African Perception of the United States in an Evolving Geopolitical Landscape
In today’s increasingly interconnected global society, the growing use of social media and internet penetration has influenced the execution of politics and international relations. In this context, perception is people's opinions, thoughts, and feelings. Understanding perception provides an opportunity to analyze the difference between fact and fiction.
One area for assessing perception is the “new scramble for Africa”. Over the last two decades, the United States, China, the European Union (EU), and Russia have been working to build ties with the continent to access people and resources.
In the Sino-African relationship, assessing perception can help answer questions like, is the China threat real as far as Africans are concerned? Do Africans believe Chinese investment is in their best interest? China’s rise received extensive attention due to its size and growth rate. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner and its fourth-largest investor.
How do Africans perceive this issue? What does African perception of the “new scramble for Africa” mean for great powers like the United States?
The Data on African Perception
Data from Afrobarometer in 2021 found variations in the perception of the United States and China across Africa. When asked which country they perceived to be the best model for their future development, 33% of respondents chose the United States, while 22% chose China. Out of 34 countries surveyed, the United States surpassed China in 23 countries. Only 4 African countries (Tanzania, Senegal, Tunisia, Eswatini, Malawi, and Mozambique) ranked both countries equally. Compared to the results of the same question in the previous survey period (2014/2015), preferences for China and the United States as development models remained unchanged. However, the U.S. advantage increased marginally from 6 to 9 percentage points.
Younger Africans (36% of people aged 18- 25) were more likely than older Africans (26% of people above 55) to prefer the United States as a model for development. While men (25%) and women (19%) expressed equal preference for the United States as a development model, men preferred China more than women.
Regarding the economic and political influence of China in their country, approximately two-thirds (63%) of respondents said it was “somewhat positive” or “very positive.” Results for the United States were somewhat similar, as 60% of respondents said US influence was fairly positive” or “very positive.” Respondents with positive views of China also tended to have positive views of the United States. For many Africans, US- China competition is not an either-or situation.
The data also show differences in countries across the continent. In 16 countries, including Mauritius and Mali, Chinese influence is seen as more positive compared to the United States. Ten countries perceived the United States as having a more positive influence. In the previous survey period (2014-2015), Chinese positive influence was 66%. There was a decline in 17 countries, including Gabon, Niger, Namibia, and Cameroon. Only six countries (Ghana, Lesotho, Cabo Verde, Tanzania, Morocco, and Benin) recorded increased citizens who perceived Chinese influence as positive.
The most recent data from Afrobarometer shows that Africans with positive attitudes toward China are also more likely to view the United States positively. Overall, Africans hold a generally positive view of US and Chinese influence.
African Perception & Increasing Geopolitical Competition
Perceptions play a crucial role in a nation’s ability to exercise soft power—the ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment. For the United States, a positive perception among Africans can help achieve diplomacy goals and build multilateral collaboration on issues like raw material access, conflict resolution and climate change.
As global demand for critical minerals and other crucial resources in Africa increases, the perception of the United States in Africa is vital because it will determine how the country can get African countries to cooperate without resorting to military might (i.e., exerting soft power).
One test of this relationship between the United States and its African allies came during thevote on a draft resolution to freeze Russia’s UN Human Rights Council membership. Only 10 out of 54 African nations voted in favor. Nine voted against it, while 35 countries, including significant allies like South Africa, abstained or did not show up for the vote. The ability to convince another nation to vote in a specific way is a form of soft power affected by perception. In 2023, African states formed a significant bloc of countries choosing to abstain from the UN General Assembly vote to demand Russia pull its troops out of Ukraine. South Africa, the second largest economy on the continent, abstained and ran naval drills with Russia during the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine.
The United States, France, and the UK have been carrying out diplomatic missions to reverse this pattern and garner more support from African countries. In 2022, a United States-Africa summit was convened in Washington, DC, to unveil the administration’s new Africa strategy. This year, the Biden administration is adopting an approach based on mutual interest and respect, as implied during Vice President Kamala Harris’ African tour. A June 2023 progress update of the leadership summit emphasized the administration’s commitment to ensuring having Africans have a seat at the table and are part of shaping the agenda.
For African leaders, while these efforts are laudable, there is still room for improvement in perception. During the recently concluded June 2023 Summit for a New Global Financial Pact, African leaders voiced discontent with the state and perception of the current geopolitical landscape. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa demanded action from the United States and the EU on climate change and global security. He added that“Africa should never be seen as a continent that needs generosity; we want to be treated as equals.” Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema criticized the time taken to help his country renegotiate its debt burden, and a Zambian government official thanked creditors, most notably China. President Ruto of Kenya detailed his idea for a new financial system to deal with climate change without being subject to shareholder control like the IMF and World Bank. According to him, President Macron’s response to this was lukewarm.
As the world continues to deal with the repercussions of COVID-19, climate issues and geopolitical conflict, the cooperation of African states will be vital to achieving multilateral goals. The US, China, and other powers on the continent need to understand African perception to drive their foreign policy objectives.
The feedback from African countries during the Paris Summit shows that African countries remain eager to work with China, the US, and other Western partners. However, there is frustration about the current state of global affairs. The success (or lack) of multilateral initiatives like President Biden’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) will depend on how African states perceive the United States and its motives.
The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center’s Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.
About the Author
Fikayo Akeredolu is a Doctoral Candidate at Oxford University.
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations. Read more