Team Biden to Unveil New U.S. Africa Strategy

The strategy seeks to grapple with China’s growing influence in Africa without painting African countries as geopolitical pawns.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech on U.S.-Africa policy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech on U.S.-Africa policy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a speech on U.S.-Africa policy in Abuja, Nigeria, on Nov. 19, 2021. Andrew Harnik/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is poised to unveil a new strategy on Africa aimed at reviving U.S. engagement across the continent and competing with geopolitical rivals such as China and Russia for influence, according to multiple current and former officials familiar with the matter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to preview the new strategy during an upcoming visit to Africa, which includes stops in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.

The new strategy coincides with a personnel shake-up inside the White House, the current and former officials said. Judd Devermont, a former CIA official who joined the National Security Council (NSC) as a special advisor to help create the strategy, has been promoted to NSC senior director for African affairs. His predecessor, Dana Banks, has moved to a new role in the NSC to oversee the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, scheduled for December.

The Biden administration is poised to unveil a new strategy on Africa aimed at reviving U.S. engagement across the continent and competing with geopolitical rivals such as China and Russia for influence, according to multiple current and former officials familiar with the matter.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to preview the new strategy during an upcoming visit to Africa, which includes stops in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.

The new strategy coincides with a personnel shake-up inside the White House, the current and former officials said. Judd Devermont, a former CIA official who joined the National Security Council (NSC) as a special advisor to help create the strategy, has been promoted to NSC senior director for African affairs. His predecessor, Dana Banks, has moved to a new role in the NSC to oversee the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, scheduled for December.

The strategy has several overarching objectives, according to officials and diplomats briefed on the matter, including boosting democracy, governance, and security; a focus on pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; addressing the climate crisis and a “just” energy transition for the continent; and promoting open societies. Officials inside the administration say one of the top goals of the new strategy is to boost focus and funding on diplomacy and development, in an effort to shift away from the military-first engagement in parts of Africa, particularly the Sahel region, that has dominated U.S. policy over the past two decades, when Washington’s primary foreign-policy focus was on counterterrorism.

The emphasis on military partnerships drove the United States to cooperate closely with brittle, autocratic regimes, including in Chad and Mali, focusing on counterterrorism priorities while letting human rights and democratic governance priorities in effect wither on the vine—all while terrorist groups have only gained ground in parts of West Africa.

That criticism has gained traction on Capitol Hill, where influential lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to direct U.S. resources in the Sahel region away from a primarily military focus to diplomacy and development. “For two decades, the United States and our partners have spent billions of dollars to aid stability efforts by supporting military operations against terrorist actors and by strengthening the military capacity of countries in the Sahel to counter the threat of violent extremists,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a hearing on U.S.-Africa policy last month. “Despite all of our efforts, we have very little positive to show.”

“And while we have invested billions in the security sector, our diplomatic and development efforts have been undercut by a lack of resources and presence,” he added.

The new strategy also comes as Washington is scrambling to counter Russian and Chinese efforts to strengthen their own geopolitical clout across the continent. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a charm tour of the continent late last month in a bid to showcase how the West had failed to isolate Moscow on the world stage after its invasion of Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are major global food exporters, and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has wreaked havoc on global food supply chains, particularly in developing countries in Africa. Yet so far, the United States and its Western allies have struggled to get many African countries on board with sanctions against Russia.

An NSC spokesperson said the strategy was developed over the past eight months and involved extensive interagency consultations, as well as input from international and African partners and outside experts. The spokesperson declined to comment on specifics of the strategy, which has yet to be made public.

The strategy also coincides with a series of high-level visits from Biden administration officials to the continent, including Blinken’s trip, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s trip to Uganda and Ghana, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power’s visit last month to East Africa.

Biden administration officials have stressed that they want to avoid pigeonholing African nations into a global competition between the United States and China—and, to a lesser extent, Russia—a framing that the former Trump administration championed but one that African leaders increasingly bristle at. Still, some experts believe that even with this noble intent, Washington over successive administrations hasn’t found a good way to compete with China’s aggressive state-sponsored lending infrastructure programs in Africa, which in some countries have far outpaced investment from the West.

“They’re trying to get away from this Trumpian framing of Africa as this chessboard where we’re simply checking the ambitions of Russia and China,” said Cameron Hudson, an expert on U.S.-Africa relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It makes sense. African countries don’t want to be seen merely as some pawns in great-power competition. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that there is a competition, particularly with Beijing, in Africa and [that] Washington is often on the losing end of it.”

There are also still open-ended questions on how the Biden administration will put resources behind the new strategy, particularly with U.S. embassies in politically unstable countries in Africa chronically short-staffed and the Biden administration’s overall focus on broader national security challenges, including the ongoing war in Ukraine and its pivot to competing with China in the Indo-Pacific region.

As one U.S. official, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, put it: “A strategy without funding is just fancy words on paper.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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