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Refining American Strategy in Africa

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz. | February 2000

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Amani iwe kwenu. This Swahili benediction, which means ?may peace be with you,? is an appealing thought but remains only a dream for Sub-Saharan Africa. At the beginning of the 21st century, that region is characterized by increasing violence and instability as governments, facing the pressures of globalization and the information revolution, lose the ability to control pent-up discontent. In states with relatively strong economies and civil societies, this has sparked pressure for increased government accountability and popular participation. In less resilient states, the devolution of state power has led to collapse, fragmentation, and violence. Some, like Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, tumbled into near-anarchy. Others have spent years trying to wrest control of their hinterlands from rebel warlords. As a result, Africa entered the 21st century the most war-torn region on earth. 1

Facing thunderstorms of violence and diminishing interest by outside powers, Africa?s leaders have attempted to forge some sort of new, post-Cold War strategic framework. This has renewed the search for ?African solutions to African problems.? Because of the great value that African culture places on collective action, the most tangible gains have come from building on existing structures. Regional economic organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and, to a lesser extent, the East African Community (EAC) have assumed security functions, in part to compensate for the weaknesses of the continent-wide Organization of African Unity (OAU).

But every step forward brings one backwards. At the same time that the region?s leaders attempt to build a new strategic framework, they seem to have lost any inhibition on intervention in neighboring states. The old dictum that ?the enemy of my enemy is my friend? dominates the security policy of African states. Proxy conflict is the coin of the realm. And security policy?like politics in general? remains personalized. Animosities among the region?s leaders shape the strategic environment as much as national interests. Positive and negative trends in Africa remain locked in a fragile counterpoise. In coming years the continent could go either way, slipping into greater violence or slowly moving toward greater stability. For the United States, this creates a moment of opportunity when wise strategy could bring great benefits.

Admittedly, Africa is a not a top priority for the United States. The 1998 National Security Strategy of the United States lists Africa last among the world?s regions. 2 This is not coincidence. As a 1995 report by the Department of Defense notes, ?America?s security interests are very limited.?3 The tendency is thus to relegate Africa to the periphery of American strategy, to accord it our second-best efforts, or to ignore it entirely.4 But to do so risks letting substantial opportunities fade away. This would not be wise. After all, the United States does have strategic concerns in Sub-Saharan Africa. Serious transnational threats emanate from the region including state-sponsored terrorism, narcotics trafficking, weapons proliferation, international crime, environmental damage, and pandemic disease.5 Nigerian organized crime groups are heavily involved in the global heroin trade, and South Africa, Ghana, and Côte d?Ivoire are becoming important transshipment points for drugs.6 And Africa is the scene of recurrent humanitarian disasters, often as a result of armed conflict. To ignore them detracts from the humanity of all who have it in their power to respond, and pushes the sort of world order that Americans seek a little further away. In addition, economic opportunities in Africa are growing. By volume, about 14 percent of U.S. crude oil imports come from Africa (compared to 18 percent from the Middle East).7 While U.S. exports to Sub-Saharan Africa account for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports, they do exceed those to the former Soviet Union and currently account for 100,000 U.S. jobs.8 Direct investment is also increasing.9

This suggests that the United States should remain engaged in Africa but do so in a way that generates the maximum effectiveness from every effort. Clearly promotion of political and economic reform must be at the center of American policy. But security cannot be overlooked. Democracy and development require security which is in short supply across Africa. To assist African states in building a more secure region, the United States must promote improved civil-military relations, help with the professionalization of African militaries, and assist with the construction of regional structures to prevent or resolve conflict. This is a tall order. The American public and its elected leaders have little understanding of or concern for Africa. Those who craft and implement American policy face a constant struggle to sustain interest and obtain the resources necessary to influence the region. This means that the maximum impact must be derived from every program and effort: American strategy in Africa must be both creative and careful. The Clinton administration has laid the foundation for success. To seize the region?s opportunities, this must now be refined. The U.S. military? particularly the Army?can play a vital part.


In the coming decade, Africa is likely to move one step forward and one step backwards, often at the same time. Some nations will take strides in their quest for stability, prosperity, and democracy by taking the steps necessary to integrate into the globalizi ng economy. Others will regress.

There will always be a tendency in the United States to write the continent off, in part because its problems are complex and difficult for Americans to understand. This would be a mistake?a small investment of strategic resources in Africa has the potential to pay big dividends.

But so long as American strategy focuses purely on government-to-government initiatives and so long as it treats all African states except the most egregious abusers of human rights as equally deserving partnership, its impact will be diluted, distorted, and muted. A strategy of conditional engagement would more effectively use the limited strategic resources that the United States can expend in Africa, but would generate criticism from both Africa and from elements of the American Africanist community. African states have long resisted attempts to ?divide? them. For instance, when the Clinton Administration planned a March 1999 conference on African economic development and technological cooperation, it initially invited only select countries, particularly those committed to economic liberalization and free trade. But African leaders objected, arguing that it is ?inappropriate? for the administration to ?pick favorites.?170

In reality, it is perfectly appropriate. So long as the United States bends to African pressure to treat all states there equally, U.S. policy will provide only limited incentive for those truly committed to reform. The United States has a perfect right to establish the conditions for assistance by whatever criteria it deems appropriate. The United States has no moral obligation to provide assistance or partnership, and no nation has a ?right? to it. By increasing the rewards for real economic and political reform, a strategy of constrained engagement would better encourage it. Those African states truly committed to reform must develop the courage to weather the criticism that their foresight provokes from their regressive brethren. U.S. policy should assist this through conditional engagement. If this provokes criticism, so be it.

In the military realm, Africa will remain an arena where relatively low-cost military-to-military contacts, if done wisely, in a spirit of partnership, and consistently, can have major payoffs. Africa is not a warfighting theater; military professional education will remain the prime resource of American security policy. The United States should use it to maximum benefit, adopting programs that reward African military partners who continue on the path to reform and severing ties with those who do not. At the same time, the United States should press for the rationalization of African militaries, including adoption of a reserve based force. And, U.S. strategy should assure that African civilian leaders have the education and tools to exercise effective oversight.

During the last year of his presidency, President Clinton elevated African issues on his list of national priorities. 171 In December 1999, the American representative to the U.N., Richard C. Holbrooke, announced a series of new initiatives designed to help resolve ongoing African crises. 172 In January 2000, Vice President Al Gore presided over a session of the U.N. Security Council which was to deal with the spread of AIDS in Africa?the first time that body ever focused on a health issue.173 At about the same time, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright was participating in discussions on the formation of a U.N. peacekeeping force to help implement a settlement in Congo. 174

These are useful steps, but the refinement of American strategy in Africa continues to face pressing problems. It remains very difficult to convince Congress to support activities in Africa. For instance, at the same time that Secretary Albright was participating in the talks designed to end the conflict in Congo?which is sometimes called ?Africa?s first world war??Senator John Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that the United States should focus on conflict resolution in the Balkans and reject further commitments in Africa. 175 This illustrates the fragility of congressional interest in Africa.176 In the House of Representatives, African-American members usually provide a foundation of support.

But in the Senate, Africa is a tough sell. When there are champions for Africa like Senator Dick Clark (D-IA) in the 1970s or Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) in the 1980s, interest and support are somewhat higher. In the absence of such a champion, Africa receives very little attention and the architects of America?s Africa strategy must worry about sustaining even successful programs like ACRI.

But even the best designed American strategy for Africa backed by constant effort will not work miracles. Only African leaders can determine whether the continent moves toward prosperity and stability or disintegrates into further misery. But with a small investment of strategic resources, the United States might be able to tip the scales, at least in key countries. A strategy of persistent, conditional engagement would help. Africa has a great need for creative approaches to its problems, and a refined American strategy can help provide them. Amani iwe kwenu.


In 1998 the Foreign Broadcast Information Service replaced the paper version of its reports with Internet reports. This study includes citations to both the old and new versions.

1. Arms and Conflict in Africa, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research, July 1999, p. 1, reprinted at http:!! www.state.gov! www! regions! africa! 9907_africa_con flict.html.

2. A National Security Strategy for a New Century, Washington, DC: The White House, October 1998, pp. 54-57. (Henceforth National Security Strategy 1998.) For the sake of brevity, the word ?Africa? will be used throughout this manuscript to mean ?Sub-Saharan Africa.?

3. United States Security Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, Office of International Security Affairs, August 1995, p. 3.

4. For a comprehensive study of this tendency, see Peter J. Schraeder, United States Foreign Policy Toward Africa: Incrementalism, Crisis and Change, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Also useful is Michael Clough, Free At Last? U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War, New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992.

5. National Security Strategy 1998, pp. 54-55.

6. Susan E. Rice, ?United States Interests in Africa: Post-Cold War, Post-Apartheid,? the 1999 Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture, Rhodes House, Oxford, England, May 13, 1999, reprinted at http://www.state .gov/www/policy_remarks/1999/990513_rice_oxford.html.

7. Susan E. Rice, ?U.S. Interests in Africa: Today?s Perspective,? Address at the Columbia University Institute of International and Public Affairs, October 20, 1998, transcript at http://www.state.gov/ www/ regions/ africa/ rice_981020.html.

8. Rice, ?United States Interests in Africa: Post-Cold War, Post-Apartheid.?

9. U.S. Trade and Investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, Fact Sheet released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of African Affairs, March 27, 1998, at http://www.state.gov/www/regions/africa/fs_trade_980327.html.

170. Thomas W. Lippman, ?50 African Nations Parley Here on Economic Development,? Washington Post, March 16, 1999, p. A18.

171. Richard C. Holbrooke, United States Representative to the United Nations, statement in Pretoria, South Africa, December 6, 1999, reprinted at http:!! www.un.int! usa! 99_139.htm.

172.Barbara Crossette, ?Holbrooke to Unveil Series of Initiatives for Dealing With Africa,? New York Times, December 6, 1999 (electronic download); and, Colum Lynch, ?U.S. Turns Spotlight on Africa,? Washington Post, January 6, 2000, p. A12.

173.Katharine Q. Seelye, ?Gore to Preside at Security Council Session on AIDS Crisis,? New York Times, January 10, 2000 (electronic download).

174.Barbara Crossette, ?At U.N., 7 African Leaders Discuss Ending Congo War,? New York Times, January 25, 2000 (electronic download).

175.Colum Lynch, ?Senator Warner Urges U.N. to Put Balkans Missions Ahead of Africa,? Washington Post, January 22, 2000, p. A20.

176. See Schraeder, United States Foreign Policy Toward Africa, pp. 37-41. For a case study that emphasizes congressional politics, see Steven Metz, ?The Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Formulation of American Policy Toward South Africa, 1969-1981,? Ph.D. dissertation, the Johns Hopkins University, 1985.