A Renewed Interest: US-Africa Engagement

By Chaveas, Peter | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

A Renewed Interest: US-Africa Engagement


Chaveas, Peter, Harvard International Review


In a post-9/11 world, the United States has come to recognize that it has strategic interests in parts of the world that it long viewed as marginal at best. Africa is one such area. As a result, there has been an unprecedented focus on African issues in Washington and an equally unprecedented application of US resources to address the challenges that confront Africa and at the same time threaten US interests on the continent.

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In the past, because it perceived its interests in Africa as secondary to other foreign policy and security goals, the United States frequently diverted focus and resources to higher priorities. Thus, for many of its African partners, it came to be perceived as well-meaning, but unreliable. Independent of US interests and actions, Africans are increasingly demonstrating the will to address their own challenges, albeit with continuing reliance on outside support. With the recognition of new strategic interests in Africa comes the prospect that the United States may be able to muster the political will to more effectively contribute to African efforts to address instability, bad governance, poverty, marginalization from the global economy, and other key challenges that confront Africa.

The United States and Africa before 9/11

Most of the nations that now constitute the African Union obtained their independence in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, the great enthusiasm that greeted their independence soon subsided as the complexities of economic and political development in post-colonial societies became increasingly evident. In addition, much of Africa became a proxy battlefield for US-Soviet competition during the 1970s and 1980s. While the United States undertook numerous initiatives during this period that were welcomed by Africans and had promise of contributing to sustainable peace, security, and economic growth, the priority of supporting Cold War objectives too frequently overwhelmed this desire to help or forced the United States to remain on the sidelines of some of the continent's most significant internal developments.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was finally free to interact with Africa on its own terms. But a curious thing happened on the way to more sustainable engagement with the continent. What started as a laudable intervention to alleviate the evident plight of the people of Somalia became a direct intervention mired in intense and violent clan politics with disastrous results for members of the US armed forces. Public support for the intervention collapsed, and as President Clinton ordered the immediate evacuation of all US troops, the will of the United States to engage in Africa was dealt a dramatic setback. When genocide developed a few years later in Rwanda, the United States was paralyzed and engaged in a fruitless debate over the meaning of the term itself and the world's attendant obligations.

The United States did briefly exalt in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid, but it was unable to fully exploit the potential of this dramatic development as it labored under the African perception that, until late in the game, it had been on the wrong side of history. It further handicapped itself by failing to recognize that the unconditional protection of the intellectual property rights of the pharmaceutical industry were exacerbating the HIV/AIDS catastrophe. While these dramatic developments were proceeding, the United States actively undertook a number of worthy initiatives that were well received by Africans. However, a combination of US impatience to achieve unrealistic short-term results, inability to sustain funding due to the imperative of generating a post-Cold War domestic dividend, and other global developments judged to be of higher priority all contributed to the widely-held African perception that the United States was simply an unreliable partner. …

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