No mention of Africa when it comes to US foreign policy

The debate between California senator and vice president hopeful Kamala Harris and United States Vice President Mike Pence was rightfully dubbed one of the most important debates of its kind in US history. The debate itself was loaded with pertinent issues which could have been directed at Donald Trump and Joe Biden themselves.

Issues at the forefront of this election are: government Covid-19 responsiveness, public healthcare, the Black Lives Matter Movement, police reform, the economy and foreign policy. 

Debate about a coherent foreign policy, however, was one aspect of the debate between Harris and Pence that was glaringly absent. Both candidates’ retorts were anchored on three countries: China, Iran and Russia. Accusatory as the tone from both parties regarding those countries may have been, the content of their foreign policy outlook as two potential vice presidents was shallow. The underlying message that was boldly communicated to a global audience was that, in spite of a changed domestic political landscape and a global community that has began looking elsewhere for global leadership, the aggressive militaristic posturing that has become synonymous with the US for more than three decades will remain firmly intact no matter who wins the election.

Pertinent foreign issues, such as the fragile nature of the Iran Nuclear Deal, a more balanced trade relationship with China, or how to mend a bruised relationship with the European Union and NATO were avoided. There was quite simply no leadership on those issues from either the Democratic or Republican representatives. The most obvious void was, however, their relationship with the African continent. 

Home to the largest growing population in the world and an outpost to one of the most important business markets for the US, this was intriguing to witness. Although the traditional mainstays of US foreign engagement with Africa — the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and varied USAID projects remain intact — an overall engagement with a young and large continent was underwhelming, in stark contrast to the Obama administration. 


Africa is changing rapidly, and is also politically, economically and ideologically more inward-looking than it has been at any other time in its history. This is fuelled by a more passionate desire for self-determination, especially economically. Africa, however, has also become the arena for competing foreign power interests seeking economic domination. Like Europe, China and the Middle East, the US is a player in a renewed contest for economic dominance on the African continent.

The continued militaristic foreign policy approach that was suggested in the debate will not complement the States’ proffered “renewal agenda” of returning to multilateralism and multilateral institutions, away from the current unilateral foreign policy in motion, especially where contesting players such as China and Europe, have far more enduring economic and historic relations with the continent.

Unlike during the Cold War, and the anti-colonial period, the ideological potency accompanying Brand United States, does not possess as much clout as it once did.

Instead, Brand Africa is rising not only on the continent but throughout the diaspora. Never since the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements, has the continent been more attuned to wanting to realise its economic and political self.

At the epicentre of a new image is the establishment of the 28-ratified member African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCTA). Like other continental projects before it, such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the AFCTA is underscored by the continent’s collective desire to want to cultivate its own economic prosperity and development.

As January 2021 approaches and the potential onset of a new administration in the United States beckons, so does the renewal of many African countries’ membership to the African Growth and Opportunity Trade Act (AGOA). This has, according to the website, “been at the core of US economic policy and commercial engagement with Africa” since its inception in 2000. AGOA “provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the US market for over 1 800 products, in addition to the more than 5 000 products that are eligible for duty-free access under the Generalised System of Preferences program,” the website explains. 

The annual review of the 38 countries’ eligibility to receive the benefits of AGOA will be determined in three months’ time. Prior to its renewal or rejection, the African member states of the treaty need to deliberate more stringently about what its members want from it.

With the exception of neighbouring Zimbabwe, all countries within SADC are signatories to AGOA. The eligibility criteria for membership, defined in section 104 A, such as “the rule of law” and “political pluralism” can be perceived as relegating African governance systems to infancy. It is a somewhat patronising tone that won’t go down well in light of an ever-strengthening economic relationship with China and a consistently healthy one with the European Union.

China’s trade volumes with the continent remain bullish and amounted to an estimated $185-billion in 2018, compared to an estimated $37-billion with the US. Africa is the US’s third-largest trading partner after China and the European Union. With the launch of AFCTA and its Institutional Support and Implementation Project commencing in 2021, the US is quite simply not providing African countries with enough value proposition. 

It was only in the second of televised debates in the US that any mention of foreign policy was debated by vice-presidential candidates, and there was no mention made of one of the world’s largest markets.

Any new American administration that emerges in 2021, is going to have to inform African countries of the specifications of their value proposition to the continent. US foreign policy in Africa has at times been beset with very awkward political posturing in different regions.This is particularly relevant to the North African Regions, where US led economic and military support in neighbouring countries like Libya and Egypt is stark, bringing into question their intentions there. 

As Africa it’s imperative that moving forward, there be a more consolidated outlook as to what a collectively desired relationship with the US looks like. More importantly, with a new administration, African countries need to demand more political accountability from their American counterparts, and a better Africa-US foreign policy overall.


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Lerato Tsebe
Lerato Tsebe is a freelance writer.

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