USA Foreign Policy

Why Tillerson pitch of US as soft-power partner will be a hard sell in Africa

values and ideals

Tillerson will be casting the US as a better partner than China, as he emphasizes good governance and human rights. But the US is seen as late to the game in Africa, and it will be hard to shed the US reputation for being primarily concerned with security.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laughs as he takes a seat to answer questions from students after speaking about the relationship between the U.S. and countries in Africa, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

For decades, the United States has vaunted the advantages and promise of deeper engagement with Africa, but more often than not the action has failed to match the rhetoric.

President George W. Bush introduced his groundbreaking PEPFAR AIDS-response program, while Barack Obama intervened to save a region from Ebola and then established a vast public-private electrification project to help boost Africa’s development.

But to a large extent – and notably aside from a steady buildup of counterterrorist security partnerships in recent years – the US has steadily retreated to the sidelines as African states have sought to develop their economies. And that’s been true even as other powers – most notably China – have leapfrogged the US to become Africa’s dominant foreign partners.

This week Rex Tillerson makes his first trip to Africa as secretary of State, aiming to reassert America’s role not just as a hard-power security blanket but as a soft-power partner.

He’ll talk up the importance of democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights on his five-nation tour, according to State Department diplomats. He’ll pledge American partnership in fulfilling Africa’s bright economic promise, as some African countries register impressive growth rates and international economists spotlight Africa as the world’s next Southeast Asia.

And as he suggested in a speech Tuesday at George Mason University before jumping on a plane, Mr. Tillerson will warn his African hosts about China’s development model, which to America’s way of thinking is stripping Africa of its natural wealth – particularly precious metals – and indebting countries to dangerous levels while giving little back.

Touting America’s model of development assistance as one that demands transparency, good governance practices, and respect for human rights in exchange for US “partnerships,” Tillerson said it “stands in stark contrast to China’s approach.”

The Chinese model, he said, is typified by “predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undermine their independence” while “creating few if any jobs in most countries.”

But for many, the US is coming late and with little bang to the African dance. Moreover, African leaders are likely to receive Tillerson with a mixture of longing for American engagement and mounting skepticism over America’s desire and capability to play its traditional global leadership role.

Much of the world is “questioning whether we really have the energy, the engagement, the investment to sustain what has for 70 years been the rules-based liberal world order the US built after the Second World War,” said Sen. Christopher Coons (D) of Delaware, speaking last week at Washington’s Hudson Institute.

Contrasting US, China

Senator Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and something of an Africa expert, was speaking specifically about the Middle Eastern countries he’d recently visited, and drawing a conclusion from the resounding message he said he’s received from leaders around the world.

In Africa in particular, he says, leaders want America’s involvement and partnership – but in the absence of that strong engagement they are turning increasingly to China and its very different model of development.

“There is no continent on the planet where the US is more positively viewed than Africa,” says Coons, who has visited 27 African countries over his tenure as senator. But he says there is no other continent “where the contest of ideas and systems between the United States and China is so daily and widely evident.”

Describing China’s message to Africa leaders as basically, “You can have development without all the messiness of human rights and journalists and [political] opposition,” he adds: “The force of China’s engagement with Africa is like a tidal pull. They’re present, they’re engaged, and they’re providing a powerful counterexample of how you can organize society.”

Tillerson will make stops in Ethiopia, where he’ll meet with national leaders as well as with representatives of the African Union, and then Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria. All are key security partners of the US – indeed Tillerson dedicated the first half of his George Mason speech to the importance of US security arrangements in Africa.

But some Africa experts worry that the secretary’s trip is heavy on countries where the US focus is largely on battling extremist groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Chad.

Over-emphasis on security?

“The countries being visited by Secretary Tillerson have an overarching common denominator, and that is security and counterterrorism,” says Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs and ambassador to several African countries. “For some of these states security is indeed the key issue,” he adds, “but it should not be the only focus of US policy in Africa.”

What sub-Saharan Africa is looking for in the US “is a good partner in economic development … a better commercial and investing partner,” adds Ambassador Carson, who is now an Africa expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

Others say they can appreciate the reasoning behind Tillerson’s emphasis – but that it risks confirming the perspective of a broader section of Africa’s political and economic players that the US is out of all but the security game.

“I get that [Tillerson] is positioning security as the precondition for prosperity, and many African leaders – clearly those he’ll be meeting with – will agree with that,” says Aubrey Hruby, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“But for broader stakeholders in the economy, the emphasis leaves the US out of the picture,” she says. “Security partnerships are important, but they are invisible to a lot of people, and so leave US engagement invisible as well.”

As it had before, the US launched with great fanfare a new initiative for commercial and economic engagement with Africa in 2000, says Ms. Hruby, former managing director of the Whitaker Group, an Africa-focused corporate strategy and investment advisory firm.

But then the results never lived up to the promise. “What has happened is that over the last 10 years the US has not increased its engagement of African economies as much as others have,” she adds, “so that has made it look like the US is slipping behind.”

Need for sustained partnerships

Certainly the US has slipped behind China, which has built huge infrastructure projects across Africa (including a transnational railroad in Djibouti) largely financed by big long-term loans.

Carson says the US is right to warn African countries about the consequences of the large amount of debt they are piling up with China. “We certainly don’t want Africa falling back into another debt trap like the one that was so debilitating in the 70s and 80s,” he says.

But the Atlantic Council’s Hruby says that more effective than warnings about other countries’ level of engagement would be a move by the US – both public and private sectors – beyond rhetoric to sustained partnerships.

“Africa’s leaders are not naïve, they are not hoodwinked into deals with China or anyone else, and they’ll be the first to tell you that the Chinese have their own agenda,” she says. “But they do feel like they don’t have a lot of alternatives.”

What the US should be doing, she adds, is demonstrating that the option of “broad-based, productive, and sustained partnerships” with US public and private sectors is more than Washington rhetoric.

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