Africa veterans help US take on China

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Friday, 10 December 2021 13:15
G7 summit in Cornwall
U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa during G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

Barely two weeks into his administration, US President Joe Biden delighted supporters of closer US-Africa ties with his message to regional leaders gathering virtually for the 34th African Union (AU) summit. In his 5 February address, the US President set a different tone for US-Africa relations after four years of Donald Trump. Instead of “America First”, Biden promised a new era of “solidarity, support and mutual respect”.

Since taking office on 20 January, Biden has assembled a deep bench of Africa experts eager to engage with African nations and the AU.

Several were born on the continent or have African-born parents and many are women, their appointments helping to fulfil Biden’s promise to create a diverse administration that “looks like America”.

But, despite the rhetoric, Africa is not likely to feature high on the list of diplomatic priorities.

Washington is in the midst of its “Pivot to Asia” to take on China’s growing influence and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan shows a growing reluctance to put boots on the ground to fight terrorism.

Plus, US influence is being challenged around the world, as shown by the roles of Turkey and Russia in Libya and Syria for example.

Rather than politically motivated appointments, “this administration wanted to make sure that it had people who were good choices because of their experience and their expertise,” says Florizelle Liser, a former assistant US trade representative for Africa who now heads the Corporate Council on Africa.

Tapping Africa expertise

At the same time, some of Biden’s signature hires reflect his determination that the US once again lead on democracy, human rights and climate change – issues that risk antagonising African countries leery of foreign intervention.

Republicans are blocking dozens of the president’s picks, including top Africa positions. And crises on the continent have already led to a reshuffling of staff resources and priorities. To help formulate a Biden Africa policy, the president has tapped into Washington’s cadre of Africanists.

In one of his first hires, Biden selected a longtime diplomat to head Africa policy at the White House National Security Council. Dana Banks’ predecessors under Trump came from the CIA and the Commerce Department.

Over at the Department of State, Biden has appointed a former ambassador to South Sudan, Mary Catherine ‘Molly’ Phee, to head up Africa policy.

He has also hired Sierra Leone-born conflict resolution expert Chidi Blyden as the first African American to lead Africa policy at the Department of Defense, signalling a focus on security cooperation and training beyond US kinetic operations.

In a move that has excited the Africa policy community, he chose former assistant secretary of state for African affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. She is seen as ideally suited to court a large African bloc of countries that tend to vote in unison.

“Having somebody who has a phenomenal reputation in Africa, who knows Africa intimately, is a huge advantage,” says Tibor Nagy, who succeeded Thomas-Greenfield at African affairs from 2018 until this January. “In the past we’ve had UN ambassadors who couldn’t even name the countries on the African  continent.”

Most recently, the administration tapped former national intelligence officer for Africa Judd Devermont to help craft a new blueprint for US engagement with the continent over at the National Security Council. The new strategy is expected to be released in the first half of 2022.

Nagy describes African affairs as the province of a small group of experts who rotate in and out of government. He says Africa policy is “one of the very, very few non-partisan issues” in Washington, with a focus across administrations on key issues such as economic development and counterterrorism.

Under Biden, many of these experts are seeing their roles change from “stewards to architects” of policy, say Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. As a result, “it’s hard to divine what their individual policy intentions are going to be.”

The uncertainty is compounded by political obstruction on Capitol Hill, where Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been holding up dozens of diplomatic appointments in an effort to extract sanctions on Russia’s gas pipeline to western Europe. These included Phee (who was confirmed at the end of September after five months in limbo) as well as several ambassadorial nominees, which in turn delayed potential plans to replace the departed special envoys to the Sahel and the Great Lakes.

Still, the new Africa team has offered some hints about its goals. Banks, for example, has announced the donation of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Africa and requested a doubling of funding for the Prosper Africa initiative that aims to boost US trade and  investment.

Climate and aid

Biden himself has made two signature appointments in two areas with an outsize impact on Africa.

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With Samantha Power, the president has put an outspoken human rights activist in charge of the US Agency for International Development, which doles out billions of dollars of assistance to the continent every year. Her role, Biden said, was to rally the international community “to stand up for the dignity and humanity of all people”.

Climate envoy John Kerry is another marquee name with an eye on Africa. The former secretary of state stopped by Egypt in June and warned Cairo against investing too heavily in oil and gas.

Finally, several hires attest to the tendency for entrenched conflicts to sideline long-term goals for US-Africa relations.

With violence raging in Tigray, Biden tapped veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman in April as his special envoy for the Horn of Africa. And the chief of mission for Libya, Richard Norland, has seen his role expanded to special envoy as the US steps up its diplomatic engagement ahead of elections planned for December.

“Whatever they think they’re going to focus on, they’re going to have to deal with what issues emerge,” Nagy says of Biden’s Africa team. “It’s not Washington setting the agenda for Africa; it’s Africa setting the agenda for  Washington.”

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