A New Direction for U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa

A New Direction for U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa

If Democrats win the U.S. election, it is time for a progressive reset in relations with Africa: a new foreign policy, centered on economic justice and the democratic aspirations of the continent’s youth.

A Nigerien soldier wearing a U.S. military uniform waits during a training exercise in 2004 in Samara, Niger. (Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)

President Trump’s approach to Africa rightly elicits outrage. His conception of the continent ranges from disinterest—he has only mentioned it three times out of around 20,000 tweets—to outright contempt, such as when he referred to African nations as “shithole countries.” For eighteen months, the office of the assistant secretary of state for African affairs was empty or occupied by a temporary official. Almost two years into his administration, there was no ambassador deployed to twenty of Africa’s fifty-four countries. Trump has only met with two heads of state from sub-Saharan Africa in the White House. He has proposed large budget cuts for humanitarian funding—including for the flagship President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and UN peacekeeping operations—although these attempts were mostly foiled by bipartisan efforts in Congress. In January, he extended his travel ban to four additional African countries, including Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation and its largest economy, affecting nearly a quarter of the 1.3 billion people on the continent.

Appearances, however, are deceptive. While Trump’s Africa policy may seem to be a departure, its broad contours have changed little from recent administrations. Since the end of the Cold War, both Republican and Democratic administrations have embraced a mixture of military intervention, free trade, and humanitarian aid on the continent. As a result, Washington has often ended up backing authoritarian regimes, all the while halfheartedly projecting democratic values.

Meanwhile, the continent is undergoing transformative changes. Much like Latin America during the 2000s, many African countries once drawn into the U.S. orbit are drifting out of it. With COVID-19 threatening to destabilize African economies and political systems, now is the time for a progressive reset in relations with the continent: a new foreign policy, centered on economic justice and the democratic aspirations of African youth. With the presidential election looming and Joe Biden, the Democratic Party nominee, expected to place Obama-era stalwarts such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power in top foreign policy positions if he wins in November, progressives must push for a new direction for U.S.–Africa relations or risk entrenching the problematic policies of the past.

Beneath the Turmoil, Continuity

U.S. foreign policy in Africa has its roots in the Cold War, when it was dominated by fears of communist encroachment. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the continent was viewed as peripheral to core U.S. interests. As a 1995 Defense Department assessment summarized, “Ultimately we see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa.” The same dismissive attitude held in the economic sphere. By 2017, exports to the continent stood at just above 1 percent of the U.S. total and direct investment by U.S. companies was even lower.

Disengagement was also spurred by missteps and the thorny realities of local politics. In 1993, the deployment of Army Rangers to Somalia in support of a UN peacekeeping intervention ended when eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed and some of their mutilated bodies were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. This influenced Bill Clinton’s refusal to back a more robust UN engagement to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. His administration instead enthusiastically supported a new generation of rebels-turned-rulers in Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia, only to see them entrench themselves as authoritarian leaders.

This trend of opportunistically backing authoritarian regimes solidified after 9/11, when African countries came to be key, albeit secondary, battlegrounds in the global War on Terror. During the 2000s, several militant groups emerged on the continent that were eventually designated as terrorist organizations by the Bush and Obama administrations, including the predecessors of al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel. In 2002, to combat this perceived threat, the United States set up the Combined Joint Task Force to the Horn of Africa, based in Djibouti, while the Pan-Sahel Initiative focused on Niger, Mali, Chad, and Mauritania.

Ever since, the U.S. military has expanded its presence on the continent. In 2007, it established the Africa Command, or AFRICOM, based in Stuttgart, Germany. It recently revealed it had thirty-six known missions in Africa, with 6,000 to 7,000 troops operating in eighteen different countries, often combined with support to national armies.

The War on Terror made explicit the self-interested nature of U.S. policy; even the pretense of concern for democracy and human rights was abandoned for many countries. Terrorism and trade became the core national interests.

In 2016, to take the example of one African nation, the U.S. government provided $104 million to the Ugandan army (a big figure for an army whose total budget was $317 million) in a “train and equip mission.” This influx of funding came in the run-up to national elections that year, which were marred by the arrests and harassment of opposition politicians and the stifling of civil liberties. Uganda is seen as a key partner in the battle against al Shabaab, as it contributes over 6,000 troops—the largest contingent—to the African Union Mission in Somalia. Similarly, the United States has been a main backer, along with France, of the Chadian army as part of its counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel region. Washington’s largest annual contribution—worth $77 million—came in 2016 as Chad was in the midst of its own controversial election, which extended strongman Idris Deby’s rule.

Table: U.S. military support to select African armies, 2012–19


U.S. military

support (millions)

National military
budget (millions)

U.S. military

support as share

of national

military budget

Burkina Faso




Burundi (2012–2016)








Chad (excluding 2012)
















Mauritania (2012–2018)




Niger (excluding 2015)




Rwanda (2012–2018)




South Sudan




Uganda (2012–2018)




Regional funding


Sources: Security Assistance Monitor, SIPRI

This approach assumes that the United States will be safer if it deals with Islamist extremism through military force. There may be negative consequences, the logic goes, but it is a necessary cost. This policy, however, has backfired. Boko Haram, al Shabaab, Ansar Dine, and other armed groups in the Sahel initially focused on local power struggles. Despite tenuous links with al Qaeda and ISIS, they posed little threat to the United States. But sustained military campaigns against these groups by Western-backed national armies have contributed to the radicalization of parts of the population, pushing them to frame their struggles as an international one against Western civilization. U.S. military support has also made national militaries less accountable and bolstered autocrats’ grip on power, while neglecting the social and economic roots out of which militant Islamism is born.

Since the 1980s, the United States has been at the forefront of the neoliberal consensus that has restructured African economies, pushing privatization, the shrinking of the public sector, and an increase in foreign direct investment. Led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Africans were told that implementing austerity programs would end grinding economic stagnation and produce vibrant middle classes that could hold governments accountable. While structural adjustment did produce growth, it has been accompanied by an increase in inequality, an erosion of public goods, and a ghettoization of urban areas, where small, politically connected elites are insulated from large, disaffected bidonvilles. Today, the three richest Africans are worth more than the bottom 50 percent of the continent’s population. While this may sound familiar—the exact same numbers hold true for the United States—poverty in Africa is more widespread than anywhere else. The World Bank estimates that 87 percent of the world’s extreme poor will be in Africa by 2030. Across the continent, the construction of gated communities and new enclaves—Eko Atlantic in Lagos is an example of this—has allowed economic elites to barricade themselves from the poor, crime, traffic, and, at least in theory, COVID-19 as well.

These problems are not solely the fault of local elites, corrupt and exploitative as they may be. Since the colonial era, Africa has figured in the world economy as a place for resource extraction, a dynamic that has only intensified in recent decades. Around half of the continent’s exports are raw materials, with foreign mining and oil companies often complicit in large-scale corruption that deprives governments of valuable resources. In Between 2010 and 2012, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reportedly lost over $1.36 billion from the underpricing of mining assets that were sold to offshore companies linked to the Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. Studies have shown that capital flight—the squirreling away of assets and capital to another country to dodge taxes, hide money, or avoid economic instability—is ten times the amount in annual global aid, and twice the amount of debt developing countries repay each year. Further, the world trade system systematically discriminates against African economies through high tariffs, agricultural subsidies for rich countries, and running roughshod over workers’ rights.

While international financial institutions have recently modified their approach to focus more on reducing poverty, the predominant approach from the United States—on both sides of the political spectrum—continues to push African governments to maintain budgetary discipline and open their markets to free trade.

The problems that these trends pose in terms of the erosion of state capacity have been on display during the COVID-19 epidemic. The DRC, for example, only has one laboratory that can process tests; by early May, it averaged around 130 a day for a population of over 80 million. There are only an estimated 2,000 ventilators for Africa’s 1.2 billion people, with ten countries possessing none at all, compared with 120,000 in the United States. While health metrics have improved considerably throughout the continent—maternal and child mortality and the number of deaths from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS have plummeted in recent years—public health infrastructure has become dilapidated through a decline in funding, becoming less accessible to the poorest. Healthcare reforms promoted by the World Bank and IMF focused on profitability, leading countries in Africa to provide the care that their citizens could afford, not that they needed. This made it difficult to ramp up public health responses to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and has complicated the response to COVID-19. While international financial institutions have promised hundreds of billions in aid, they have conditioned much of it on deregulation, privatization, and cuts to health budgets.

A Changing Continent

While U.S. policy toward the continent has remained stagnant, Africa is undergoing dramatic change. Demographic shifts play a large role in this transformation; almost all global population growth in coming decades will be in African countries. By 2100, more than a third of the world’s population will live in Africa, more than double today’s ratio, and half of the world’s children could be African. At the same time, people across the continent are migrating to urban areas, creating new megacities.

This emerging Africa does not resemble stereotypes of an authoritarian continent riven by ethnic conflict. African societies are broadly pluralistic and beholden to democracy. Instead of building on these shared values, however, the United States is being outflanked by other countries.

China has become Africa’s largest trading partner and is expanding its influence with $143 billion in loans and the construction of forty-eight Confucius Institutes (language and cultural centers). India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have similarly expanded their presence on the continent. Russia is also increasing its involvement, sending troops to the Central African Republic, hosting African heads of state in Sochi last year, and promising investments. The net effect of these changes is that African governments are no longer bound to the United States or its European partners. African leaders today regularly forum shop for support, playing external powers off each other in order to negotiate better terms of engagement and to avoid conditions they no longer consider acceptable. Unfortunately, this rarely translates into better conditions for African people.

This international climate has helped fuel a rise in authoritarianism, political repression, and economic inequality, which in turn has generated unrest. Since the late 2000s, street protests led by disillusioned and often underemployed youths have contributed to the ousting of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Sudan, Ethiopia, the DRC, Egypt, and Algeria, though their successors have rarely lived up to the aspirations of the demonstrators. Instead of praising these popular movements, which are overwhelmingly peaceful and dedicated to progressive reforms, Washington has largely remained on the sidelines.

It is not surprising that Africans’ approval of U.S. leadership plummeted by an average of 22 percent between 2009 and 2014 in the eleven African countries surveyed by Gallup. Many on the continent see a United States that is more interested in counterterrorism and private investment than in supporting democratic movements.

In the coming decades, U.S. engagement will become all the more important for better or worse as climate change intensifies. Droughts, desertification, and flooding have become common in parts of Africa; some pessimistic estimates suggest that by 2050, there could be 86 million people displaced by their effects. The devastation of Cyclone Idai in southern Africa or the swarms of locusts ravaging crops in East Africa are portents of what is to come.

A New Approach

The U.S. focus on security interests and free markets has come at the expense of creative and more productive approaches that could deepen ties to African governments, build goodwill within African societies, and project a new vision of American values to the world. The rise of progressive movements in the United States presents an opportunity to consider a bold new foreign policy for the continent with an anti-militarist, egalitarian, and pro-democratic orientation. Four specific policy shifts would fundamentally reshape U.S. relations with African countries.

First, the United States should abandon its military-first approach to Africa. The current policy resembles a whack-a-mole game in which the United States overreacts to jihadist threats (real or imagined) by escalating its military presence through partnerships with African militaries. Instead, we recommend a far more limited role of training militaries to center the security needs of their own national populations. The United States should continue its existing efforts to professionalize African militaries while reducing its reliance on them to serve as soldiers of fortune for U.S. security priorities. This can help spread civilian control over the military, engendering goodwill from the large portion of Africans who view their national militaries as a threat rather than as a protector.

Second, progressive economic policies should not stop at the water’s edge. The current American groundswell of outrage at inequality is an opportunity to build an international movement for a more just economic order. African governments have little capacity to deal with capital flight, corruption, and inequality. The rewards of the free market flow to a narrow and politically connected elite. Washington should instead promote policies that shut down tax havens, tackle corporate malfeasance, and combat money laundering. While Joe Biden has spoken about reforming America’s flawed financial system on the campaign trail, he has yet to project an international vision for a greener, more just, and equitable world.

But we would recommend the United States go even further. Free-market orthodoxy has led to a spike in inequality across the continent, with Africa now home to seven of the ten most unequal countries in the world. Since the Cold War, the United States has exhibited hostility toward African governments that seek to implement economic policies that challenge neoliberal models. Subsidies for domestic industries, increased regulation of multinational corporations, spending on social welfare programs, and land redistribution have all been largely opposed across U.S. administrations, regardless of their individual merit for addressing economic dynamics. As the austerity agenda loses support even among its most strenuous backers, there is an opportunity for a new approach that can challenge the extractive forms of capitalism that have taken hold across the continent. For one, the United States should place greater weight on promoting the capacity of African regulatory bodies, legislatures, and courts. At the same time, it should expand the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides preferential access for African producers to U.S. markets, but take democracy and labor standards more rigorously into consideration when conferring that status on countries.

It is also time to revamp U.S. aid policy. What this means foremost is increasing it. Even before Trump’s announcement that he was cutting foreign aid an additional 20 percent, the United States devoted a meager 0.18 percent of gross domestic product to it, far less than most developed countries. A boost in aid will be all the more necessary with the damage COVID-19 is doing to African economies, pushing an estimated 29 million Africans into poverty. This might seem like a hard ask given economic hardships in the United States. But to put it into perspective: current aid to Africa is only around 1 percent of the total defense budget.

A full third of U.S. aid spending is on military and security assistance to allies. Even the aid not explicitly marked for security purposes is closely tied to U.S. security objectives. This approach is not new but continues a trend begun by the George W. Bush administration and reinforced under Barack Obama’s pick to head USAID, Rajiv Shah, who championed greater alignment of the agency’s projects and national security policy.

Subsuming aid under military priorities is often counterproductive. Efforts to help the DRC fight the recent outbreak of Ebola, for example, were complicated by the high degrees of mistrust that local Congolese had toward the United States and other international interveners, even though it was widely acknowledged that their government had little capacity to handle the outbreak on its own. To combat the spread of communicable diseases like COVID-19 that can devastate entire regions, assistance such as George W. Bush’s widely praised PEPFAR program is integral. Disentangling the dangerous conflation of aid with security would reduce local mistrust of the agendas of aid workers and, ideally, help rebuild faith and goodwill in African communities that benefit from such interventions.

The above recommendations seek to shift the dynamic of the U.S. relationship with African governments. Our fourth recommendation builds on this by strengthening outreach to Africans themselves. Across the continent, popular movements have been expressing their anger with African leaders. This third wave of African protest, following the anticolonial movements of the 1940s and ’50s and the pro-democracy demonstrations of the ’80s and ’90s, has produced significant changes in Africa, bringing down corrupt dictators and putting other longstanding leaders on notice.

The United States has rarely been on the side of the protesters, despite their clear alignment with the democratic values it rhetorically champions. Whether it’s the delayed support for North African protesters during the Arab Spring or the silence from Washington as regimes in Uganda, Ethiopia, Congo, and many other states crack down on nonviolent protest, U.S. policy has often failed to champion the values that African protesters embody.

Critics will insist that a values-driven foreign policy makes little sense when China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, and others tout their noninterference in domestic affairs as a primary way to distinguish themselves from the West, with its history of selective, hypocritical outrage. Yet such a values-free approach almost always ends up buttressing corrupt governments, who leverage these relationships to turn against their own restive populations.

Genuinely championing democratic values in Africa, a continent with the largest age gap between its populace and rulers, may not produce short-term results. Faced with alternatives, autocratic leaders are likely to pivot toward those governments willing to overlook their abuses while cutting sweetheart deals. But instead of engaging in a race to the bottom to win the favor of Africa’s aging autocrats, a values-driven approach has the benefit of aligning U.S. policy with the aspirations of future generations of Africans, who overwhelmingly reject strongman rule. It may also be a realistic reflection of the limits of Washington’s power and a model for U.S. policy with the rest of the world. Rather than maximizing U.S. influence, it would reorient foreign policy toward doing less harm while staying true to America’s core ideals.

Toward this end, along with support for democratic movements, the United States should reimagine its approach to cultural diplomacy. Soft-power initiatives focused on building goodwill among ordinary people through arts or education initiatives, for example, are a cornerstone of foreign policy. India and China devote considerable resources to shifting perceptions among African citizens by building cultural centers and promoting exchange programs. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been squandering the perhaps undeserved goodwill between most African societies and the United States derived from the historic and diasporic bonds that tie together populations across the transatlantic divide. Africans constitute one of the fastest growing portions of America’s immigrant population, which creates unique opportunities for engagement. However, the United States, both during the Cold War and again during the War on Terror, fused cultural diplomacy with security policy. This cynical approach to soft power needs to be transformed by decoupling the promotion of American culture from narrow self-interest.

All of this will require a structural shift, as well, to democratize our foreign policy. While it has a huge impact on the African continent, the vast majority of Americans have little interest in raising questions about accountability. Foreign policy is largely shaped by a narrow elite of policymakers, based on a limited palette of options. The disconnect between this bipartisan elite and the public is perhaps most evident in how the United States engages with conflicts abroad. Almost three-quarters of Americans prefer diplomacy to military action, according to the Pew Research Center. Sadly, however, figures like Susan Rice and Samantha Power demonstrate little capacity to lead the shift. Both made their names working on Africa and went on to serve in the Obama administration, where they championed the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In her recent memoir, Rice promised to “go down fighting” to support “U.S. military intervention” under certain conditions that she deemed, against the opinion of most Africa experts, were met in Libya. Similarly, Power defended the Libyan intervention in her 2019 memoir, while saying little about the U.S. government’s disastrous support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Progressivism requires not only better policy, but a different relationship between the government and voters. As Bernie Sanders argued during his 2016 presidential campaign, real change will require sustained mobilization from the grassroots and a rich debate about how to manifest solidarity, which, when it comes to Africa, is almost entirely absent.

This call for democratization is also important for the receiving end of our policy. Decisions with enormous impact on African lives are being taken by a small number of people in Washington, without any input from the “beneficiaries” of these policies. Africans must be able to have a seat at the table. This could mean supporting the capacity of African research networks, such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. More radically, the U.S. foreign policy black box—“the Blob,” as Obama adviser Benjamin Rhodes called it—should be opened up to allow both African and U.S. civil society networks to help define priorities and budget allocations.

U.S. policy in Africa is long overdue for a reset. In a world in which the United States can no longer assume dominance, genuinely bringing democratic values into foreign policy would help set it apart from countries that see the continent as simply a site of extraction. An approach that centers the welfare of African populations could position the United States as a friend to ordinary Africans rather than its strongmen.

Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe chair of international affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, City University of New York.

Jason Stearns is an assistant professor at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University and the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University.