The Biden administration’s new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, unveiled during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent swing through the continent, reflects little more than a commitment to the status quo. Despite the White House’s attempt to spin it as a “new vision for a 21st Century U.S.-African Partnership,” Africa watchers on and off the continent will note that much remains unchanged, both for good and for ill.
The strategy’s four objectives—foster openness and open societies; deliver democratic and security dividends; advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and support conservation, climate adaption, and a just energy transition—echo the “Four Pillars” of the Obama administration’s 2012 Sub-Saharan Africa strategy, with cosmetic adjustments to allow nods to the Covid-19 pandemic and the heightened importance of climate and energy transitions as agenda items.
Likewise, while avoiding the language of “great power competition” that marked then-National Security Advisor John Bolton’s presentation of the Trump administration’s 2018 Africa strategy, the Biden document confronts China and Russia’s malign influence on the continent. As the strategy acknowledges, China seeks to challenge the rules-based international order advancing its commercial and geopolitical interests (but notably ignores its military advances), while Russian parastatals and private military companies exploit African nations vulnerable to instability and conflict.
While the strategy reflects continuity in U.S. engagement with the continent, this shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated. The Biden strategy document fails to take a “whole of Africa” approach that Africans themselves embrace and instead reverts to the Obama-era billing of a “Sub-Saharan Africa” focus—the term appears a dozen times. One suspects that this dissonance is the result of continued U.S. bureaucratic wrangling. While the U.S. Department of Defense and agencies in the intelligence community group the fifty-four members of the African Union together in their internal divisions of responsibility, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) group the five North African countries with the Middle East. Too often, this results in a mismatched approach to how the U.S. government executes policy towards the continent.
There is also the question of what to do about the security challenges which remain among the most significant obstacles for many African states achieving their social and economic potential. Limited in detail, the strategy maintains a similarly minimalist posture to previous administrations with respect to America’s military engagement. It prioritizes the United States working “by, with and through” African partners to achieve national security interests on the continent, primarily counter-terrorism.
And yet, at a time when the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) has recently experienced a change in leadership, with a new commander confirmed unanimously by the Senate, Gen. Michael Langley, whose promotion makes him the first Black four-star general in the 246-year history of the U.S. Marine Corps, the new document risks formalizing a lamentable longtime propensity with defense circles to deprioritize Africa strategically. Who can forget the Clinton-era Pentagon’s Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, which declared that the United States has “very little traditional strategic interest in Africa”?
And these challenges are not just about counter-terrorism, although clearly, that is an existential threat to African governments and peoples across the continent. Amidst increasingly bold and destabilizing entrenchment by Russian mercenaries and Iranian agents, jihadist terrorist activity has dramatically escalated in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, with the Sahel becoming the global epicenter of violent extremism. Merely maintaining the status quo stands to not only degrade African security but also produce destabilizing spillover effects for U.S. allies across Europe and the Middle East. It is worth recalling that just one week before Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan by a missile fired from a U.S. drone, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali struck the West African country’s most important military base on the edge of Bamako, the capital city.
Then there is China which, although only mentioned once in the strategy document, is moving beyond its increasingly predatory debt-trap diplomacy toward explicitly institutionalizing its hard power reach across the continent beyond its naval base in Djibouti. Beijing has built surveillance installations in increasingly authoritarian Tunisia and is seeking to establish an Atlantic naval base in Equatorial Guinea. With China expanding its horizons to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic via Africa, the idea that these developments need merely be “contained” is at best wishful thinking and at worst defeatism.
Fortunately, the change of command at USAFRICOM and the need for General Langley to develop a theater strategy—the current one dates back to 2010—offers an opportunity to complement overall U.S. policy with a military component. Unmentioned in the strategy document because it falls outside of “Sub-Saharan Africa” is Morocco, a major non-NATO ally that is not only a member of the African Union but also one of the most important African investors in Africa. The Biden administration document’s claim to a “new vision” would be more credible if it took into account positive developments like the new Israel-Morocco security partnership born of the Abraham Accords midwifed by its predecessor. This budding relationship has the potential to contribute significantly to stabilizing parts of Africa as well as serving as a bulwark against terrorism in Europe.
Also missing from the new strategy document is any acknowledgment of Somaliland which, although lacking de jure international recognition, has received significant engagement and investment from both African and global partners, including the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Investors are drawn to Somaliland not only because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa but also because of its peace, stability, and democratic politics—all of which set it apart from neighboring Somalia which remains in constant turmoil. In contrast, Somaliland has offered the American military access to a seaport and airfield overlooking critical maritime routes. The U.S. Congress has shown interest in the proposal and the Somaliland Partnership Act has been attached to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act with bipartisan sponsors to encourage the Pentagon to explore developing a security partnership. Somaliland even has set itself apart by its formal relations with Taiwan.
During his recent visit to Pretoria, South Africa, Secretary Blinken evoked the MeerKAT radio telescope, the world’s largest, located in South Africa’s Northern Cape, to tell his audience that “there is so much more for African nations and the United States to do together across so many fields” by expanding the common horizons of both Africans and Americans. He is right, of course. But before gazing up into the heavens, it might be prudent to first ensure that our base on Earth is secured.
Ambassador J. Peter Pham, Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council, is former U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa.
Sam Millner, a foreign policy researcher focusing on Israeli-Arab normalization at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, previously served as a Policy Analyst at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).