Gone are cold-war politics of propping up dictatorships in the fight against communism. Gone, too, are the days of unending development aid for developing African countries.
America in the early 21st century is more likely to need Africa as much as Africa needs America, both in terms of natural resources and energy as in political support on the global stage. And African leaders, from Kenya to South Africa, and from Angola to Congo to Nigeria, know this.
"America needs Africa on a number of areas: It needs Africa in multilateral structures such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, it needs Africa in the War against terror," says David Monyae, an independent political analyst based in Johannesburg. "And given that Africa accounts for the largest number of conflicts where UN peacekeepers play a role," the Obama administration does not have luxury of ignoring African conflicts, no matter how intransigent. "The US cannot think at this stage that a war in Somalia, for instance, has no effect on America."
US a latecomer to African investment
Imports from African countries, under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, now equal about $66.3 billion, up 30 percent since 2007.
America is, if anything, a latecomer to the field of African investment, with vibrant and attractive competition from China, Russia, and India for all the same natural resources that the Americans seek – without the conditions that American leaders tend to impose.
One of the key issues of contention for African trade ministers at Nairobi will be what they regard as an unfair advantage that African oil-producing nations have in gaining access to American markets, compared with nations that produce textiles and agricultural products. Ninety percent of America's imports from Africa come from four oil-producing nations, including Nigeria and Angola.
"Trading with the United States potentially holds great promise," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said in a speech on Tuesday. "Agoa has acted as a catalyst in promoting trade between US and Africa, but it is too early to claim it has made a striking difference to our fortunes."
Yet while today's agenda has mainly focused on trade, Clinton's visit has occurred at a time of testy relations between Kenya's coalition government and the richer nations of the Western world.
No tribunal on post-election violence
Over the weekend, Kenya's parliament shot down the last chance for creating a special tribunal to hold accountable key political figures who may have directed post-election violence in the early months of 2008, which left some 1,500 Kenyans dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.
US and British diplomats openly showed their dismay at the decision, which now leaves the only redress for victims of violence in Kenya's balky and overburdened court system, or through the still untested International Criminal Court at the Hague, Netherlands.
US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Rannenberger issued a statement this weekend saying, "The US is deeply concerned by the coalition government's decision that appears to indicate it will not establish a special tribunal to hold accountable perpetrators of violence."
This did not going over well, with Kenyan Prime Minister Odinga, who replied tersely, "Africa does not need too much lecturing on governance issues."
Weather eye to strategic issues
Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, says that the Obama administration must be careful in how it balances its strategic interests with its emphasis on human rights.
"The big strategy issue for me is African integration, both economic and military," says Mr. Kornegay, a former researcher for the US Congress.
The African Union, for instance, is working toward developing standby regional brigades that it could deploy to peacekeeping missions and post-conflict zones, a mission that pairs well with America's growing strategic interests in a stable African continent. "This is where we need to find focus," he says, "not on whether human rights is strong or weak in South African or any other country's foreign policy.
"The same question can be asked about us [the United States]," he adds. "Human rights is not the first priority in our foreign policy. We have to be realistic about what we're dealing with. We are dealing with countries on an equal basis."