Shaping U.S. Policy on Africa: Pillars of a New Strategy

By Carson, Johnnie | Strategic Forum, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Shaping U.S. Policy on Africa: Pillars of a New Strategy

Carson, Johnnie, Strategic Forum

Key Points

Africa is in danger of slipping further on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities because of Washington's preoccupation with Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and the war on terrorism. Yet Africa is a growing source of petroleum and raw materials, an important trading partner, and an enormous untapped market for American investment.

The continent faces some serious problems and remains outside the mainstream of economic globalization and wide digital connectivity. Failure to address these problems will only increase the need for American assistance and involvement. With more focused U.S. engagement, Africa can become a stronger partner in addressing costly regional crises and mitigating global terrorism.

The next administration has an opportunity to refocus U.S. engagement in Africa and articulate a policy that reflects American interests, values, and priorities. Such policy can leverage U.S. influence and enhance its image in Africa while boosting the continent's economic development and political stability. This policy should rest on seven pillars:

* strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law

* encouraging economic reform and growth

* building partnerships in the global war on terrorism

* combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic

* expanding American trade and investment

* helping to prevent and resolve conflicts

* fostering regional integration.

It is also critical that Washington's relationship with various African states and leaders not be viewed narrowly or exclusively through the prism of the growing U.S. concern with combating global terrorism.


In the four decades since most African states achieved independence, the continent has never been a foreign policy priority for the United States. During the early years of American engagement with Africa, Washington focused its attention on preventing communist countries from gaining major military bases or monopolistic concessions over any of the continent's important strategic minerals. Although the United States provided large amounts of development assistance and food aid to a number of African states, most American interest and support was directed toward African countries and leaders who were regarded as Cold War allies. In those countries still struggling for independence, the United States usually supported African insurgents who were pro-Western and anticommunist in their orientation. In South Africa and Namibia, Washington generally professed great sympathy for eventual majority rule and independence but largely supported the status quo out of fear that liberation groups allied with the Soviet Union or China would win power in any political transition.

Throughout much of this era, scant attention was paid to promoting multiparty democracy, encouraging good human rights practices, or fighting corruption. With the appointment of Congressman Andrew Young as United Nations (UN) Ambassador, President Jimmy Carter energized America's engagement on the continent. With the British government, the Carter administration pushed for a UN-sponsored solution to Namibia's independence struggle and a diplomatic settlement of Rhodesia's 15-year-long unilateral declaration of independence. President Carter's creation of a new Department of State Bureau of Human Rights also gave greater prominence to the issue of torture and physical abuses in Africa. However, notwithstanding these positive developments, protecting America's pro-Western partners in Africa (such as Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, and William Tolbert in Liberia) remained far more important than promoting democratic values, good governance, and improved human rights around the continent.

During the Reagan administration, State Department officials spent substantial time on Africa, but the widely contested administration policy of constructive engagement concentrated largely on achieving independence for Namibia and resolving the problems of apartheid in South Africa in a manner that would limit Soviet advances in southern Africa.

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