The United States is part of Africa

What does the election of Joe Biden mean for the countries of Africa?
Africa and the USA

Trump paid little attention to Africa

Trump has not visited the continent during his tenure and has received fewer African heads of state than any other president in the past 50 years. The African continent also received little media attention. The former president has maneuvered diplomatic relations with some countries to an all-time low by designating African countries as “shithole countries” and by not filling central ambassadorial posts for months. Trump's far-reaching entry restrictions and the termination of numerous aid programs in the health sector had painful effects on the quality of life of many Africans. For institutions that also support birth planning in Africa, the "Global Gag Rule" was applied, which meant that organizations are no longer funded with American funds if they support or provide information about abortions.

What impact will Joe Biden's election have on the African continent?

Among African opinion leaders, two positions emerged as to how the outcome of the election could affect Africa: One view is that there will be broad continuity in US policy towards Africa, regardless of the outcome of the election. With this generalizing representation for a continent with over 50 countries, it is also important to note that many African countries have often viewed the Republicans critically, but also as partners who stood for reliability. On the other hand, the predominant analysis is that Biden and the Democratic Party promise significantly better prospects for the continent than would have been the case under President Trump.

Proponents of the first thesis point to a remarkable continuity in relations between Africa and the USA that goes beyond the election cycles. They also stress that the perception of the marginalization of African interests among republican administrations is not necessarily generally correct. Programs like PEPFAR to fight HIV / AIDS and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) were launched under the Republican administration and were largely implemented during the Trump administration.

US foreign policy was and will - with all justified hope of a return to more multilateralism - likely to continue to be guided to a large extent by a perspective that aims to guarantee national security and is based on the pursuit of US interests. Many decision-makers on the continent are well aware of this.

For years, however, US experts have noted that the US's Africa policy, which is often viewed as short-sighted and entangled in old thought patterns, does not even meet its own claims in many respects. It needs fundamental modernization in order to promote sustainable economic growth, security, democracy and development.

The signs point to a realignment of US-Africa policy

The fact that there will be a substantive realignment of US policy under the Biden administration towards the African Union and its member states can be seen above all in the following points:

  • Top foreign policy team with experience in Africa

President Biden has already nominated well-known and experienced Africa experts for important foreign policy positions - including most recently Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN Ambassador, who had previously served as Director for Africa in the US State Department and as Ambassador to Liberia. The fact that many posts are also filled with African-Americans is being closely followed on the continent. The appointment of former UN ambassador Samantha Power as the new head of USAID signals that development cooperation could take on a new role in American foreign and security policy. Power is taking over a development organization from its predecessor, Mark Green, which successfully defended itself against personal interference under Trump and which could react relatively quickly to new policy guidelines.

  • Priorities are already articulated

Gregory Meeks, the new chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives, made it clear during his first public appearance where these priorities could lie: Strengthening the initiatives for a civil society exchange between Africa and the USA, combating climate change together, supporting the African free trade area and common trade, extension and reorganization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) beyond 2025 - especially in the field of digital infrastructure and cooperation between African and American technology groups, etc. The USA would also set up external representations in regional economic communities of the African Union, according to Meeks. A sign of a more focused, regional cooperation between the US and Africa.

  • Good governance and democracy as a prerequisite for Security partnerships

Meeks also holds out security partnerships with African countries based on the rule of law and democratic principles. No foreign state has as many troop contingents on the continent as the United States. Often, however, a link with development policy and good governance is not discernible; rather, the military presence is aimed at the United States' self-interest in security policy. In some cases, this has negative consequences for development on site.

  • Multilateral forums and topics are gaining in importance again

President Biden and his government will again rely more heavily on multilateral institutions and their conflict resolution mechanisms. On his first day in office, Biden had already withdrawn the first radical decisions of Trump, such as the exit from the Paris climate agreement. For the continent Africa, which is particularly hard hit by climate change, the appointment of a high-ranking team of experts and the appointment of former Foreign Minister John Kerry as envoy for climate is of particular importance. Gina McCarthy, the former head of the EPA environmental agency, is now coordinating the implementation of a new climate protection strategy directly in the White House, which affects all departments and is now also treated as a central component of US foreign policy and national security. The USA will remain in the WHO and the WTO and join the UN's Covax initiative, which is currently so important for many African countries.

  • Stop the shift of power on the continent eastwards

The announced strengthening of soft-power elements in American Africa policy should not hide the fact that the USA will be paying a lot of attention to the global power shifts that are also being decided in Africa. Limiting the influence of China and Russia is in the US's self-interest. Presumably, however, the Biden administration will take a more nuanced position vis-à-vis China. That would mean not only seeing China as a rival in Africa, but also recognizing its contribution to the continent. The USA could contribute expertise in Africa that China lacks or does not offer, for example in the field of education. A connection between development and security policy, where the entire toolbox of American foreign policy would be used, so to speak, could strengthen America's role on the continent again.

outlook

Video messages from President Biden to the African Union, tweets from the White House condemning the course of the elections in Uganda and calling for the protection of human rights in Ethiopia, as well as the proposals already articulated by high-ranking decision-makers for a readjustment of US policy towards Africa, are a clear departure from Trump politics. Above all, however, there is hope that the tone towards Africa will change under the Biden government and that interests on both sides will be brought more into focus again. The African Union would do well to respond to the American proposals with a coordinated position paper. Topics that are frequently mentioned in this context are the containment of illegal financial flows and a common trade policy with the AU. A concrete, practical measure, for example, would be to facilitate remittances from abroad, which many Africans depend on, and to offer them more cheaply.

Africa is being hit extremely hard by the economic and social upheavals of the pandemic. However, this also opens up the possibility of adapting interventions to the crisis situation and contributing to the sustainable reconstruction of the African economy. Encouraging private investment and supporting spending on research, development and infrastructure as well as improving health care will therefore inevitably be on the agenda. Many African governments are under increasing pressure to get vaccines. There is great hope that the US will engage in a globally coordinated approach to vaccine distribution. The pledges made by the American administration and also by Germany at the Munich Security Conference and during the G7 summit to use the COVAX initiative to campaign even more for a fairer distribution of the vaccine is, in view of the vaccine diplomacy that Russia and China have started in Africa, also from strategic importance.

The US obviously wants to take on a more important role in Africa again. From a constitutional and democratic perspective, that would be desirable and also in the interests of Europe. At the same time, even better coordinated European and American interventions could lead to synergies on the continent and help strengthen transatlantic relations. Because the EU is also currently in the process of realigning its partnership with Africa. Chancellor Merkel underlined this at the Munich Security Conference: "The relationship with Africa is of such strategic importance that it should also be an important topic in transatlantic relations".

Authors: Claudia Taylor, Karin April, Hanns Bühler, HSS, South Africa