Table of Contents

In his first foreign policy speech in February 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden reassured the international community that “America is back.” After the near “zero interest in Africa” of the Trump years, this statement could not have come soon enough for U.S. allies and partners in Africa. Public health leaders at the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention awaited U.S. leadership on global coordination to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. African policymakers hoped for closer ties (and more cordial engagement) with the United States. And members of the large African diaspora in the United States—along with prospective workers and international students—anxiously anticipated the lifting of travel restrictions.

Now marking one hundred days in office, the Biden administration’s approach to Africa is taking shape. While different in tone from its predecessor, there are significant policy continuities from the Trump era. Yet, to reposition U.S.-African relations in an increasingly multipolar world, there will need to be more engagement on the issues decisive to the continent’s future. Whether America is truly “back” in Africa remains to be seen.

A Fresh Start

Biden’s emerging approach to Africa marks a break in tone from his predecessor. The travel bans on six African countries were revoked within hours of the inauguration. Early calls with African foreign ministers and heads of states from South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya demonstrated Biden’s commitment to restoring robust U.S. diplomatic engagement.

The U.S. government under Biden has bolstered pan-African and multilateral initiatives. The administration’s support for Nigerian-born economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala paved the way for her confirmation as the first African and first female director general of the World Trade Organization. Similarly, the Biden administration said it would reconsider Trump’s bilateral trade negotiations with Kenya, suggesting a likely renewed focus on supporting the African Continental Free Trade Area, which would be a nod to this flagship pan-African regional integration initiative.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s State Department has also placed greater emphasis on democracy and human rights promotion in Africa. In an unusual move against a close ally, the U.S. signed on to a UN Human Rights Council joint statement calling on Egypt to end its crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly. Similarly, in its country report on human rights practices in 2020, the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said Zimbabwean security forces acted with tacit support from President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Strongly worded statements have also been issued on human rights violations in southern Cameroon and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. A recent diplomatic mission by Senator Chris Coons to Tigray also demonstrates U.S. foreign policy priorities in the Horn of Africa.

Not So Different

Nevertheless, the Biden administration appears to be retaining Trump-era policies and policymakers’ general approach toward Africa. In Biden’s continuing hardline approach to China—reiterated in congressional hearings and in remarks by Blinken—the African continent figures as an arena of great power competition for influence. Take, for instance, the fact that the United States and Taiwan are working together with Eswatini to identify private sector opportunities to strengthen the country’s information technology sector. Just recently, Biden even floated the idea of a U.S.-led infrastructure plan as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure financing for developing countries.

Zainab Usman
Zainab Usman is a senior fellow and director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Her fields of expertise include institutions, economic policy, energy policy, and emerging economies in Africa.
More >

Moreover, in the twenty-first century, U.S. engagement has primarily followed political and humanitarian concerns: provision of humanitarian assistance to the destitute, elections monitoring, and the containment of infectious diseases and terrorism from spilling out of Africa. This decades-old U.S. lack of interest in African economies could persist into this administration. For there was very little mention of Africa in Blinken or Biden’s early foreign policy addresses: indeed, in his March 24 speech at NATO headquarters on “reaffirming and reimagining America’s alliances,” Blinken did not once refer to the continent. In contrast to U.S. relative indifference to Africa, rising powers like China and India have become Africa’s largest trade partners, and Turkey’s embassies, schools, and hospitals across the continent signal its growing role.

What do these trends in U.S.-Africa relations mean for Africa, and should Biden and Blinken maintain the current course? To fail to reengage with a continent with several fast-growing economies, a youthful population set to exceed 2 billion by 2050, and significant U.S. foreign policy interests would be a grave mistake. The Biden administration must invest in securing Africa’s future now.

How to Invest in the Relationship

In an increasingly multipolar world, the United States needs to show African countries that the continent is a priority and not a piece on the chessboard of great power rivalry. To begin with, there ought to be higher-level U.S. government visits to African countries by Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Blinken. Already five African leaders participated in Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22 and 23. However, there should follow a dedicated U.S.-Africa summit in another year or two, in the mold of similar initiatives by China, Japan, Russia, France, and (more recently) the UK. Additionally, the United States should demonstrate its commitment to Africa-owned regional priorities as espoused in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. This includes finding areas of alignment with the Africa Continental Free Trade Area and employing a continental—as opposed to regional—lens to include North African countries in some areas, as the transnational complexities of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam talks indicate.

The U.S. government should also show its commitment to Africa’s post-pandemic recovery by providing access to COVID-19 vaccines. The effective rollout of vaccines will shape the global economic recovery; according to the International Monetary Fund, economies with slower vaccine rollouts will perform poorly. By most projections, Africa will not have sufficient vaccine access before 2023. In view of the successful domestic rollout with sufficient vaccine stock for all Americans multiple times over, Biden should immediately commit to supplying COVID-19 vaccines to African countries. The administration could lift export restrictions and announce, say, a donation of 50-100 million vaccine doses to the African Union. While this goodwill gesture to African countries will be months behind similar Chinese and Russian efforts, it will still go a long way toward mending ties. It can also set the foundation for establishing local production of these vaccines in countries like Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, among others. There are more than three vaccines produced by U.S. pharmaceutical companies to serve this purpose.

Next, U.S.-African relations should focus on initiatives that generate jobs and other economic opportunities. The Biden administration has emphasized the need for better integration of U.S. foreign policy into Biden’s national policy agenda to strengthen the middle class: the phrase “foreign policy for the middle class” has come to the fore. Across thirty-four African countries, just as in the United States, unemployment is the number one problem for most people. Therefore, prioritizing aspects of foreign policy that support the creation of jobs and other economic opportunities in African countries and the United States should be an obvious direction to take. It makes sense to strengthen and expand exchange programs like the Young Africa Leaders Initiative and the International Visitor Leadership Program to target young Africans in underserved regions in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and Central Africa. A dedicated exchange program for medical professionals could leverage the thousands of U.S. nurses, doctors, and pharmacists in the African diaspora to support capacity building in their home countries in a post-pandemic world.

More can be done to support human capital development in Africa by leveraging the United States’ world-class higher education institutions. One approach could be to expand opportunities for graduate study in the United States through the provision of scholarships and information about the U.S university system by the State Department’s various agencies. The U.S. government can also arrange discussions between American universities and African countries to establish campuses on the continent and tap into a growing market for private university education. Webster University and NYU are two U.S. universities with a physical presence in Ghana. This approach can be scaled up on par with top universities such as Duke, Georgetown, and Northwestern, which have campuses in Qatar, Singapore, and other parts of Asia.

The Resonance of Racial Justice

Finally, the United States’ own progress in addressing deep inequities and tensions around racial injustice will affect its standing as a beacon of democracy among African countries. Harrowing scenes of police brutality, gun violence, and mass shootings caught on camera phones are easily consumed by young people in Africa via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms. And justice for Black and brown Americans means something for African citizens: protesters knelt outside the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to protest not only George Floyd’s killing but also Kenyan police abuses. Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict made the front page in newspapers across the continent and lit up social media.

Socioeconomic renewal at home can and will boost the United States’ position as a model of democratic governance and respect for human rights for African countries. From Nigeria to Kenya, Ethiopia to South Africa, the issue of minority rights and political inclusion are more salient than ever. The United States’ moral standing in the eyes of human rights advocates—in African countries and around the world—is increasingly being filtered through the lens of domestic U.S. social justice issues. By investing in securing Africa’s future, the new administration will find concrete ways to achieve its foreign policy objective of responding to the domestic priorities of middle-class renewal.