Issue Brief

Re-Balancing the Triangle: American Strategy in Africa Should Prioritize African Leadership, not Chinese Competition

in Program

At the moment, the U.S. is without a strategy for development and diplomatic engagement with Africa. Both the Department of State (DoS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) lack high-level staffing in political positions that would shape and
respond to policy in this context, so functional areas of the relevant agencies continue apace as best they can with the trajectories they had before the 2016 presidential election. What limited guidance has come from the White House thus far has largely suggested a withdrawal of
attention from and engagement with the continent, accompanied by deep cuts in diplomatic and aid budgets,2 and an indifference towards trade relationships.

There are two major reasons for developing a policy sooner rather than later. One, the United States is not the only player on the continent—China’s rise to the position of a global power with global reach means that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is looking at tripartite interactions rather than bilateral ones—or at the very least in addition to bilaterals—in various functional and geographic area. Two, problems and fragilities across the continent are increasingly not limited to any one country or even one region, but cross and transcend them.4 Addressing those problems and fragilities will require the combined attention of the U.S., China and African nations in concert as a continent as opposed to as individual states. The world does not have the luxury of not addressing problems of this complexity, and a lack of communication and cooperation among the relevant actors will inevitably make them worse. That latter point in particular underscores that it is imperative to recognize that rudderless and indifferent engagement from the United States is not a pattern that can continue for long.

Sooner or later the pace of events and the inevitability of some sort of crisis, whether natural or man-made, during the tenure of any administration, will snowball together to challenge existing policies. At the same time, opportunities for growth and investment will go by unnoticed and untapped.
This brief will discuss a series of reasons why it is critical that the U.S. government produce a strategy for engaging with Africa that can help build resilience to potential shocks and respond better to emerging opportunities. That strategy should take Chinese engagement and the need for multilateral cooperation into account. Most critically, that strategy should approach the first two points not by focusing on the U.S. and China as primary actors, but by supporting and strengthening African actors and African institutions as the primary focal point.

Conversation around this issue of cooperative engagement in Africa tends to be framed in the bilateral terms of U.S.-China engagement even when it is phrased as a trilateral engagement inclusive of Africa.5 The core of the argument here is that the U.S.-China relationship—
sometimes absent, often competitive, and in fact more cooperative than often assumed—will inherently tip towards competition as long as it is framed in these bilateral terms. Seen as such, there is also an inherent disadvantage to the American bargaining position with African states, since it comes with more strings for beneficiaries and less U.S. government support than Chinese actors offer. Unless the U.S. is willing to abandon its own core values, this will not change. The best way forward is to build a strategy that focuses on strengthening African actors and institutions themselves rather than on the U.S. competition with China. This brief, in other words, calls for the United States to develop a strategy that prioritizes strengthening African institutions.

Those African institutions represent states, businesses and political actors that can (and should) lead the charge for African peace, security and development, helping external actors to recognize that the most sustainable investment environment and best security landscape is defined by resilient, peaceful, legitimate and accountable governments and societies. At the very least, such institutions can still help to reduce or even eliminate the ability of toxic actors across the continent to manipulate the gaps and tensions formed by U.S.-China competition to further their own malign goals.6 Here, then, is also a call for African leadership and African multilateral institutions to formulate a strategy to deal with external powers.At the moment, the U.S. is without a strategy for development and diplomatic engagement with Africa. Both the Department of State (DoS) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) lack high-level staffing in political positions that would shape and respond to policy in this context, so functional areas of the relevant agencies continue apace as best they can with the trajectories they had before the 2016 presidential election. What limited guidance has come from the White House thus far has largely suggested a withdrawal of attention from and engagement with the continent, accompanied by deep cuts in diplomatic and aid budgets,2 and an indifference towards trade relationships.3

There are two major reasons for developing a policy sooner rather than later. One, the United States is not the only player on the continent—China’s rise to the position of a global power with global reach means that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is looking at tripartite interactions rather than bilateral ones—or at the very least in addition to bilaterals—in various functional and geographic area. Two, problems and fragilities across the continent are increasingly not limited to any one country or even one region, but cross and transcend them.4 Addressing those problems and fragilities will require the combined attention of the U.S., China and African nations in concert as a continent as opposed to as individual states. The world does not have the luxury of not addressing problems of this complexity, and a lack of communication and cooperation among the relevant actors will inevitably make them worse.

That latter point in particular underscores that it is imperative to recognize that rudderless and indifferent engagement from the United States is not a pattern that can continue for long. Sooner or later the pace of events and the inevitability of some sort of crisis, whether natural or man-made, during the tenure of any administration, will snowball together to challenge existing policies. At the same time, opportunities for growth and investment will go by unnoticed and untapped.

This brief will discuss a series of reasons why it is critical that the U.S. government produce a strategy for engaging with Africa that can help build resilience to potential shocks and respond better to emerging opportunities. That strategy should take Chinese engagement and the need for multilateral cooperation into account. Most critically, that strategy should approach the first two points not by focusing on the U.S. and China as primary actors, but by supporting and strengthening African actors and African institutions as the primary focal point.

Conversation around this issue of cooperative engagement in Africa tends to be framed in the bilateral terms of U.S.-China engagement even when it is phrased as a trilateral engagement inclusive of Africa.5 The core of the argument here is that the U.S.-China relationship—sometimes absent, often competitive, and in fact more cooperative than often assumed—will inherently tip towards competition as long as it is framed in these bilateral terms. Seen as such, there is also an inherent disadvantage to the American bargaining position with African states, since it comes with more strings for beneficiaries and less U.S. government support than Chinese actors offer. Unless the U.S. is willing to abandon its own core values, this will not change. The best way forward is to build a strategy that focuses on strengthening African actors and institutions themselves rather than on the U.S. competition with China. This brief, in other words, calls for the United States to develop a strategy that prioritizes strengthening African institutions.

Those African institutions represent states, businesses and political actors that can (and should) lead the charge for African peace, security and development, helping external actors to recognize that the most sustainable investment environment and best security landscape is defined by resilient, peaceful, legitimate and accountable governments and societies. At the very least, such institutions can still help to reduce or even eliminate the ability of toxic actors across the continent to manipulate the gaps and tensions formed by U.S.-China competition to further their own malign goals.6 Here, then, is also a call for African leadership and African multilateral institutions to formulate a strategy to deal with external powers.

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