United States and Africa: Starting Points for a New Policy Framework

President Clinton’s 12-day trip to Africa in spring 1998 was the most extensive ever by an American president. Boosters of the trip inside the administration hoped that it would dramatically signal a constructive U.S. engagement with the continent—a new policy for a new Africa. In the months before the trip, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice laid out a “new vision for Africa” and called for a “new partnership” with partners who “listen to one another, learn from one another, and compromise with one another.”

Many critical observers, probably exaggerating the level of U.S. interest in Africa that the trip represented, viewed Clinton’s tour as an aggressive assertion of rivalry with Europe for economic predominance in the continent. Cynics saw it as driven by White House concerns to throw a symbolic bone to the African-American electorate and to divert attention from the then-infant Lewinsky scandal.

U.S. policy toward Africa has long been plagued by marginalization and pervasive negative stereotypes. To President Clinton’s credit, the trip was shaped in large part by the need to address this crippling policy context. Selection of five of the six countries on the tour—Ghana, Uganda, South Africa, Botswana, and Senegal—was intended to highlight the continent’s success stories. Rwanda was added at the insistence of officials who recognized that it would be unconscionable to ignore the failure of the international response to the 1994 genocide in that country.

In speeches during the trip, President Clinton acknowledged the damage to Africa from the slave trade, colonialism, and the cold war, and he even apologized for the failure of his own administration to respond to the Rwandan genocide, in which more than a half million people were slaughtered. A symbolic visit to the slave depot at Goree Island in Senegal underscored the roots of the U.S. connection to Africa, and the presidential entourage was reported to be the most racially diverse ever for a presidential trip.

Despite these encouraging signals, Clinton’s tour also reflected fundamental problems with the administration’s policy. In keeping with the dominant policy climate in Washington, the trip was characterized by pervasive promotion of free-market fundamentalism as the solution to Africa’s economic woes. The message of U.S. support for democracy was ambivalent and muffled by clear disarray within the administration about what stance to take toward the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha in Nigeria. The apology for international failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was accompanied by no coherent policy or commitment for responding to violent conflicts in Congo (Kinshasa), Algeria, Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, and elsewhere. And the acknowledgment of historical responsibility both for the slave trade and for cold war destruction was a momentary blip rather than the beginning of a serious debate. In reaction to the flurry of U.S. commentators who argued that the U.S. had nothing to apologize for, the theme vanished from administration statements for the rest of the trip.

Events in the months following Clinton’s tour made it clear that the “new start” would be slow to take off. Despite the efforts of Africa-focused officials within the administration, Africa quickly resumed its place near the bottom of the agendas of the highest officials—and not only because of the president’s growing domestic problems. The outbreak of the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the eruption of a new war in Congo (Kinshasa), and the resumption of fighting in Angola had profound regional implications but apparently caught the administration without contingency plans. None led to more than a minute fraction of the high-level attention given to the crises in the former Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, Washington’s response to the terrorist attack in August 1998 on U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi exposed the “partnership” theme as empty rhetoric. The instinctive focus by U.S. officials on U.S. casualties, though they were far less numerous than Kenyan and Tanzanian victims, provoked immediate resentment. And the U.S. retaliatory strike on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as well as a guerrilla training camp in Afghanistan was not only unilateral but also almost certainly counterproductive to its stated aims of reducing the terrorist threat. For instance, it undermined opponents of the abusive fundamentalist regime in Sudan by allowing that regime to present itself as a victim and thus gain international sympathy. And the Clinton administration was eventually forced to concede that the Khartoum factory had no tie to terrorists.

Those within the administration who were trying to get top Cabinet members and their staff to focus on Africa did persist, and their efforts bore fruit in the Conference on U.S.-Africa Partnership in the 21st Century held in Washington in March 1999. Although some early plans had projected a meeting confined to Washington’s favorite “reformers,” the invitation list was broadened at African insistence; cabinet-level representatives from 50 African countries participated in the meeting with their U.S. counterparts. At the conference, one could see the beginnings of more substantive dialogue between U.S. and African officials.

In practice, however, Washington’s legacies of neglect and of inappropriate policies toward Africa have remained largely in place with the same overall guidelines. On the one hand, there is promotion of doctrinaire free-market prescriptions—including foreign trade and investment, production for export, elimination of trade barriers, and privatization of state enterprises—as a panacea. On the other hand, we see endorsement of democracy, human rights, and conflict resolution, though implementation of this policy is primarily by ad-hoc response to crises without sustained high-level attention.

This harsh judgment is admittedly a caricature of a far more complex policy picture regarding specific issues and countries. Those in the government dealing with Africa on a day-to-day basis, many of whom are struggling to implement programs and policies that do respond to specific African needs, will most likely see it as unfair. As an overall assessment of results rather than intentions, however, it is unfortunately more accurate than the lofty rhetoric accompanying the president’s trip.

The failure, however, is not unique to the Clinton administration’s Africa policymakers. Though the “Africa advocacy” and “progressive” foreign policy communities have been vocal on selected issues, and at times effective, they have failed to build consensus around convincing and coherent policy frameworks, have not adequately addressed the complex issues at stake, and have emphasized criticism rather than offering alternative perspectives to guide what should be done. Unlike the period of clear-focused campaigns against colonialism and apartheid, there is no clear overall framework being advanced collectively by African states and nonstate movements.

This report does not claim to fill that gap. It is also stronger on critique than on charting out a comprehensive alternative policy framework. It does, however, offer starting points for such a framework as well as suggested prerequisites for moving toward greater clarity. Such a framework, if it is to be authentic and convincing, must emerge from a sustained and systematic dialogue with a range of diverse voices in the distinct regional contexts of the continent. Such a dialogue is just beginning. As state-to-state and business-to-business contacts accelerate, progressives must also ensure that their contributions to the debate reflect real encounters with diverse African voices and not just the assumptions we bring from other periods and political arenas.

In the post-cold war world, the stated general goals of U.S. foreign policy are, in fact, congruent with those of African peoples. Salih Booker, a long-time Africa activist and leading spokesperson on Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that “it is in the U.S. interest that, within each African region, as elsewhere in the world, countries and peoples should be able to advance the common goals of achieving security, democracy and development.” When one asks how best to achieve those widely endorsed goals, however, there is a veritable chasm between perspectives crafted purely in the U.S. foreign policy arena and those rooted in African realities.