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Africa and the US presidential campaign

The administration of Barack Obama - seated here with South African President Jacob Zuma - has been criticised for not focusing more foreign policy attention on Africa. EPA/Olivier Douliery

This year’s US presidential election has been notable for the lack of focus on foreign policy issues by either candidate.

Certainly Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, has attempted to gain traction by criticising President Barack Obama over his reaction to developments in the Middle East and North Africa, his relationship with Russia, his economic policy towards China and his refusal to be drawn into specifics over US policy towards Iran.

Yet these have failed to generate much interest among the American public, and the President’s response, confined to his recent address to the United Nations, amounted to little more than rhetorical flourishes about these issues.

Although the presidential debates provide the opportunity for the candidates to discuss foreign policy, they will probably confine themselves to restating their position on these four issues. With the exception of limited exchanges regarding the assassination of Christopher Stevens in Libya, Africa will therefore receive little attention in these debates. Sub-Saharan Africa will largely be ignored. Why is this so? Why should they focus their attention on Africa and what will be the consequence of their negligence?

There is, of course, a simple two-part answer to the neglect of African issues. The first is that the relatively dire economic situation at home coupled with a diminished national security threat from global terrorism has engendered a parochial focus on domestic issues. America has historically led the global economy out of recessions. Yet this time, according to all the major indicators – unemployment, GDP, and public and private debt – it is lagging most of Asia and even parts of beleaguered Europe.

“All politics is local”, the adage goes, and in that context Americans – like their European counterparts – are much more focused on relieving domestic poverty than addressing global hunger. This is an election in which grand visions remain at a premium. Thus although every speech invokes the importance of American leadership and its significance as a model for development, such platitudes are little more than observed rituals in a taut political season.

The second predictable answer is that Africa remains a low strategic priority for the US. Certainly, there are notable exceptions. The US has led the successful campaign in addressing the piracy stemming from Somalia, and it has deployed personnel to assist in the battle against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Most notably, perhaps, the US remains the largest OECD aid donor to Africa.

Yet this relative neglect of Africa generates a second question: why should the US rise above focusing on the immediate and pay more attention to Africa? The most obvious response is that it has a moral responsibility to address the dire needs of Africa’s vast population. Bluntly stated, however, this claim is unlikely to draw much support domestically. Neither advocating donor aid nor foreign investment is compatible with an electoral agenda that focuses on budget cutting and job creation. Foreigners are always surprised to learn that public opinion polls repeatedly suggest Americans heavily favour global engagement, multilateralism and philanthropic activity abroad. But in the current environment, the justification for any debate about Africa has to appeal to American interests.

Yet there are two policy areas that should nevertheless be of strategic interest to the United States. The first concerns its national security, notably its lack of friends and allies in the region. The US has spent much of the last decade focusing on the threats posed by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, human trafficking and piracy. US intelligence has focused much of its attention on failed states as the source of these problems. Africa remains home to ten of the 15 highest-ranked failed states according to the 2012 Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Index and therefore should be a priority for US security. Yet Africom, the Department of Defense agency that focuses on Africa, could not even find an African country willing to house its regional headquarters, as a result, is located in Germany.

From the American perspective, the death of Osama bin Laden and the decline in the number of piracy attacks has reduced the military importance of failed states. But the unpredictable nature of these problems, as demonstrated by the recent surge in jihadism in Mali and Nigeria, suggests that Africa may again become the source of the US’ national security threats, if not against its mainland then against its personnel and property abroad.

Chinese economic influence in Africa is growing quickly: President Hu Jintao with his Equatorial Guinean counterpart Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo at a summit. EPA/How Hwee Young

The second policy area that should concern the US is, of course, economic. As Deborah Brautigam notes in her 2009 book, Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, the People’s Republic of China has made enormous inroads as both donors and investors across Africa since the turn of the century. Although no official records are available, Chinese aid to the region is now estimated to exceed that of the World Bank, and is far more popular among Africa’s political leaders because the Chinese ignore concerns about human rights, labour standards and environmental protection that are key components of World Bank deals.

The Chinese commitment is significant: Africa reportedly received 14% of Chinese investment in 2010. Having already injected a comparable sum in the last decade, China recently pledged a further $20 billion in tied aid across Africa to complement its $166 billion in annual trade at a meeting of the Forum on Chinese-African Cooperation. The effect has been a huge growth in African-Chinese trade and in Chinese foreign direct investment, and China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. Indeed, some estimates suggest that trade could rise to as much as US$400 billion in the next few years, with natural resources flowing to China and finished products back to Africa.

And where are the Americans in all of this? What are the implications? While US policymakers focus on national security in Asia and the influx of cheap Chinese imports at home, they are clearly losing the battle for the hearts, minds, markets and resources of Africa.

The failure of US policymakers to recognise that Africa is a vibrant emergent market, not just a security concern or a target for philanthropy, may cost them dearly in the years ahead, both economically and in terms of America’s already waning political influence in the region.

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