Whither US Africa Policy under the Biden Administration?

27 January 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Confronted by serious domestic issues, the Biden Administration is likely to continue the Africa policy of its predecessor but, as that is framed largely through the lens of China’s presence on the continent, it may become necessary for Washington to finesse its Africa policy sooner rather than later.

Background

African leaders will be looking forward to an improved relationship with the United States, as the Biden Administration settles into the White House.

Even though both President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are well-acquainted with and well-disposed towards Africa, the scale of the pressing domestic issues in the US will command the attention of the new administration. In the foreign policy space, Washington’s attention will be centred on addressing such challenges as including orchestrating stronger international responses to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, and countering China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, while repairing the alliances that were damaged during the Trump Administration. Amid such a workload, continuity is, for the time being at least, likely to be the order of the day for Washington’s Africa policy.

Comment

In December 2018, the Trump Administration centred its Africa policy on “three core interests”: ‘the promotion of US economic interests in Africa, the countering of Islamic extremist terrorism and ensuring the efficient and effective use of the US taxpayer dollars allocated to aid programmes and UN operations in Africa.’ Despite the many other foreign policy failings of the Trump Administration, those are not unreasonable objectives and the new Administration is unlikely to rush into wholesale changes. What the Biden White House is likely to do, however, is to try to bring a greater multilateral approach to accomplishing the first two of those core interests.

Consistent with the goal of repairing damaged alliances and weakened relationships – Trump famously had scant regard for African countries, describing them uncharitably and, although praising Namibia, was unable to correctly pronounce its name – the Biden Administration will look to recommit the US to the cause of multilateralism. It will do that as a means of both strengthening the international system (and US leadership of it), and of containing the economic, political and security influence enjoyed by Beijing in many African capitals.

The return of the US to the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Agreement will help to restore Washington’s standing in Africa, as could a continuation of the Trump-era United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The DFC aims to encourage US investment in Africa under the Prosper Africa Initiative to the tune of US$60 billion; the same amount as was made available by China at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC).

Speaking in 2019, Biden made the point that:

We do need to get tough with China. … And the most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behaviour … [by] integrating our friends in Latin America and Africa and seizing opportunities throughout the broader network of democracies.

Thus, in the near future at least, Washington will continue to view its relationships with African countries largely through the lens of China’s relationships with the continent but, the US will, in many ways, be playing catch-up. As the South China Morning Post reports:

China is Africa’s largest trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. China-Africa trade in 2019 stood at US$208.7 billion, according to figures from Beijing, while US-Africa trade totalled just US$56.9 billion, based on official data.

Given that China’s presence in Africa, although not without controversy, has brought benefits, including notable infrastructural improvements, and that China is still generally well-regarded in Africa, it is by no means certain that Washington’s view of Beijing will be shared across the capitals of Africa. Thus, the Biden Administration may find it advantageous – if not necessary – to finesse its Africa policy sooner rather than later.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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