Sub-Saharan Africa is under no illusions about where it lies in Washington's scheme of things
The United States' strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa has, by and large, been the same, irrespective of which party is in office or the temperament of the president or secretary of state. In terms of the personalities of those occupying the White House, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are polar opposites.
While Trump was unguarded in his speech and his attitude toward Africa was openly contemptuous, Biden, with a much longer political experience and a better reading of international affairs, has been more measured. This difference, however, does not disrupt the US' overall impression, and hence strategy toward Africa.
Africa has never enjoyed priority in the US' global outlook and interests. From the Monroe Doctrine when the US asserted dominance in the Americas, to its "special relations" with the United Kingdom and with Europe through NATO, and current preoccupations with China's inexorable rise, Africa has been continually relegated to the fringes in circumstances that command the US' attention.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his team were in sub-Saharan Africa from Aug 7 to 12,2022, paying visits to three countries: South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
The visit coincided with complex circumstances in the international system. And Africa is reeling from the devastating damage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Blinken's August 2022 visit followed his November 2021 one to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. In 2021, the State Department said "the Secretary will advance US-Africa collaboration on shared global priorities, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic and building back to a more inclusive global economy, combatting the climate crisis, revitalizing our democracies, and advancing peace and security." This obviously was couched on the backdrop of the Build Back Better World initiative that Biden proclaimed, after the US' isolationism and erosion of moral example under the Donald Trump presidency.
Furthermore, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been impacting on international affairs since Feb 24, 2022. This time around, Blinken used his visit to launch the US' strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, "which reinforces the US view that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day, from promoting an open and stable international system, to tackling the effects of climate change, food insecurity and pandemics, to shaping our technological and economic futures." During his speech at the University of Pretoria, Blinken reiterated that "the United States will not dictate Africa's choices".
However, lurking in the background is the history of the US' dismissive attitude toward African agency. The global war on terror, because the US characterized it thus, was used by the US to proclaim that those who did not espouse the US' methods of dealing with terrorism were in effect against it; this is a chilling threat for a country claiming to recognize Africa's agency and sovereignty. It also reeks of the instrumentalism with which the US treats Africa. In blunt language, Africa is only as good as the efforts it makes alongside the US against the US' competitors or enemies. Africa, a continent that is struggling to defeat terrorism, is an important player in so far as the US' security priorities are concerned. This, as it happened during the Cold War, might actually supplant the zeal with which the US promotes democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa is all too aware of the US and Western inconsistencies on global issues. For this reason, while African countries are eager to court US diplomats, they are also jealously guarding their sovereignty and are loath to be caught up in US battles against its perceived rivals and competitors. This independence by Africa will disappoint the US, but will nonetheless fortify Africa's agency in global affairs. The same will apply to specific aspects of US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa such as the shaping of Africa's technological and economic future. Africa's employment of non-American and non-European technologies has been a sore point for the US. The US is attempting to peddle lies to convince Africans that using technologies such as Huawei are detrimental to Africa's security.
All these alarms raised by the US, as said at the beginning, are more reactive rather than proactive, and they are also at variance with US fidelity to respecting Africa's sovereignty. In the final analysis, the US' strategy toward Africa appears anodyne on paper, but history shows that giving it more optimism than what is necessary might be a mistake. US history of activity in sub-Saharan Africa points to convenience rather than any deeply ingrained regard for Africa.
Perhaps, realization, on sub-Saharan Africa's part, that the region has never been a priority for the US, might imbue the region with a proper outlook from which to engage the US and other players.
The author is an associate professor of international relations and political science and director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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