The New African-American Relations

The Economist has a curious article out this week arguing that in the broad scheme of things, American foreign policy toward Africa won’t change much from under George W. Bush.

The idea is that (1) Africa was one of few relative policy successes for Bush: he presided over a gigantic increase in foreign aid, especially through PEPFAR; and (2) the U.S.– like it or not– will become increasingly dependent on African oil, handicapping any grander visions President Obama may have.

In some ways, the magazine is right.  African oil, especially, is a big deal.  The U.S. will soon get a whole quarter of its oil from countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea.   And as the Economist points out in a follow-up article, the Obama administration has shown no signs of backing off Bush’s cozying up to possibly the world’s most brutal dictator, Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

And it’s true– Bush did vastly expand aid to Africa.  He also initiated steps to reform it, most notably through the Millenium Challenge Corporation, which attempts to cajole governments into adopting reformist policies as a carrot for aid. 

But corruption wasn’t the only aid priority of the previous administration. 

Bush and congressional Republicans for years steered PEPFAR spending away from organizations that did not conform to his family-values checklist.   Bush made a joke of a plan ostensibly designed to combat the world’s most pressing health emergency by requiring a full third of spending to go to abstinence programs.  Furthermore, the Bush administration signed onto the global gag rule, preventing recipients of U.S. funding abroad from counseling abortion as an option for patients. 

Congressional Democrats stripped PEPFAR of its false and counterproductive moral code in 2008, and Obama has no intention of going back.  And one of his first moves in office was to issue an order countermanding the abortion funding requirement.   Stripping U.S. aid policy of its attempt to woo evangelicals is a major change, unmentioned by the article.

And, while we’re at it, I’d suggest a couple of others.   A quick one to note is U.S. involvement in criminal tribunals.  Clearly, Bush wasn’t a fan of the International Criminal Court, and I’ll be honest, there are good reasons for that (whether he knew them or not…).  The Obama administration has already demonstrated a willingness to participate in more international human-rights groups by signing on to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

If, as the Economist article indicates, Obama may encourage efforts by the ICC to go after indicted leaders like Bashir of Sudan, that will represent a major, not minor, change in African policy.  Say what you will about the global benefits of criminal courts, holding Bashir’s feet to that fire will make Darfur and the brewing conflict in Southern Sudan all the more difficult to solve.

The article mentions that there is a difference between a white Texan preaching anti-corruption in Africa and the first black American president talking good governance there. 

But this isn’t simply a rhetorical difference.  The truth is that in many places across the continent, President Obama has more political capital than local leaders themselves.  In his recent campaign, Jacob Zuma of South Africa went out of his way to compare himself to Obama– and his election was already assured.  So, yes, the article is right that we should expect stronger rhetoric on corruption and human rights coming from an Obama-run Washington, but we should also expect more Africans to listen.

Photo from the Associated Press.

Link to a transcript of Obama’s Ghana speech.

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Comments
2 Responses to “The New African-American Relations”
  1. foarp says:

    As a China buff, I feel I have to inject reason no.3 why US policy is unlikely to take more of an active role (although, we should remember that it was Bush that finally did for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, now on trial in the Hague) – China and India. Both of these countries have quickly developing manufacturing sectors which will require large amounts of resources which must be obtained from other countries. Whilst geographically-vast-but-demographically-poor Russia and Australia will be prime sources for these materials, the nations of South America and Africa are equally promising. The typical rhetoric heard over the past decade is that investment from India and China will retard democratisation and encourage corruption in the third world. What I would say is that corrupt regimes trouble all investors pretty much equally. Whilst western-based companies may, be more likely to face censure if they indulge in bribery, this has not deterred them so far.

  2. foarp says:

    [oops, pressed enter early] However, actual interventionism (rather than the kind of prodding that Obama has engaged in so far) is far more likely to run up against the interests of other countries active in Africa. Whereas, up till now pretty much each African country has had only one power exercising a sphere of influence over it (hence the French interventions in Ivory Coast, the British intervention in Sierra Leone, and South African influence in over its neighbours) any action which runs counter to the interests of new investors in Africa will be discouraged. This will be especially true once Chinese military power becomes capable through the addition of aircraft carriers and amphibious landing ships of extending its reach beyond the South China Sea. However, western interests and those of Asia’s developing superpowers are actually pretty much parallel in their focus on access to resources, and these resources will still be sold on the international market so as to be available to anyone with money to buy them.

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