarity.


The latest U.S. decision to lift sanctions and eliminate Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism marks an important first step in this acknowledgment. The U.S. government should now deploy an experienced diplomat to serve as an ambassador to Sudan who can help influence and monitor the democratic transition.

Instead of remaining ambivalent, the Biden administration has the opportunity to provide substantial economic support to prevent economic collapse in Sudan. The United States should bring in U.S. investors to help restart the economy and unlock new opportunities for private sector development. By pursuing a bottom-up approach in which financing and technical training are provided to civil society organizations—including local transparency activists, election watchdog groups, and other platforms that promote inclusive citizen-government dialogues—the United States can help strengthen the foundations for a democratic transition. At the same time, Washington still needs a top-down approach to exert diplomatic pressure on the military government in Khartoum, in order to ensure that there are incentives for the government to follow through on its promises.

Instead of remaining ambivalent, the Biden administration has the opportunity to provide substantial economic support to prevent economic collapse in Sudan.

Sudan is not alone in facing economic challenges. Zambia recently defaulted on its debt payments—a signal that could indicate trouble elsewhere on the continent. Zambia has experienced continuous fiscal deficits over the past few years, and its external debt was as high as 54 percent of its total GDP in 2019 while its general debt was 88 percent of GDP. There is a genuine risk that other debt-distressed countries in Africa could end up defaulting, too. Over 90 other countries have approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seeking financial assistance due to mounting debt levels; this brewing debt crisis has the potential to spiral out of control and destabilize the global economy.

As much as a third of Zambia’s external debt is to China, and many other African countries are also heavily indebted to China. According to the World Bank, increasing debt transparency will be critical in helping poor countries to achieve long-term debt sustainability. Currently, some frustrated bondholders are demanding information on Zambia’s Chinese debt, but the Zambian government has not been able to provide that information so far.

By convening all lenders, including Chinese private sector lenders, the United States could help create an understanding of the Zambian case that would be crucial in resolving future debt default cases in other developing countries. The United States can also encourage good financial governance through the IMF and World Bank by engaging in more proactive supervision and regulation of financial sectors in struggling countries while helping Zambia’s government to improve its debt management and transparency. This, along with creditor outreach, can help create sustainable borrowing and lending practices.

Zambia’s neighbor Angola is suffering from a different curse. Despite being the second-largest oil-producing country in sub-Saharan Africa, Angola has been facing a variety of economic challenges, mainly stemming from corruption. Over the last decade, Angola has been perceived as a classic example of the resource curse due to its failure to positively transform its economy. This has mostly been the result of poor governance and the mismanagement of oil revenues. One of the best-known corruption cases in Angola is the alleged embezzlement of $500 million by the son of former President José Eduardo dos Santos, who ruled the country from 1979 to 2017. Angola is now massively accelerating its anti-corruption efforts and has begun prosecuting and seizing domestic assets owned by individuals suspected of corruption, including people previously considered untouchable, such as members of the dos Santos family. This new drive to fight corruption in Angola represents a huge opportunity for the U.S. Treasury to step in and vigorously help Angola recover stolen assets and cash from previous corruption scandals—including those held in the United States—and prevent illicit financial flows in the future.

This new drive to fight corruption in Angola represents a huge opportunity for the U.S. Treasury to step in and vigorously help Angola recover stolen assets and cash from previous corruption scandals—including those held in the United States.

The United States should participate in Angola’s anti-corruption campaign because it has broader implications both for other African countries and for the rest of the world. The Angolan government has already investigated two Chinese-Angolan companies suspected of corruption involving the China International Fund, and other Chinese investments in Angola are at risk. China is currently the biggest foreign investor in Angola, and the United States will benefit from assisting Angola in creating a level playing field where Chinese investors are subjected to the same anti-corruption standards as U.S. investors.

Mali, a country that used to be considered a model for democracy in Africa, has been struggling to control extremist groups within its borders and to stabilize its economy. Over the past few years, Mali appeared to be making progress toward achieving peace, but since 2019 the nation has seen a resurgence of armed conflicts. Over 1,000 incidents of political violence have resulted in the deaths of more than 2,700 people in Mali since September 2019.

Following a bloodless coup in August 2020, Mali’s military government agreed to act as a transitional government for 18 months, after which a civilian government would take over through elections. The United States should pay particular attention to Mali because it is a prime example of the climate-security nexus. Mali’s experience of continuous droughts and rising temperatures has threatened food security for many climate-vulnerable farmers and herders, making Mali fertile ground for communal conflicts to develop along ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines.

That is particularly dangerous given Mali’s geography. The country is located in the Sahel region, which is widely affected by the instability created by terrorist groups that operate in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 people in Mali were internally displaced as of last summer, and nearly half a million had been forced to flee from Niger to become refugees in other West African countries.

The Sahel region is extremely volatile, and the United States must increase its operations to counter violent extremists in the region. But before sending in the troops, the U.S. government should first acknowledge the connection between climate change, development, and security. This means that a military solution alone will be insufficient to solve such a multifaceted problem. The United States needs a multidimensional peacekeeping approach in Mali with the specific goals of helping to resolve the main sources of fragility—climate change, demographic growth, and economic hardship—both in Mali and in the broader Sahel region.

Before sending in troops, the U.S. government should first acknowledge the connection between climate change, development, and security.

Washington’s decision to withhold military support to Bamako until elections there are held is a good way to pressure the military government into following through with a democratic transition, but it is not enough. The United States must also build the resilience of communities to withstand climate shocks by investing in training climate-vulnerable farmers, helping them to diversify their livelihoods, and addressing existing structural inequalities.

While it is true that the United States cannot solve Africa’s challenges on its own—and that the primary responsibility for this lies with African leaders—it can help Africa find solutions that will eventually allow it to achieve self-sufficiency. It is in the best interest of the United States to ensure that conflicts that impede trade and development are resolved across the African continent, since Africa is becoming increasingly important to U.S. national security and trade interests. The AfCFTA, which is set to be operational in January 2021, will bring together nearly all 55 African Union member states and create a more integrated market with a total GDP of $2.2 trillion. This is an opportunity for the United States to accelerate its multilateral partnerships with Africa by contributing to the successful implementation of the free trade area.

This is particularly important because the AfCFTA is paving the way for the creation of a common African Customs Union, which will benefit the United States by reducing its transaction costs when trading with African countries bilaterally. The trade deal can be part of the solution, but the United States will have to provide robust technical assistance and capacity building to the AfCFTA secretariat to ensure its successful implementation. The United States and the African Union should cooperate on objectives of mutual interest, especially achieving democracy and sustainable economic development. As the end of the AGOA approaches, the United States must consider negotiating for a continental trade partnership that is mutually beneficial since the global trade landscape has shifted since the AGOA was first negotiated in 2000. Strategically deepening trade and investment ties between the United States and Africa will prevent the country from being left behind by China and other players that have been gaining influence in Africa.

Even amid increasing geopolitical aggression from other powers, American leaders now have a unique window of opportunity to substantially advance U.S. and African interests. They can seize this opportunity by focusing on areas where U.S. and African interests and values converge and where the United States has the advantage over its competitors, especially on free trade and democracy.

Landry Signé is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, and a senior director and professor at Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management.