US strategy does not signal new era in relations with Africa

The administration of US President Joe Biden in August published its new Africa strategy, which has four objectives: fostering open societies, delivering democratic dividends, advancing economic opportunities, and supporting conservation and the energy transition. We explore the implications for US-Africa relations. 

  • Although the Biden administration has softened its rhetoric on geopolitical competition with Russia and China, this competition will remain a key driver of the US’s Africa policy in the coming years. 
  • Meanwhile, as an important source of critical minerals, Africa is likely to play an increasingly significant role in the US’s climate transition plan in the coming years.
  • Nonetheless, given its many competing foreign and domestic policy priorities, the US is unlikely to be able to devote the time and resources needed to achieve the strategy’s stated objectives or open commercial opportunities on the continent. 
  • US efforts will likely primarily focus on soft power initiatives. These will likely be well received, but will be insufficient to re-establish the US as Africa’s primary international partner. 

New Africa strategy

Having experienced a challenging period under the administration of former US president Donald Trump (2017-21), US-Africa relations have been given new impetus under Biden. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has visited the continent three times. Meanwhile, a second Africa Leaders Summit is scheduled to take place in December in Washington, DC – the first had been held in August 2014. 
The US administration in August published its new Africa strategy, which lists four objectives: 

  • Foster openness and open societies: Bolstering democratic governance, including through improving transparency and combating corruption. 
  • Deliver democratic and security dividends: Emphasises the importance of ensuring democratic practices and promoting human rights. The strategy firmly places responsibility for dealing with security issues on African partners, but reiterates US support for combating insecurity and terrorism. 
  • Advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity: Pledges to support and bolster African capacity to address key challenges facing the continent, including infectious disease response, debt sustainability and food security.
  • Support conservation, climate adaptation and just energy transition: Addresses a key demand of many African nations – that the shift away from fossil fuels not come at the expense of their development. The strategy also recognises the importance of building resilience to climate change. 


The plan marks a clear break from previous US strategies, with its focus on “resetting” relations with African partners, “listen[ing]” to local voices and a return to multilateral approaches. Familiar themes such as democracy promotion, security and energy echo throughout, but are presented through a different lens. For example, the strategy makes no mention of oil and gas, but instead focuses on a just transition away from fossil fuels. The document’s focus on “foreign policy for the American people” reflects the administration’s domestic priorities, such as the energy transition, and desire to re-establish US credibility on issues such as corruption and democratic credentials. 

The strategy means that Biden becomes the first US president since Ronald Reagan (1981-89) without a signature Africa policy. For example, Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993-2001) saw the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which aims to build economic ties between the US and Africa. Meanwhile, George W Bush (2001-09) championed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR). 

Competing with Russia and China

Nonetheless, geopolitical competition, especially with China but to a lesser extent Russia, is likely to remain the primary lens through which the US administration views Africa policy. US influence on the continent has waned in recent years as a number of African governments have become closer to China and Russia. 

This was notably illustrated in March by the divisions in how African countries voted on UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1, which condemned Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Seventeen African countries voted to abstain, including both those that have become closer to Russia in recent years, such as the Central African Republic and Mali, but also others with historically strong ties to Western powers, such as Senegal. 
Meanwhile, China has become the region’s largest trade partner and largest bilateral creditor. Trade between the two reached a record high in 2021, bolstered by Chinese exports of essential medical supplies to support the continent’s pandemic response. Chinese companies have been involved in high-profile infrastructure projects across Africa and the Chinese military has increased its presence on the continent in recent years. 

The US’s Africa strategy specifically references both China and Russia, and goals such as bolstering transparency and democratic practices are likely intended to counter Russian and Chinese influence on the continent. The US Congress (legislature) has historically had a strong interest in Africa policy, and in recent months has enacted specific legislation to combat Russian influence. For example, the House of Representatives (lower house) in April overwhelmingly passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, defining “malign activities” as those that “undermine US objectives and interests”. The bill discusses holding to account African governments that are complicit in such activities, though provides few details as to how this will be done. 

The US is concerned by and has called out Russian disinformation campaigns and perceived electoral interference, including in Madagascar, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It has also sought to sanction individuals and firms associated with disinformation campaigns in Africa. 

 

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Energy transition

Significant US investment in energy transition projects on the continent is unlikely to materialise in the coming years. However, the strategy acknowledges the importance of reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to climate change, reflecting the administration’s efforts to tackle climate change at home and abroad. The Biden administration is prioritising the development of so-called "secure and resilient supply chains" for the energy transition. As a source of critical minerals including cobalt and copper, Africa is likely to be a key part of the US’s transition plan, and securing access to these minerals will likely become a more significant part of US policy in the coming years. 

Competition with China is also likely to shape this policy. This is reflected in US efforts in recent years to bolster relations with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi to weaken the influence of China and Chinese mining companies in the country, which has large cobalt and copper reserves. The US administration is likely to increasingly scrutinise US companies and multinationals working with Chinese companies to exploit critical minerals, particularly in countries with significant reserves of such minerals such as Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Congo (DRC), or those involved in transfers of clean energy technology.

Hard vs soft power

Nonetheless, Biden is most likely to seek to place greater emphasis on “soft power” initiatives, such as rhetorical efforts to frame US-Africa relations in a new cooperative light and support a permanent African seat on the UN Security Council. Although counterterrorism will remain a US focus, more emphasis will be placed on working with local partners and peacebuilding, human rights and security sector reform over “harder” security strategies. Although these efforts are likely to be well received on the continent, they will be insufficient to enable the US to re-establish itself as the primary international partner for African countries. 

Meanwhile, the US will not completely disengage from hard power strategies to achieve its goals. For example, sanctions are likely to remain a key US policy tool in Africa. The US currently has eight active sanctions programmes on the continent – in the CAR, Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe, though not all are active. It has also enforced thematic sanctions, for example in August sanctioning three senior public officials in Liberia  for corruption, as well as Lebanese Shia movement Hizbullah for alleged drug trafficking and terrorism financing in West Africa. Most recently, the US expressed support for sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Guinea on 20 September over concerns the transitional government has not made sufficient progress to organise elections. 

Nonetheless, the administration has also sought to streamline US sanctions regimes. On 15 September, it lifted sanctions on 11 Zimbabwean individuals accused of undermining democratic processes, facilitating corruption or abusing human rights. 

No new era for US-Africa relations

Ultimately, the Biden administration is unlikely to have the time and energy needed to re-establish the US as Africa’s leading partner. Several competing domestic and foreign policy priorities demand greater attention – ranging from the Ukraine conflict and talks with Iran on re-entry to the 2015 nuclear deal, to tackling climate change and rising inflation domestically – and embassies across the continent remain short-staffed. 

As a result, the administration is unlikely to oversee a significant opening up of commercial opportunities for companies in Africa. There is little mention of the private sector in the strategy. This is not surprising. Africa remains a minor trade partner for the US – in 2021 only 1.5% of US exports went to Africa, while the US secured just 1.3% of its imports from Africa, according to the US Department of Commerce. AGOA is set to expire in 2025 and the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), both trade programmes of which Africa has been a significant beneficiary, elapsed in 2020. Nonetheless, the US is unlikely to allow trade relations to dip significantly – it will almost certainly extend AGOA and reauthorise the GSP. 

 

This article is based on online analysis provided by Control Risks exclusively to Seerist. Find out more about Seerist – the only augmented analytics solution for risk and intelligence professionals.