America Ignores Africa at Its Own Peril
America’s ambivalence toward Africa puts it at a dangerous disadvantage there — and impacts U.S. leadership around the globe. While Washington focuses on the Russian military threat in Eastern Europe and Chinese expansionism in the Pacific, Russia and China are outcompeting the United States in Africa in ways that could fundamentally alter the global balance of power.
To restore momentum to its work in Africa, Washington should develop an integrated strategy that does three things: establishes continent-wide objectives with tailored regional strategies, dramatically expands mutually beneficial economic investment, and leverages areas in which the United States holds comparative advantage over its competitors.
A Continent-Wide Blind Spot
The legacy of U.S. policy in Africa is checkered. Throughout its history, the United States lacked clear objectives on the continent and, as a result, its policies were largely reactionary, vacillating between exploitation, benign neglect, and half-hearted attempts at democratization and humanitarian assistance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, U.S. engagement with Africa came principally through the slave trade. For the next century, Washington paid little attention to the continent until de-colonization coincided with Cold War competition in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In this context, the United States focused on bringing newly independent African countries into its sphere of influence — often ignoring (or enabling) leaders with appalling records of violence and corruption. After the Cold War, U.S. policy shifted to humanitarian objectives, intervening in Somalia to stop a famine and initiating the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — and investment of more than $100 billion to combat HIV/AIDS. After the attacks of 9/11, however, the preponderance of U.S. diplomatic and military energy has focused on countering violent extremist organizations as part of the Global War on Terror.
Today, Washington still primarily views the continent as a problem to be managed rather than as a partner in shaping the next century. Promising economic and demographic trends have driven Africa’s emergence as a significant player on the world stage. But the United States has been slow to establish a clear, proactive policy for Africa. This is a strategic blind spot that most U.S. policymakers can’t seem to shake — and one that their competitors don’t have.
Instead of a problem to be solved, China and Russia view Africa as an opportunity to be seized. From 2007 to 2017, U.S. trade with Africa dropped by 54 percent as China’s grew by 220 percent. While Russia’s total investment in Africa pales in comparison to the United States and China, it has grown by 40 percent since 2015. China supports 46 port projects in Africa — financing more than half and operating 11. The United States supports zero.
In 2006, China launched the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, bringing together heads of state from across the continent every three years. Russia began a similar junket in 2019, holding the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. The United States hosted something similar in 2014 — but hasn’t since. The Biden administration has recognized Washington’s error and announced plans to host a second event in 2022, but in this diplomatic game the United States is still playing from behind.
In a savvy soft-power move, China launched a 2015 initiative to put satellite televisions in 10,000 African villages. No surprise — the television sets come with free, pre-loaded access to Chinese stations, pumping state-sponsored content into homes across the continent. Today, Russia embeds a former intelligence agent as a senior defense advisor in the Central African Republic, employs the Wagner Group in Libya and elsewhere, and has deals with seven Sub-Saharan countries to build their nuclear energy infrastructure.
Each competitor’s strategy has its flaws — and there are certainly seams for the United States to exploit — but the contrast between Russia and China’s involvement in Africa and Washington’s neglect is stark.
However, investing in Africa is not just about competing with China and Russia: Africa is an epicenter of tremendous opportunity. If human capital truly is the greatest asset to economic growth, Africa has unappreciated potential. In the next 35 years, Africa’s population is expected to double — comprising nearly 30 percent of the world’s population by 2050. By 2025, an additional 90 million African households will enter the consumer class — contributing purchasing power of $2.1 trillion to the global economy.
Africa also has the potential to become the world’s next manufacturing epicenter. As the cost of labor in China increases, experts project that 100 million labor-intensive jobs will leave the country by 2030 — with Africa as a likely landing spot. The Brookings Institution estimates that manufacturing spending in Africa will grow by over 50 percent — reaching more than $660 billion by 2030. In 2021, 54 of 55 African nations initiated the African Continental Free Trade Area — a free trade agreement that eliminates tariffs on 90 percent of goods, enabling the free flow of the raw materials essential for manufacturing to thrive.
There are also more immediate economic interests at play. Africa holds vast repositories of rare earth elements, vital to the production of everything from cell phones and LED screens to energy infrastructure and defense technologies. More than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt — an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries — is in Congo. Around 35 percent of the world’s bauxite — a key component of aluminum production — is found in Guinea. However, China currently holds a virtual monopoly on the world’s rare earth elements production — putting America’s economy and national security at risk. If the United States wants to secure access to the raw materials required to build the future, it’s going to have to do it in Africa.
Politically, African nations wield surprisingly significant, yet subtle, influence on a host of global issues. At the United Nations, African countries comprise nearly 28 percent of member states — providing a powerful voting bloc capable of channeling resources to initiatives aligned to its interests. Unity among the A3 — the three rotating African members of the U.N. Security Council — increases Africa’s voice on council resolutions, even ones that don’t relate to Africa. What’s more, the way in which African leaders choose to implement the African Continental Free Trade Agreement will determine which global powers have greatest access to continent-wide markets worth more than $3.4 trillion. Early indications are that China is the big winner.
No doubt, there are challenges to progress in Africa. But progress is being made and the truth is that Africa will play a central role in the next century — demographically, economically, and politically — whether the United States likes it or not.
A New Approach
To account for the strategic importance of Africa, the United States needs to develop a coherent, compelling, and competitive strategy. Inevitably, with such a large and diverse continent, experts disagree on the best approach. Some complain that the military plays too large a role while others suggest military-first diplomacy is necessary in a continent where security and governance are frequently lacking. Some suggest devising multiple strategies, tailored for the unique geopolitical interests in North Africa, East Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Others suggest a unified strategy, focused on countering Chinese influence or advancing U.S. economic interests with initiatives like the 2019 Prosper Africa program. Still others argue that the current de facto country-by-country approach, with limited top-down guidance, provides strategic flexibility in a diverse and often volatile continent.
Instead of adopting an “either/or” approach to the question of continent-wide versus regional strategies, an effective U.S. strategy for Africa should employ a “both/and” approach, establishing continent-wide priorities and objectives for everything from trade to military investments, with tailored regional strategies that support detailed execution across the continent. Beneath continent-wide objectives — established by the assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs — should be distinct regional agendas that translate the “what” of strategy into the “how” of execution. Development of regional strategies should be led by special envoys with the power to convene key stakeholders from across the U.S. government. Special envoys already exist for the Great Lakes Region and the Sahel — additional ones are needed to create and oversee a truly integrated U.S. approach in other regions as well.
Economically, a successful Africa strategy would dramatically increase mutually beneficial economic investment across the continent. Both Prosper Africa and the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act provide a good foundation, but neither are ambitious or effective enough. Since 2019, the United States has invested $22 billion with 80 companies in 30 African countries through Prosper Africa. In 2020, China had deals with 623 businesses for a total investment of $735 billion. And, under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, only 18 out of the 39 eligible countries have utilization strategies and most are one-dimensional. For a strategy to be effective, the United States should be willing to invest dramatically more — both economically and politically — into exchange with Africa.
The first step is to improve U.S. policies that buttress American companies taking risks in often volatile African markets. It is unfair — and unhelpful to American foreign policy — to make American companies shoulder risks that their competitors do not. China offers massive development loans for African governments — creating incentives for them to partner with Chinese businesses. And, as state-owned enterprises, many Chinese businesses have their risk underwritten by their government. U.S. commerce simply doesn’t get that kind of assistance. If Washington intends to substantially increase investment in Africa, it should ameliorate the risk to U.S. businesses seeking to operate there.
And, as it engages economically, the United States should focus on initiatives in sectors where it has unique advantages: education, the creative industries, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Investments in these sectors place the United States at the leading edge of “what’s next” in Africa rather than trying to wedge its way into already crowded, more traditional sectors.
America’s greatest comparative advantage is its values — when it lives up to them. A fascinating study published last year shows that, despite China massively outspending the United States in Africa, positive impressions of the two countries remain largely unchanged since 2015 and are neck-and-neck across a range of indicators. A 2020 report by Afrobarometer, the authoritative African survey organization, shows that in 18 countries over the previous year, 32 percent of Africans preferred a U.S. development model, compared to 23 percent who preferred the Chinese model. These aren’t mind-blowing gaps — but they do suggest that there is something inherently attractive about the American way of doing things. The United States should continue to champion its current programs and double down on its public diplomacy in Africa. This would press the advantage that Washington still enjoys in certain forms of soft power.
To support an effective strategy for Africa, the United States should also reexamine fundamental assumptions about how military forces are apportioned around the globe — and give serious thought to how it secures and advances its interests in Africa. The United States has deep and meaningful military relationships across the continent. The U.S. military has trained African armies, helped to fight violent extremists, and improved the effectiveness of troops deploying to U.N. operations. A successful U.S. strategy would shift the current downward trajectory by increasing military investment in Africa. The U.S. Army’s employment of a Security Force Assistance Brigade in Africa is a good step, but to sufficiently support U.S. policy objectives, the Department of Defense needs to reverse its drawdown and include more than one paragraph about Africa in the next National Defense Strategy.
Finally, the United States should be willing to act boldly and take strategic risks. Its competitors understand this. Today, China operates nearly one in five ports in Sub-Saharan Africa — providing them with economic, diplomatic, and military clout. China’s approach is not a new one. For 95 years, the United States underwrote the construction, operation, and security of the Panama Canal — giving it similar regional and global clout to that China has in Africa today. It’s time for the United States to dust off that old playbook (with the full cooperation and mutual benefit of African partners) and look for ways to boldly layer the effects of all elements of national power in Africa.
While the United States is playing catch-up in many areas, all is not lost. The United States still holds comparative advantages over Russia and China. Developing a strategy that leverages these advantages — by focusing on what it does best — will enable the United States to make up ground quickly and emerge as a leading partner with Africa in building the next century.
Joe Bruhl is a colonel in the U.S. Army with seven years’ experience living and working in Africa. He’s led as an Apache pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan and served in another kind of “combat” in the Pentagon on the Army and Joint Staffs. Bruhl recently completed a tour as Chief of Future Plans for the U.S. Army’s Southern European Task Force—AFRICA. He holds a master’s degree from Harvard and lives in Vicenza, Italy.