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Washington Tone-Deafness Part II


By Francis A. Kornegay
Senior Fellow, Institute for Global Dialogue, Pretoria

The Global Swing States report (German Marshall Fund-Center for a New American Security) exposes serious flaws in American foreign policy thinking by excluding South Africa from their equation involving India and Brazil as rising democratic powers. Washington's foreign policy mind-set still has a way to go in order to adapt to these changing world realities. Given the major gaps that exist in the current U.S. administration's own thinking, starting with President Obama himself, it is not surprising that South Africa is bypassed in Global Swing States or that Africa is treated simply as an object for US-'swing state' attention, rather than possessing its own agency for charting the continent's direction. In President Obama's 'Person of the Year' Time magazine interview, he mentioned everything except Africa as a priority in his second term foreign policy.

One of Obama's telling observations was that "We are helping to shape and frame what the Asia-Pacific region will look like. That's critically important because that's where the growth and population and increasing center of gravity is going to be." Well, yes and no. There is an African calculus in this equation that the President omits. The geo-demographic center of gravity will be Afro-South Asia, not Asia-Pacific. Africa is projected to reach 2 billion by 2050. East Asian birthrates have been declining amid an aging trend in China, while Africa, India, and South Asia generally continue on a growth path. This accords with the notion of an 'Indian Ocean nexus' becoming the geo-economic and demographic center of gravity in Martin Walker's Wilson Quarterly notion of a CHIMEA dynamic (which includes China, but is centered on the Indian Ocean).

If reports are born out that President Obama is, in fact, contemplating upping his game in Africa with visits to South Africa and Kenya, he might then begin to be seen with less skepticism on the continent. But then again, he wouldn't be the first American president to make a major visit to the motherland. What would or could distinguish the first American president of African descent's diplomatic safari to the continent from those of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton? This is not an idle question. There are reasonable expectations that Obama should imagine himself as America's first pan-African/diaspora president, as he has dubbed himself the country's first 'Asia-Pacific president.' If so, where would the strategic 'beef' be?  Africa policy is without any kind of coherent strategic definition. This need not be the case.

Given the benefits that should accrue from tapping into Africa's increasingly dynamic and growing market, a more clearly resolved relationship between Washington and Africa's major regional economic communities that supports the continent's accelerated integration should be the cornerstone of Africa policy. A stop in Kenya would seem a fitting time and place to announce consultations with the East African Community (EAC) to establish an EAC-US Forum, and elevate the recently established US-EAC trade and investment initiative into a more comprehensive, multifaceted demonstration of US support for East African integration. The EAC, after all, is part of a much larger tripartite free trade grand strategy with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to establish an Eastern and Southern African economic community of some 600-700 million people bordering the Indian Ocean.

In South Africa, Obama could similarly discuss with President Jacob Zuma and his officials the prospects of eventually reviving the SADC-US Forum, which, during the Bush administration, was disbanded due to Zimbabwe's problems. But even more heft to the US-South African strategic partnership could come from a discussion of Indian Ocean and South Atlantic maritime security and cooperation issues. The aim would be to signal US encouragement of a more robust IBSAMAR initiative in the southern oceans. Any undertaking of this sort by South Africa, India, and Brazil should not be dependent on Washington's sponsorship or approval. Rather, US support for such a trilateral initiative would convey an interest by Washington of pursuing a collectively unified approach to maritime issues in the Indian and South Atlantic oceans.

Launching a US-IBSA maritime security dialogue with South Africa as the natural fulcrum of the adjoining oceans would elevate the strategic utility of the Washington-Tshwane/Pretoria relationship. Furthermore, the Obama administration would be acknowledging the importance of the three countries in building a multilateral cooperative peace and security regime in the southern oceans. The fact that the US has become a 'dialogue partner,' along with China, in the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) is indicative of the importance Washington attaches to the IO, presumably, as an adjunct to its Indo-Pacific Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Whereas India is chairing the IOR-ARC and hosting this year's 6th IBSA summit in New Delhi in October, South Africa is chairing the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. The problem is not simply whether Washington should engage IBSA collectively, as opposed to sticking with a conservative bilateral script. It is also an issue of whether or not the Zuma administration, in this case, has the strategic imagination and political will to see to it that maritime collective security and cooperation in the southern oceans is placed on the table of its strategic partnership agenda with Washington. Similar issues pertain to the South Atlantic where Angola is already playing a low key, but significant, role with Brazil, and where there is need of an elevated Nigerian role within the context of an ECOWAS-US forum.

Speaking of regional economic communities, the most problematic dimension of the US-Africa relationship is the question of the Western Sahara and the moribund Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). Unraveling this Gordian Knot is going to take major political will and diplomatic imagination on the part of Washington, the European Union, and the African Union. They will have to work together to encourage a regional accommodation between Algeria, Morocco, and the Sahawri 'republic' that, amongst other things, activates the UMA. The AU needs a resolution of this stalemate in order to make whole its regional pillars system in continental governance. This would ensure that it is never again sidelined, as it was in the Libya crisis. This was responded to in US and EU capitols through their MENA (Middle East and North Africa) bureaus and trans-Med partnerships. In Washington, it means there needs to be some kind of inter-bureau synergy between State Department's Africa and Mideast/North Africa desks.

Basically for both the US and the AU, security strategy in Northwest Africa operates in an architectural vacuum, with Mali being its latest casualty. Interestingly, on the economic front, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, speaking in Nouakchott on January 10, made reference to the UMA as indicative of the Maghreb's need for three transformations: greater integration, greater internationalization, and greater diversification; wherein, its development could lead to the region becoming "an important trade and investment hub that bridges sub-Saharan Africa and Europe." This should serve as a signal to the Obama administration of the need to develop a continent-wide Africa policy; one that geo-strategically facilitates Africa's integration as a stabilizing factor in the Maghrebian regional equation within the greater 'Arab Spring' – and as a possible geo-economic factor in southern Europe's recovery within the embattled Eurozone.

North and South, East and West, Africa offers the US a golden opportunity during the second term of America's first president of African descent to recast global strategy in a manner that could do the following:

  • Complement the construction of a transatlantic economic community factoring in the West African littoral;
  • Contribute to a holistic Atlantic Basin strategy integrating the North and South Atlantic;
  • Draw Indian Ocean community-building into the Trans-Pacific Partnership Asian 'pivot' equation;
  • Develop a tricontinental global South strategy of multilateral cooperation revolving around collective and bilateral engagement with the IBSA countries, as a complement to northern hemispheric repositioning.

Given the omission of South Africa and Africa from the Kliman-Fontaine Global Swing States report as a reflection of Washington policy wonkery in foreign affairs, and given, up to now, the US Administration's own reticence regarding Africa, there is a question as to whether the US is adequately attuned to Africa's growing centrality in everyone else's calculations. It is possible that the US might end up missing the boat when instead the Adminstration ought to be constructing initiatives and policy for and towards Africa in order to better reflect the global consensus on Africa's enhanced position in the changing strategic landscape.

To read Part I of this piece, click here.

About the Author

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

Africa Program

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