DAKAR, Senegal—When National Security Adviser John Bolton unveiled a new U.S. strategy for Africa in December, commentators were quick to notice that its overarching purpose is containing China. According to Bolton, China, and to a lesser extent Russia, are “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States.” He claimed that China’s “predatory practices stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment, interfere with U.S. military operations, and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”
A more deliberate reading of Bolton’s speech, however, shows that it was also a welcome endorsement of American economic engagement to help foster growth across the continent. The strategy, as outlined by Bolton, is built on three pillars: advancing American and African prosperity through increased U.S. commercial ties in Africa; enhancing security through counterterrorism efforts; and promoting American interests and African “self-reliance” through a more targeted and selective use of U.S. foreign aid. Its signature initiative, called “Prosper Africa,” aims to support U.S. investment across the region, improve the business climate and expand Africa’s private sector and middle class.
Bolton is correct that Chinese influence in Africa is growing more rapidly than America’s. Yet by fixating on China, this new U.S. Africa strategy suffers from two fundamental paradoxes that will undermine its dual goals of containing China and developing a prosperous African continent through U.S. investment. First, blatantly admitting that Africa is still not a U.S. foreign policy priority will make it harder for U.S. companies to court goodwill with African markets or win government contracts. Second, increasing commercial ties with African countries in order to advance prosperity, security and stability is what China has already been doing for decades in Africa. Boasting about a new U.S. strategy in Africa that looks a lot like China’s, while criticizing Beijing’s very approach, undermines American credibility.
To be sure, more U.S. commercial engagement is long overdue. The new strategy not only recognizes rapidly changing economic realities across Africa, where countries are experiencing high economic growth rates year after year with increasingly diversified economic partners, but is seeking to respond to it in new ways. Until the 1990s, U.S. policymakers saw Africa through the prism of Cold War rivalries, and the continent was generally absent from other geopolitical strategic calculus. In the early 1990s, Washington’s priorities changed to good governance, democratization and development of local capabilities to provide public services such as health and education. In 1998, al-Qaida’s deadly attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya added security and anti-terrorism to the equation. Until the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which brought the heads of 50 African states to Washington to discuss economic opportunities, American interest in promoting U.S. business, trade and private sector growth in Africa was minimal.
The Trump administration’s new strategy consolidates existing reforms to U.S. foreign aid made throughout the past year. Early in 2018, the United States Agency for International Development launched the “transformation” of its organizational structure to better manage a more efficient, private sector-focused foreign aid apparatus. The day before Bolton’s speech, USAID unveiled a new Private Sector Engagement Policy, which asserts that “the future of international development is enterprise-driven” and encourages staff to embrace entrepreneurial approaches to development. Last October, the U.S. overhauled its overseas private sector investment tools through the creation of a new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. The IDFC will double the existing lending ceiling for private sector investments to $60 billion, allow for more flexible lending practices including equity investments and have a higher lending limit than its predecessor.
The U.S. stands the best chance of promoting its interests in Africa when it leverages its comparative advantages and leads by example.
Other assertions made by Bolton—for example that foreign aid allocations be contingent on United Nations voting patterns and that trade deals be negotiated bilaterally—are also familiar, and often criticized, Chinese tactics. Beijing is known to partially allocate its aid, which by its definition includes trade and investment deals, according to its foreign policy interests. A study last year found that if African governments voted with China in the U.N. General Assembly an extra 10 percent of the time, they would get an 86 percent bump in official development assistance on average.
More broadly, though, the new U.S. Africa strategy reflects the traditional donor community’s slow shift toward investment over aid, spurred partly by the rise of new, non-traditional actors in Africa, led by but not limited to China. These actors view African countries as economic partners and not aid recipients, and harbor very different development experiences of their own.
The new strategy, then, is a step in the right direction, but it might be too little, too late. In his speech, Bolton vowed that the U.S. will “encourage African leaders to choose high-quality, transparent, inclusive, and sustainable foreign investment projects, including those from the United States.” If the U.S. wants to successfully compete with China in Africa, it should make available a lot more financing and diplomatic support, along with the encouragement. The new IDFC’s $60 billion lending ceiling is a drop in the bucket compared to what China loans to its companies and African governments. A recent example in the New York Times illustrates the difficulties U.S. ventures encounter when they go head-to-head with a Chinese state-backed company for a high-profile government infrastructure contract in Africa.
A fundamental obstacle to a more coherent U.S. policy in Africa is that Washington continues to think about Chinese aid within its own paradigms of what foreign aid should look like. A better U.S. approach would be to recognize China as a legitimate actor in African development, acknowledge that despite the negative aspects it can be a force for good, and frame it as a regional partner. This would give the U.S. more space to criticize China when it deserves to be, but also to think more creatively about how to engage or compete with it.
The U.S. stands the best chance of promoting its economic and security interests in Africa when it leverages its comparative advantages, for example in technology and innovation, and leads by example. Rather than fixating on China, Washington should focus squarely on African countries, listening not only to what they need but also what they want. In addition to more development financing, it should offer sustained support for both American and African companies investing in the continent. If it does that, the U.S. can easily rival China for economic influence, while fostering real African prosperity.
*Cornelia Tremann is a freelance writer, analyst and consultant currently based in Dakar, Senegal. Her doctoral work focused on the social, political and economic impacts of Chinese engagements in Madagascar. Her current research interests include the politics of development, the geopolitics of aid, China-Africa relations and China-U.S. relations in Africa. She holds a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can follow her on Twitter @tremanncc.