The United States, ‘African Rebalancing’

by Akshay Gopal I.V - 18 May, 2023, 12:00 861 Views 0 Comment

Africa gaining greater geostrategic significance in the 21st century, a region that was and still is embodied with civil wars and power struggles, home of a wide variety of minerals, metals, and oil is now the new theatre of great power politics. Even though non-aligned during the Cold War, Africa was still part of many proxy wars between the USSR and NATO. After the cold war, the West completely ignored Africa whereas other powers like Russia, and China understood the significance and started building their diplomatic ties with the African countries. Now on the brink of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, it is been seen Russia is getting no aggression from the African nation since they are beneficiaries of Russia and China through their Belt and Road initiatives making countries indebted to them. For the US, this is clearly a challenge to overcome. They are now forced to make African Nations under their sphere of Influence and move Africa away from the revisionist powers. Recent visits of US vice president Kamala Harris and Secretary of States Antony Blinken to African nations are a clear indication that the US is planning to enhance its relationship with the region and make favourable agreements that benefit the geopolitical ambitions of the US and developments of African nations.

Cold war engagements

The beginning of the cold war was followed by world thinking about decolonization. Africa as a continent was divided under colonies of various European powers like France, Britain, Belgium, etc. The US at the time had laid the foundation of NATO to prevent the flow of communism and had seen this trend of independence that’s been rising in Africa and they prefer to ignore it. Eisenhower a World War 2 veteran and American president of those times decided not to promote any sort of campaign regarding African freedom because of their commitment towards NATO allies who were the colonial masters of those regions. The major share of American foreign policy toward Africa was about the containment of the Soviet Union and /or Communism. They for the plan to be fruitful had made the people believe that communism is evil, USSR is the propagator of Evil and they are a threat to US national security. This was done so that no backlashes should be met from their citizen when they interfere in the name security. John. F. Kennedy’s period proved to be a very productive tenure for US-African relations. Kennedy being the former chairman of the subcommittee on Africa of the senate foreign relations committee, had contacts with major African leaders. But after him, the rest of the presidents considered Africa as a low priority and a region where Western European powers were in full control and only require American support. This has cost America and its allies to lose almost all of their ‘White superior regimes’. America executed 5-fold approaches to Africa to prevent any sort of instability in the region in the name of nationalism which would be used by the Soviets for their advantage to spread their ideology. first, the US did not allow Africa to select allies that suit their interest instead forced them to follow America and their allies. second, the US provided Covert assistance to groups to overthrow the government which is pro-Moscow. Third, they engaged in military, economic, diplomatic cooperation, and intelligence sharing with minority governments in the region like the British government in South Africa and the Portuguese in Guinea. Fourth, the US provided Military and economic support to countries that are either pro-US or on the condition that they provide military facilities to Americans. Fifth, all sorts of African regimes were supported despite how brutal they are if they oppose communism policies had repercussions that paved the way for the Soviets but couldn’t sustain their grip on the region much longer because of their poor economic conditions.

Conundrums of the 21st century for the US in Africa

After 1991, the United States enjoyed sole supremacy in global politics but was completely unaware that Africa had broken free from its shackles and was free to choose its allies. China was the first to initiate its plan of action in the region, with the votes of African countries being significant in helping China win UNSC and UNGA seats in 1971. China slowly built up its support in Africa throughout the 80s and 90s by eliminating support for ROC. The Chinese “going out” strategy made Africa a target for many Chinese investors. With the arrival of Xi Jinping to the central stage of Chinese politics and the initiation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a revolution in Chinese investment and infrastructure development in the region began. However, the idea of a “debt trap” emerged, with China making smaller countries in Africa lend more than they could afford, resulting in China owning them. Strategic partnerships, bilateral agreements, and infrastructure projects between China and countries like Egypt, Zambia, Kenya, and Angola have laid a solid foundation for the future endeavours of China, which could prove to be quite challenging for the US. It is important for the US to recognize the growing influence of China in Africa and take necessary steps to maintain its own interests in the region.

Russia is another key hurdle for the US in the region. After losing the Soviet empire in 1991, Russia’s growth was stifled until 1999. Following the election of Vladimir Putin as president, Russia’s ambitions grew, and one major region on which they focused was Africa and India. For Russia, reentering Africa was not a major issue because of two factors: first, Soviet colonial aspirations in the past had not included Africa, and Russians had helped many countries that hosted revolutionary freedom movements against colonial powers and pro-western governments. Russia, unlike other countries, does not invest in traditional statecraft in Africa, such as economy, trade, and infrastructure, but instead employs mercenaries, gold mining contracts, election intervention, disinformation, and arms deals, among other things. Russia’s major goal is to back the opposition and unpopular politicians so that when they get power, they will be completely indebted. This Russian strategy may be seen in Libya, Sudan, Mali, Guinea, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and other places, with Russia using private mercenaries like Wagner conclusively for these reasons.

Way forward for the US

Both revisionist powers have different techniques for establishing their presence on the African continent. The United States must re-establish its strategic presence in the region. Initially, it must be about development projects that, if completed quickly, will legitimize US presence. Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit was focused on two initiatives: digital transformation with Africa (DTA) and giving the African Union (AU) permanent membership in the G20. There was also a $15.7 billion investment in the business sector to strengthen relationships through various components of American soft power. Among the countries visited by the Vice President were Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia. Ghana and Zambia have considerable public debt, however, Tanzania has more opportunities in the digital industry due to 100% telecom connectivity. Mr. Blinken’s travel to Ethiopia and Niger was especially crucial, as he lobbied for peace in conflict-prone Northern Ethiopia and was involved in discussions about the US-Niger partnership in numerous spheres such as diplomacy, democracy, development, and defence. The United States is quietly rebuilding its relations with Africa. As in the Cold War use of an anti-communism card may not work because Beijing, unlike the USSR, promised never to interfere in internal affairs. The Russia-Ukraine war cannot be used against Russia because many African states are either with Russia or are not aligned with the West’s effort to group countries to vote against Russia in the UN. Africa being at the center of great power politics right now, the United States should make strategic decisions and gain the trust and legitimacy of African nations so that these nations are eventually ready to look for alternatives and dwell on what deals and initiatives the US is capable of offering for the overall development of the region, which would cement US presence in the region in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Akshay Gopal I.V
Author got Bachelor's degree in History. He is currently pursuing Masters from the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). He has research interest in Russian and Central Asian Geopolitics.

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