U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with then-Chairperson of the African Union, Mohamed Abdel Aziz in Washington, D.C. on August 4 2014.
Foreign policy is front and center in this presidential election. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are touting their international experience and judgment to prove they are capable of being the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s lone superpower.
The issue of illegal immigration from Latin America is debated on a near daily basis. Terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, the fight against ISIS and the refugee crisis (largely composed of Syrian refugees) have kept the Middle East squarely in the minds of voters. Asia’s salience continues to increase due to China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea. In the wake of recent nuclear tests by North Korea, Secretary Clinton asserted that the US should “rethink” its policy towards the rogue nation. Comments from Mr. Trump concerning the US alliance with NATO and the possible Russian interference in the American presidential election have brought up questions focusing on security in Europe.
Noticeably absent from the national dialogue on US foreign policy is Africa.
Neither the Democratic nor Republican presidential nominee has communicated a comprehensive plan for US relations with Africa. Africa was hardly mentioned during the primaries, if at all. This is not solely the fault of the candidates. Candidates instinctively focus on issues voters find most important, and Africa is not among them. On September 7, 2016, NBC and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) hosted the first ever Commander-in-Chief Forum. During the forum, none of the questions asked of the candidates – from an audience composed exclusively of military personnel – involved Africa.
While the US presidential elections are plastered on the front pages of newspapers and cable news across Africa, most Americans cannot tell you that the African Union, Africa’s largest regional organization of near unanimous membership, recently just held elections for its secretariat. How many Americans are aware of the refugee crisis in Africa?
One could argue the US does not have any strategic interests in Africa. While this may have been true in the 90s, it is no longer the case. The pivot to Asia is frequently discussed as one of the Obama Administration’s cornerstone foreign policy goals, but the US also quietly pivoted to Africa during the Bush Administration. US Command in Africa (AFRICOM) was established in 2007 to synthesize US military operations in Africa. AFRICOM engages in a range of issues throughout the continent such as building regional stability, prosperity, security, and most notably, counterterrorism. This takes the form of joint military operations with African militaries, military training, and various forms of humanitarian assistance. The US is heavily invested in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to defeat al-Shabaab.
The pivot to Asia is frequently discussed as one of the Obama Administration’s cornerstone foreign policy goals, but the US also quietly pivoted to Africa during the Bush Administration.
While the terrorist group does not appear to pose a present threat to the US, it is important to remember the quick rise of ISIS occurred in similar conditions within a failed state under the radar of the US.
What do the candidates think of AFRICOM’s “5-year, 5-pillar” plan to: (1) Neutralize al-Shabaab in Somalia; (2) Contain the situation in Libya; (3) Reign in Boko Haram in Nigeria (the largest African trade partner to the US); (4) Disrupt illicit activity in Central Africa and the Gulf of Guam; and (5) Strengthen Africa’s peacebuilding and disaster response capabilities? These are crucial questions that have implications for the national security of the US and should be discussed.
Beyond counterterrorism, on the economic front, Africa has seven of the world’s fastest growing economies and has a middle class that is 350 million people strong, putting it on equal footing with the likes of India and China. For all the tough campaign rhetoric about China, their massive footprint in Africa through extensive investment and trade is hardly discussed. It is ill advised to continue forward without having a comprehensive plan for Africa while America’s greatest rival capitalizes on its relationship with the continent.
Since 2012, the U.S. has provided more than $8.1 billion to the continent in efforts ranging from constructing sustainable health systems to building disaster preparedness. The rapid US response to the Ebola virus is one of the US’ hallmark achievements as it provided lifesaving funds ($10 million), unrivaled logistical support, quickly-constructed isolation and treatment facilities, transportation of medical supplies, and expeditious training of medical staff. Assisting African states in building the technical capacities to respond to these types of crises will diminish their reliance on help from outside partners. These fit firmly within the interest of Africa and the presidential candidates must be prepared to discuss the national security and humanitarian implications of such policies.
Africa has largely been absent on the minds of both US policymakers and citizens, but this status quo cannot last any longer. The candidates and the American public can no longer ignore the fact that a secure, democratic, and economically prosperous Africa is in the best interest of the US. There are less than 90 days before the election and less than two weeks before the first presidential debate. The candidates should look to Africa when discussing their positions on foreign affairs, not through it.
Larry Ornez Harris, Jr. is a second-year graduate student at American University’s School of International Affairs.
Image Attribution: “Kerry with the Chairperson of the African Union, Abdel Aziz” by U.S. Department of State, licensed under Public Domain