WASHINGTON – After President Joe Biden toasted the “promise and potential” of America’s relationship with Africa during a White House dinner for dozens of the continent’s leaders Wednesday, Gladys Knight belted out “The Best Thing That Ever Happened.”
Biden tried to stay on that high note throughout the three-day summit, pledging new efforts to strengthen ties with the continent, which have stagnated in recent years despite Africa’s growing importance.
The president’s promises culminated Thursday with an announcement that he plans to visit Africa, as will his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other administration officials.
“We’re all going to be seeing you and you’re going to see a lot of us, because we’re deadly earnest and serious about this endeavor,” Biden told the heads of state arrayed around a massive table at a convention center in Washington. “And you’re going to see us deliver our commitments – all of our commitments.”
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The U.S. has some catching up to do.
After growing its presence in almost every African country, China has far surpassed the U.S. as an economic player on the continent, according to Tom Sheehy, an Africa expert at the United States Institute of Peace.
“China and other countries have really outworked the U.S. over the last 20 years,” he said.
China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner and the largest provider of foreign direct investment. Beijing has grown its political influence and commercial relationships through lending for infrastructure development engineered and constructed by Chinese companies. Chinese mining and energy firms are extracting Africa’s vast mineral resources.
African leaders came to the summit to gauge Washington’s seriousness in becoming a more reliable partner than it’s been in the past, said Cameron Hudson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program.
“We have some interest, and then it wanes,” Hudson said, “whereas the Chinese have a consistent interest and engagement in Africa.”
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African leaders are counting on a follow-through.
“We say sincerely to all of our partners that we prefer concrete action rather than intentions of good will,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, said through an interpreter at a summit session Thursday.
Improving the relationship is important to the administration as it moves to counter the growing economic and military prowess of China, which Biden officials view as capable of seriously disrupting the international system. It’s also a strategic necessity for the U.S. because Africa is essential to addressing climate change, biodiversity and the new energy economy, experts said. African minerals, for example, are needed to make batteries for electric cars.
There are also huge market opportunities. Africa has the youngest population in the world.
“These are young, rising citizens who are looking to fulfill their dreams and aspirations,” said Mark Green, head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former ambassador to Tanzania. “We want them to buy U.S. goods. We want them to partner with U.S. businesses to create mutual shared value.”
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One major advantage for the U.S. is its significant population of African Americans.
“I might add that includes my former boss,” Biden said at the dinner with leaders in one of his several references throughout the summit to the “African diaspora community” in the U.S.
Sheehy called the diaspora community “our silver bullet.”
“Because they have connections, they have an understanding that Chinese companies aren’t going to have,” he said. “I think a lot is going to fall on them to continue and intensify their engagement.”
But to fully take advantage of the cultural and other ties, the U.S. needs to step up its trade game, experts said. Trade deals have become politically difficult in recent years amid pushback from both Democratic and Republican constituencies about their impact on workers and the trade deficit.
“It’s time for us to reawaken on a trade agenda and look for ways to create mutually beneficial economic relationships,” Green said.
Africa leaders are acutely aware that only 3% of world trade activity takes place on their continent, he added.
Biden didn’t specify when he’s going to Africa or where he will visit. But making the trip is a “must do,” said Hudson.
Except for former President Donald Trump, who gave the continent scant attention and spoke disparagingly about its countries, every one of Biden’s predecessors since Ronald Reagan has traveled to Africa.
Bill Clinton apologized to survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda for not doing enough to intervene.
George W. Bush danced alongside Liberia’s president and visited a Tanzanian hospital built with money from his emergency plan for AIDS relief.
Obama visited his father’s birthplace, Kenya, where he called himself a “Kenyan-American.”
“These kinds of real images of American presidents in Africa have come to define the relationship in many ways,” Hudson said. “And so the symbolism and the imagery from those trips matters a lot.”
Beyond the symbolism, Green said it’s important that the United States “go out and listen to African leaders on their own territory and on their own terms.”
Without that, and other kinds of follow up, Green said, the summit will be viewed as “simply another gab fest.”
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Story Credit: usatoday.com