Africa and America's Interests:Realities in Search of Policies

 It has been a longstanding-and, alas, all-too-true-cliché that Africa is the stepchild of United States foreign policy.

 It has been a longstanding-and, alas, all-too-true-cliché that Africa is the stepchild of United States foreign policy. Sadly long blighted by environmental degradation, economic malaise, social tensions and political misrule, the continent is viewed as little more than a source of trouble, albeit one that could be safely ignored since it rarely impinged upon the core strategic interests of the world's sole remaining superpower. After 9/11, there were some signs that Africa was finally emerging as an American foreign policy concern. In the National Security Strategy of the United States of America published in 2002, the administration acknowledged that:

In Africa, promise and opportunity sit side by side with disease, war, and desperate poverty. This threatens both a core value of the United States-preserving human dignity-and our strategic priority-combating terror. American interests and American principles, therefore, lead in the same direction: we will work with others for an African continent that lives in liberty, peace, and growing prosperity.

However, old habits die hard and other challenges soon took priority. In the current presidential campaign, the world's most troubled continent has once again been almost entirely forgotten. Under the rubric of "foreign policy," Senator John Kerry's campaign website presents "priorities" ranging from a "New Policy for Latin America" to "Securing Afghanistan," but a search of "Africa" turns up mainly references to Teresa Heinz Kerry's birth and upbringing in colonial Mozambique. A similar search of President George W. Bush's reelection website turns up little more than a single November 2003 "Talking Points" memorandum that asserts "the Administration has an unparalleled record of engagement in Africa that incorporates support for democracy, reform, respect for human dignity and peace on the continent" and specifically cites three examples: the U.S. role in the Liberian transition, the negotiations leading to the peace accord between the Sudanese government and southern insurgents and sanctions enacted against Zimbabwe's thuggish regime.

This lack of attention is not just shortsighted, but will, unless remedied in the coming years, prove downright perilous to U.S. national interests due to a number of factors, both natural and geopolitical. While many Americans, including policymakers, seem oblivious to the fact, sub-Saharan Africa currently supplies the U.S. with sixteen percent of its petroleum needs. According to the National Intelligence Council, within a decade, that figure will rise to twenty-five percent, surpassing the total volume of oil imports from the Middle East region. The continent also boasts the world's fastest rate of population growth: by 2020, today's 900 million Africans will number more than 1.2 billion-more than the combined populations of Europe and North America. Nor do these absolute numbers tell the whole story: by then, the median age of Europeans will be 45, while nearly half of the African population will be under the age of 15.

Despite the dynamic potential implicit in the natural and human resource figures just cited, Africa also suffers from many woes. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world's economic basket case, with a per capita GDP of barely $575, according to the World Bank's World Development Indicators 2003 report. The United Nations Development Program's just-published Human Development Report 2004 determined that, of the thirty-six countries found to have "low development," thirty-two were in Africa. While the continent is home to only fifteen percent of the world's overall population, more than three-fourths of the people living with HIV are sub-Saharan Africans. In 2003 alone, an estimated three million Africans became infected and 2.2 million died of AIDS.