Dear Obama: Corruption Isn’t Just Africa’s Problem

Copyright Foreign Policy

What the U.S. president didn’t say in his big Nairobi speech.

For an American president celebrated by many of his listeners as a returning native son, Barack Obama’s recent speech in a Nairobi stadium was a strange way to promote what he called an Africa “on the move.”

Yes, there were plenty of feel-good moments in Nairobi, where a smiling Obama dined with family, dropped occasional phrases in Swahili, and danced with an easy grace to African rhythms before the cameras. It all thoroughly charmed an audience eager to embrace him.

But if one listened carefully, boiling down the message of the first Kenyan-American president (as he called proudly himself on this trip), what remained was an odd mixture of anachronistic and patronizing tropes plucked from the musty rucksack of American policy discourse toward the continent since the end of the Cold War.

Sure, there were lots of references to fighting terrorism and to other relatively recent U.S. priorities, including the highly laudable goals of educating more girls and giving them equal opportunity, and defending the rights of lesbians and gays.

Yet the themes he hammered away at most insistently stemmed from timeless caricatures of Africa.

Yet the themes he hammered away at most insistently stemmed from timeless caricatures of Africa.He spoke of wanting to do business with the continent on the basis of “trade not aid,” falsely furthering the old impression that Africa is a sinkhole for American development assistance, when in fact far more goes to other parts of the world. He repeated the almost insulting truism that things work out best when Africans strive to solve their own problems – as if Africans have not been striving to do so all along.

Obama’s speech presented two major problems. The first is that even Obama’s tentative efforts to praise the continent’s potential — he spoke, for example, of surging mobile phone usage rates — didn’t adequately convey the scale and pace of change that Africa has seen in the last decade or so. One would scarcely have gotten a sense of this from his words, or indeed from most American news coverage of Africa, but the last fifteen years has been a time of general reduction in conflict, of democratic consolidation in many places, and especially of economic growth. Far from waiting on the kindness of outsiders, who built few schools for them during decades of colonial rule, African countries are now, on average, investing impressive amounts(measured as a percentage of GDP) in education.

Second, and closely related to the president’s disappointingly traditional messaging, is the fact that the United States has remained relatively detached from and even irrelevant to many of these changes. A consistent question among Obama’s audiences in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as among virtual ones across the continent, heard in journalists’ interviews, in fact, was, “Where oh where are the Americans?”

The continent has famously seen a huge boom in the presence of Chinese people and of Chinese business interests – both trade and investment – in the last decade or so. Less well publicized, but just as real, many African countries are drawing strong new interest from a wide variety of foreign governments and business people, including non-traditional partners like Turkey, Vietnam, Russia, Malaysia, and Brazil. During this same period, the American presence on the continent has flagged, and numbers measuring US economic engagement have stagnated. Obama himself spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term, and put off what will likely be regarded as his most important visit to the continent until late in his second term.

By contrast, China’s top leaders – either its president or prime minister – have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis.

By contrast, China’s top leaders – either its president or prime minister – have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis. To read the whole article, please click here.

Ask Obama and Romney this: Where is Africa?

Copyright Columbia Journalism Review

Over the final days of the campaign, CJR is running a series of pieces under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting themes and questions that reporters and pundits can put to the presidential candidates. So far we’ve asked President Obama about his short term jobs plan and about housing, and Governor Romney about his plans for the Middle East. Howard French asked both candidates about a hidden aspect of China policy, and here, about Africa.

Four debates down, and the word “Africa” has been uttered just once, in passing.

What is most disturbing about an observation like this is how little it surprises. Not since the Kennedy Administration has the United States seen Africa—the continent of Africa, and not the odd country or momentary crisis—as the theater of any top-drawer foreign policy concerns.

And across Africa, a feeling of letdown at the Obama administration’s lack of engagement with the continent is palpable. Because of his background, expectations were higher for the incumbent president in this regard than they have been for perhaps any of his predecessors.

After a rousing early trip to Ghana in the summer of 2009, where he praised that fast-growing country’s maturing democracy and summoned African leaders to serve their populations better Obama has all but abandoned direct personal engagement with the sub-Saharan portion of the continent, squandering his great potential for strong personal connections with the continent and the soft power benefits that go with it.

This is more than a personal story, though. The reason why American leaders tend to ignore Africa is linked to a traditional belief, deeply seated in our foreign policy establishment’s mindset, that the United States has no vital interests in the continent. An important associated thought is that Africa can only and forever be a burden, with the US called upon to foot the bill when major crises erupt there.

Neither of these ideas could have withstood much scrutiny if an all-too-passive press had bothered to challenge the assumptions that underlie them. And with the African landscape changing rapidly, in deeply significant ways, such attitudes have never been more out of step with the times.

Africa currently boasts about one billion people. United Nations projections say that by the population of the continent will more than triple by the end of the century, to jump to about 3.9 billion. Such a steady and astounding increase creates enormous opportunities for the US, as well as enormous challenges.

With American policy attitudes stuck in a mindset of Africa, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, as the ward of the rich world, we have lost sight of the options that Africa’s ongoing demographic, economic, and political changes present for us.

On the opportunity side, there are several ways to look at this. In recent years, six or seven of the world’s fastest growing economies have been in Africa and Africa has by some estimates become the fasting growing continent overall. Africa is also urbanizing faster than any other part of the world, and as that happens, the middle classes in Africa are sprouting rapidly. These are the consumers of the future, people who can potentially pick up the slack from the slow-growing, aging, and indebted countries of the rich and developed world.

Against this backdrop, African leaders and the people of the continent clearly perceive—and have come to resent—the sort of hold your nose, arms-length paternalism that guides so much of our scant focus on them.

And nowadays they have a powerful point of comparison. It has hardly been given notice in high-level policy circles until recently, but for about a decade, China has been plowing investment into the continent and showering it with attention. Not a year goes by when not one, but several top Chinese leaders tour Africa. And the most important message they send is that unlike the US and others in the West, China sees Africa as a place of extraordinary opportunity, as the continent of the future, and as the site of the next great phase of globalization.

Chinese opportunism is at work here, of course; one might even say cynicism. But what China has had in its favor for the last ten years or so is a virtual monopoly on the playing field. So much so that if nothing important changes, historians may look back in 20 or 30 years and ask the question: Who lost Africa?

The questions for the Obama and Romney campaigns, then, are: How will your administration break with Washington’s outdated Africa policies? How will the United States keep pace with China and other emerging economic powers, like India, Brazil and Turkey, which are all stepping up their engagements with Africa? What, specifically, can the US do to help develop markets in Africa, tap the huge, ongoing demographic shift there, and change the relationship between this country and the continent into one of much greater opportunity for all concerned?

Click here for the original link, and here for a second campaign piece about the U.S. role in any China-Japan conflict.

 

The Dilemma at the Heart of America’s Approach to Africa

If Washington really wants to promote African democracy, why is it partnering with the continent’s autocrats to create military spy programs?

Copyright The Atlantic

JUBA, South Sudan — In an extraordinary pair of articles published this week, The Washington Post has filled in the picture of how the U.S. military and intelligence establishments have worked to create a network of a dozen or so air bases for spying purposes across Africa. What is most remarkable about the articles are not the details themselves, which involve small, specially equipped turboprop aircraft flying surveillance missions out of remote airfields in the Sahel and in equatorial East Africa.

What stands out most about the articles, instead, is the way that this news has cast the African continent as a place where serious American interests are at play. Such things are all too rare for the mainstream media. Far more typically, the media chronicles African political upheaval, violence and suffering as distant and almost random incidents or miscellany with little connection to life outside of the continent.

The Africa of our day-to-day coverage is dominated, in other words, by vivid splashes of color, by scene and emotion, and it is largely bereft of form or of pattern, and of politics and ideas that could help connect one development to another or connect the whole to the rest of the world. Some of this may be changing slowly with the recent sharp rise of China’s profile throughout the continent, which has drawn a belated response from a United States suddenly eager to avoid watching Africa get snatched away from the West, as some fear.

The Post pieces ultimately were as remarkable for what they didn’t say as what they did, though. And in this regard, they highlight the need for the media to hold the actions of the Unites States up against its rhetoric, much as it is wont to do with regard to China, whose rote-like discourse on Africa emphasizes terms like “win-win,” and “non-interference.”

By helpful coincidence, the Post‘s stories, which detail the ongoing militarization of Washington’s policies toward Africa, were published at the very same time that the Obama Administration was unveiling its purportedly new strategy toward the continent.

The leading messenger for this was Hillary Clinton, whose talk yesterday about economic opportunity for American businesses in Africa was as welcome as it was overdue. As a spate of recent articles has made clear, she spoke of the Africa as a place of strong economic growth and the continent with the highest returns on investment. It is precisely Chinese firms’ awareness of this that has been driving them, and hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants, to Africa in recent years in search of opportunity.

In policy briefings for the press, however, and in Clinton’s own statements, the promotion of democracy was given pride of place in a new American agenda for Africa, and this is where the rub comes between rhetoric versus reality.

The Post piece reveals that the key American allies in Washington’s military and intelligence push are the leaders of Burkina Faso in West Africa and Uganda in East Africa. These two men, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, have been in power respectively for 25 and 26 years. Both came to power by force. Both have resisted real democratization in their countries. And both have been prolific and mischievous meddlers in neighboring countries, where their adventures have sown death and havoc, routinely employed child soldiers for themselves or for allies within their regimes, and have involved lucrative arms trafficking as well as the organized pillage of natural resources.

Another American ally, this one emerging, as described by the Washington Post, is the year-old state of South Sudan, a country that Clinton described as a “success.” That will come as a surprise to many of the people here, whose own president has recently acknowledged the looting of $4 billion by his own associates from state coffers.

If Washington wishes to be taken seriously by Africans it has as much work to do as China in squaring words and deeds. Yesterday, the White House said its new policy commits the United States to advance democracy by strengthening institutions at every level, supporting and building upon the aspirations throughout the continent for more open and accountable governance, promoting human rights and the rule of law, and challenging leaders whose actions threaten the credibility of democratic processes.

One of the biggest impediments to the continent’s emergence, however, is the very existence of leaders like Compaoré and Museveni, who come to see themselves as irreplaceable, confusing their own persons with the state and seeking to remain in power indefinitely.

If Washington genuinely wishes to prioritize democracy in Africa, it might wish to privilege relations with the already substantial and growing number of states that are governed more democratically than places like these. For old friends like Museveni and newer ones like Compaoré, meanwhile, it is time to reexamine the question of what friendship is for and to ask whom does it really benefit?

If American policy is really about fighting an endless succession of enemies, which is what seems to drive the security agenda that the Post has so helpfully lifted the veil on, then candor should require admitting that building democracy is really important only when it is convenient.

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/06/the-dilemma-at-the-heart-of-americas-approach-to-africa/258541/

The Great Debate: Whither U.S.-China Relations?

Copyright TMP

This is the first post in a new TMP series titled “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping concluded a significant trip to the United States last week. Speaking with his counterparts in Washington, traveling to the Iowa town where he spent part of his college years, and even taking in a Lakers game in Los Angeles, Xi presented an image of a confident, self-assured China.

Xi is expected to assume the leadership of his country later this year and his tenure comes at a particularly important moment in U.S.-China relations given the breadth of economic, military, and other international issues on which the two countries may collaborate or butt heads.

In light of his visit, TMP’s new series “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

Will US-China relations improve under Xi Jinping’s leadership? Or are they likely to deteriorate under the 5th generation of party leaders?

(Several experts weigh in on these questions. Here’s my take. The full article can be accessed via the link below.)

Howard French, Columbia University

There are simply too many variables and unknowns to confidently predict the direction of U.S.-China relations under Xi Jinping and the so-called Fifth Generation of leaders.

What stands out for me at this moment, nonetheless, are a number of signs that point more toward turbulence than to smooth sailing.

What are these signs? To begin with, leadership politics in China seem to be entering a major new phase with the prospect of increasingly open and contentious jousting between individuals and factions. There is every prospect of this extending beyond merely patronage, position and favors and extending into the realm of real contests over policy and direction. This will happen in the absence of a strong elder statesman figure to mediate and adjudicate matters.

The relevance for bilateral relations is indirect, but potentially important. A situation of such fluidity and turbulence could encourage leaders to play the nationalist card to shore up their credentials and popular appeal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a new leadership under almost any circumstances staking its reputation and prestige on accommodation of the U.S.

This leads to a second and related consideration. There is a lot of tension inherent to a dynamic that involves the relative rise of a rising power at the expense, both real and perceived of the established superpower. This is an unavoidably awkward and potentially dangerous situation, with one side reluctant to concede and the other sometimes over-eager to assert its new prerogatives. In both countries, public opinion plays an important and sometimes capricious role, reducing the room for maneuver of leaders or pushing them toward bad decisions.

Having said all of this, ten years, which is the nominal term of the incoming Chinese leadership, is a very long time, during which much can happen, including not just unpleasant outcomes. Under the right circumstances, a successful beginning to the new leadership’s mandate could make it a much more confident and relaxed working partner over the longer term.

http://beta-site.themorningsidepost.com/2012/02/22/whither-u-s-china-relations/

Lunch with Zbigniew Brzezinski

An excellent read about the shape of things to come in the world, American electoral politics, China and Tony Blair. When they do these well, as they have this week, this FT feature is one of the best reads in newspaper journalism.
“For most people in their eighties, life is a gradual winding down. For Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the key architects of America’s cold war strategy – “Jimmy Carter’s Kissinger”, as he was once called – being 83 isn’t much different from 43. Brzezinski plays singles tennis every day – “one of my partners is older than me,” he tells me with some amusement. At the crack of dawn he is often found opining trenchantly on Morning Joe, the MSNBC daily news show co-hosted by his daughter Mika. And he remains a much sought-after adviser to secretaries of state and presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, though nowadays Brzezinski finds it hard to conceal his disappointment with his former mentee. “I’m all in favour of grand important speeches but the president then has to link his sermons to a strategy,” Brzezinski says. “Obama still has some way to go.”

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4d03c5f6-3ac1-11e1-a756-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1jRhTvxSX