It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Are Autocratic Allies Damaging U.S. and EU Credibility?

From Equatorial Guinea’s leverage over Washington to Qatar’s scandal in Brussels, small resource-rich states are flexing their diplomatic muscle.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Leaders Session at the Africa Leaders Summit on Dec. 15, 2022 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Leaders Session at the Africa Leaders Summit on Dec. 15, 2022 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the Leaders Session at the Africa Leaders Summit on Dec. 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, how is your December going? I already got everything I wanted for Christmas: France knocked England out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage.

Matthew Kroenig: Well, I guess if Scotland couldn’t manage to do it, this is the next best thing for you. And France continued to beat up on its opponents in the next round. This time, the erstwhile imperial overlords vanquished their former colony Morocco in a match that carried some historical and geopolitical baggage.

EA: It’s a pity Morocco lost, and it’s worryingly likely to produce chaos on the streets of Paris, where poorly integrated immigrant populations from North Africa have already clashed with angry fans of the French team on the Champs-Élysées.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, how is your December going? I already got everything I wanted for Christmas: France knocked England out of the World Cup at the quarterfinal stage.

Matthew Kroenig: Well, I guess if Scotland couldn’t manage to do it, this is the next best thing for you. And France continued to beat up on its opponents in the next round. This time, the erstwhile imperial overlords vanquished their former colony Morocco in a match that carried some historical and geopolitical baggage.

EA: It’s a pity Morocco lost, and it’s worryingly likely to produce chaos on the streets of Paris, where poorly integrated immigrant populations from North Africa have already clashed with angry fans of the French team on the Champs-Élysées.

But while Morocco may have lost out on its chance at the World Cup, it has been interesting to watch the outpouring of support for the first team from the African continent to advance so far in the tournament. Many Africans see their continent rising in world affairs, and beating Spain and Portugal and having a chance to knock out France was a powerful signal of that rise.

Morocco is also an Arab country, and that has created a groundswell of support for the team among locals across the Gulf as well. Over the last couple of decades, everyone has focused on the internecine political struggles in the region coming out of the Arab Spring, but the World Cup has shown that there’s still a lot of broad-based pan-Arabist sentiment among the people of the region, no matter what their leaders say.

MK: It was inspiring. Morocco still went further than any other African team in the history of the tournament. You and I cannot help but see everything through a geopolitical lens, and I often cheer for U.S. treaty allies after the United States has been knocked out, but it was hard not to pull for the underdog in that one.

EA: Good thing you didn’t put your money where your mouth was—you’d have lost it all! But gambling isn’t the only way to get rich off the World Cup. Have you been following the European Union corruption scandal that has been rocking Brussels in recent days?

MK: Indeed. It was scandalous news. There are reports that Qatar bribed several European officials in order to influence EU policies in advance of the World Cup.

It raises an interesting and broader policy problem. We have known that U.S. enemies, such as China and Russia, have been using “sharp power” tools against wide-open Western democracies in order to secure their interests. China bribed an Australian politician and Czech academics, for example, to follow a pro-China agenda.

The United States and its allies have woken up to this threat and are putting in place policies to curtail it.

But how do we handle relatively friendly autocracies, such as Qatar, engaging in similar tactics?

The EU Parliament was about to vote on a potential visa-free travel agreement with Qatar, which one suspects had something to do with the massive bribes to MPs in Brussels.

EA: Well, I’m not even remotely surprised by the news. I wrote a whole book on the ways petrostates use their wealth for foreign-policy purposes, including a section on Qatar and its financial influence on the D.C. think tank scene. The main difference in this case is that much of what states such as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates fund in Washington is technically legal—this was not.

In fact, the European Parliament had been about to vote on a potential visa-free travel agreement with Qatar, which one suspects had something to do with these massive bribes to parliamentarians in Brussels. The MEPs in question had also attempted previously to provide cover for Qatari human rights abuses against migrant laborers in the run-up to the World Cup.

So, we can have a whole discussion about the gray areas like foundation or think tank funding and “friendly” autocracies—I’d personally favor barring foreign money entirely from the think tank space—but I think this is a more obvious case of illegal corruption that’s best dealt with through law enforcement. And the vote on the visa issue has been postponed, so I guess the Qataris will pay a price by not being able to shop in Paris or Rome this holiday season.

MK: Our last column covered the issue of dictators using sportswashing to polish their international reputations, but when conducted in such a ham-fisted and illegal manner, the tarnish comes right back.

But, you know, there is more than soccer (It’s not called football in the United States, Emma!) going on this week.

EA: Oh, thank God. Can I stop pretending to care about sports now? Can we get back to politics, please?

MK: Among other things, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting a major African leaders’ summit in Washington. The region’s economy and population are growing, but it seems that a major motivation is to strengthen ties between the continent and the United States in order to counter growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

Do you think it will work?

EA: At the risk of sounding snarky, I think it’s going to be about as successful as the president’s Summit for Democracy. It might make for some decent photo-ops, but I don’t see it actually shifting U.S.-African relations in a more positive direction. Here’s just a few reasons why:

First, actual U.S. policy toward the African continent has been a really mixed bag in recent years. The George W. Bush administration’s PEPFAR program—aimed at combating HIV and AIDS—was an undersung achievement of U.S. health diplomacy and almost certainly saved millions of lives across the continent. But outside of that, much of U.S. focus on the region has been on counterterrorism. It has also been stunningly unsuccessful: Terrorism across the continent has increased by 300 percent in the last decade, and all those African military officers that the United States has trained for counterterrorism? They’re more likely to be involved in anti-democratic coups.

And second, the Biden administration is fighting an uphill, and often contradictory, battle when it comes to African states. Everyone knows that the primary motivating factor for this summit was pushing back on Chinese influence in the region, but that message isn’t popular with African governments, many of which are building ever-closer trade ties with China. Chinese officials care less about democracy than Americans do, so their policies in the region are simply less conflicted; the utter ridiculousness of the Biden administration hosting the notoriously corrupt president of Equatorial Guinea while arguing for a values-based foreign policy can’t be overstated. But you’re our “values” foreign-policy guy. What do you think of the U.S. government inviting the world’s longest-serving autocrat to dinner?

MK: Upholding democratic principles in Equatorial Guinea is desirable, but stopping China from building a base there is essential.

I think we basically agree that the United States has been outcompeted in Africa to this point. But I see two different driving forces.

First, it has not been a priority. Washington focuses on regions with the biggest concentrations of wealth, power, and danger for and to U.S. interests, and that list does not include Africa. Russia and China are moving in to fill the vacuum.

Second, growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region is backed by state power and a lack of scruples that Washington simply cannot and should not replicate. China bribes government officials to win business contracts. And Russia offers Wagner Group mercenaries to help African dictators go after terrorists, rebels, and other enemies. Many in the continent are unhappy with these arrangements and see them as contrary to the long-run interest of the countries at large, but there is no alternative. Washington isn’t even in the game.

I talk to American corporate leaders doing business in the region, and they say it is nearly impossible to compete with entrenched Russian and especially Chinese elite capture. They wish the U.S. government would do more to align the various tools of its power to advance the ability of the U.S. private sector to compete on the continent and, as a byproduct, to reassert U.S. influence. But it will be an uphill battle.

EA: I mean, it’s a fair point on the deprioritization of Africa. Honestly, the continent isn’t the biggest priority for U.S. policymakers, and it doesn’t carry the same economic, energy, or geostrategic importance as, say, East Asia. That said, there are important reasons to care about the role that many rising African states are playing in global affairs, and I don’t think that painting the continent as primarily a market opportunity for U.S. businesses is the right approach.

My colleagues Aude Darnal and Mathew Burrows have a new paper out arguing that the West is heading toward a political and economic split with some developing countries. This is partly due to structural factors that are pulling them in different directions but also partly to a complete unwillingness on the part of Western states to actually take the concerns of these states seriously. Whatever you call them—the global south, the developing world, etc.—these states are often emerging markets, rising demographic powers, or smaller powers with substantial energy or technical heft in international markets. The United States needs to take their concerns seriously, or it will see ties weaken over time.

As Darnal and Burrows write, there’s a “growing negative perception by the Global South of the ‘self-centered’ West intent on increasing its power by squeezing China and Russia economically and politically.”

The Russia-Ukraine war has been emblematic of these tensions. For countries in Africa, they’ve been repeatedly asked to support Ukraine and the West, all while being outbid for energy cargoes by European states, seeing food prices spike massively, and seeing aid from Western countries diverted away from causes in Africa toward Ukrainian refugees. These states don’t want to be pawns in some new Great Game between the United States and China; they do want to be taken seriously.

MK: It is an intriguing argument, but I am not sure the data support it. According to a recent survey, 77 percent of Nigerians and 80 percent of Kenyans prefer the United States over China as the world’s leading superpower. African elites like lining their pockets by doing deals with China, but the benefits are not widely shared.

EA: I’d probably say that on a survey too, but that doesn’t mean governments are going to side with the United States over China when they have concrete interests pushing them in the other direction. And Africa is the future of a sizable chunk of humanity, given current demographic trends. If the United States wants to be more attractive as a partner to countries there, it has to offer them something other than counterterrorism. I don’t see Biden offering much at this summit that will help move the needle.

But before we wrap up this week, I wanted to return us to a Russia-related story. The Biden administration’s big success of the week was bringing home Brittney Griner, the WNBA player who had been arrested and held in Russia. The administration exchanged her for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. I was surprised by how negative much of the response to this story was; usually hostage swaps are welcomed by the media, at least to my recollection. What are your thoughts?

Biden traded “the merchant of death” for an essentially innocent person detained by Russia on flimsy charges.

MK: Well, I think everyone is happy that a wrongfully detained American is back home. That is not in dispute.

What is in dispute is the price that was paid and the precedent set. Biden traded “the merchant of death” for an essentially innocent person detained by Russia on flimsy charges. Barack Obama and Donald Trump considered similar deals and rightfully passed on them. The message sent to Moscow and others is, “Wrongfully detain innocent Americans, and we will reward you by trading back your worst convicted criminals.” Biden also reportedly considered including a Russian assassin as part of the package, but Germany refused to let him go.

The Biden administration said it was the best deal on offer, but that is not a compelling defense. If an enemy offers a bad deal, one can always decline it.

In addition, Bout was in U.S. custody because Thailand extradited him to the United States in 2008. Bangkok’s relations with Moscow suffered as a result. Would Thailand have made the same choice if it knew Washington would release Bout years later? Will countries in the future be willing to cooperate with the United States in similar operations?

Final point: Griner should not have gone to Russia in the first place. China and Russia use hostage diplomacy as a tool of state power. Westerners should stop visiting these countries. If they ignore their governments’ travel advisories and go anyway, they are asking for trouble and should not expect their governments to bail them out.

EA: That’s certainly true. You wouldn’t catch me going to Moscow or Beijing today, even though I’ve spent time in both in the past. The Griner case is a difficult one. Bout had served a sizable chunk of his jail sentence, and unlike Russia, the United States doesn’t just arbitrarily extend sentences to hold prisoners. Whether he still has any practical value to Moscow is unclear; his networks in the global arms trade have undoubtedly atrophied while he has been in prison. He’s not going to be some silver bullet for Russia’s ammunition woes, for example. But there is the question of precedent.

As the political scientist Danielle Gilbert—who studies hostage-taking in international relations—pointed out, this is increasingly a tactic not just of terrorist groups but of authoritarian regimes. We don’t know yet if these concessions will end up increasing the risk of future hostage-taking by those states, but the prospects are worrying. Regardless, I’m glad Griner is home with her family.

And speaking of family and of terrorism: My kids are demanding to be fed or else. Pick up here next time?

MK: Your kids have learned the art of hostage diplomacy! See you then.

Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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