Can the West Woo Africa?

In recent years, the West’s lack of engagement with Africa left behind a vacuum that China and Russia eagerly filled. The US and Europe can still repair relations – and, for the first time in a long time, seem determined to try – but only by playing to their strengths.

By Ana Palacio*

The United States is finally paying attention to Africa. But recent attempts at engagement – the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s ten-day tour of the continent last month – have offered no indication that the US has anything close to a meaningful strategy for engagement with the continent. And the European Union is no better.

Renewed Western interest in Africa is long overdue. The continent plays an essential role in world affairs, not least because of its outsize importance to future global economic growth and the green-energy transformation, rooted in its accelerating urbanization, youth bulge, and abundant deposits of minerals and rare earths. All of this clearly merits sustained and consistent engagement by the West.

But Africa has drawn only sporadic engagement – primarily on security matters – from the US in recent years. The last US-Africa summit was held nearly a decade ago, and no US president has visited the continent since 2015. Donald Trump showed little interest in Africa during his term; in fact, his open disdain for the continent drove US-Africa diplomacy into the ground.

At the same time, US trade with Africa has plummeted – from $142 billion in 2008 to $64 billion in 2021 – despite much-hyped initiatives. For example, the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act provides eligible Sub-Saharan countries with duty-free access to the US market for some products, and the 2019 Africa Prosper program aims to double US-Africa trade and investment. Neither has lived up to its promise.

The EU, by contrast, has maintained a robust trading relationship with Africa. But it has failed to build upon this to deepen engagement in other domains. It does not help that Europe has pursued a patently hypocritical energy policy in Africa and, along with the US, disastrous vaccine diplomacy and development policies that sometimes had counterproductive conditions attached.

The West got a wake-up call last March, when 25 of Africa’s 54 countries abstained or didn’t participate at all in a vote on a United Nations resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron called their decision hypocritical. But, for a continent that has all too often watched the world’s great powers use international law to advance their own interests, Western criticisms of Russia rang hollow, so there was little appetite for picking sides.

Moreover, while the West was failing to engage with Africa, Russia and China were actively deepening ties. Some European elites have yet to grasp, for example, that France’s recent withdrawal from Mali, after nearly a decade supporting the government’s fight against jihadist forces, allowed Russia’s Wagner Group to consolidate its grip on the Sahel and convert it into a second front against Europe. Russia has also used disinformation and age-old colonial tropes to nurture anti-French and anti-European sentiment across Africa, raising the political costs for any African leader who seeks closer relations with the West.

But it is China that has been courting Africa most vigorously in recent years. The ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has enabled it to expand its economic footprint on the continent. China-Africa trade reached a record $254 billion in 2021, putting China well on its way to its goal of surpassing the EU as Africa’s largest trading partner by 2030. China has also secured dozens of lucrative mining deals, strengthening its control over rare earths.

China has leveraged its economic influence to advance its diplomatic goals – not least to ensure that African governments do not recognize Taiwan’s government. In stark contrast to the US, China has dispatched its foreign minister to Africa nearly every year since 1950.

China has also participated in the war of narratives. Its 2021 white paper, “China and Africa in the New Era: A Partnership of Equals,” states: “In its cooperation with Africa, China applies the principles of giving more and taking less, giving before taking, and giving without asking for something in return.” The white paper is a thinly veiled rebuke of Africa’s former colonial plunderers, though it makes no mention of China’s own predatory business dealings on the continent.

The West did not take much notice of these developments, let alone attempt to resist them, even if only by shining a spotlight on China’s debt-trap diplomacy. As a result, it effectively lost Africa. The question now is how to win it back.

Despite America’s pledge at the December summit to deliver $55 billion in economic, health, and security support over the next three years, Western powers are unlikely to be able to match China’s deep pockets. Nor should they try. As Russia has shown, trade and investment are hardly necessary foundations for good relations. Russia has invested only nominally in Africa’s development, but it forged deep educational, cultural, and diplomatic connections during the Cold War.

The US should recognize the potential of its vibrant African diaspora to serve as a bridge to the continent. The newly-announced Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement is a welcome step to that end. Efforts that reflect a recognition of Africa’s crucial position on the world stage – such as US President Joe Biden’s formal endorsement for the African Union to gain a seat at the G20 – are also valuable.

The EU, for its part, should avoid succumbing to pressure to adopt a transactional approach to a continent that is already skeptical of its intentions. Instead, Europe should play to its strengths, such as by leveraging its normative power to help the continent tackle online hate speech and incitement to violence, at a time when social media’s role in fueling political violence is under close scrutiny.

More broadly, Europe and the US must bring diplomatic creativity, skill, and pragmatism to bear on issues that are of interest to Africans. In this respect, there is much that the West can learn from its two main adversaries.

*Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.

© Project Syndicate, 2023.