Don’t Ignore Africa

Though Africa did not feature prominently in the US presidential campaign, the continent must be a key foreign policy consideration for the incoming administration not only due to its strategic, economic, security, and geopolitical significance, but also in light of competition from other aspiring partners, the former commander of the US Africa Command said at the Atlantic Council on December 6.

According to retired Gen. Carter Ham, “Africa is a place where a relatively modest investment of resources and interests can yield some disproportionate positive outcomes.” However, he added, “missed opportunities will cede advantage to others, or they may result in the United States engaging in a far more costly manner further down the road.”

Citing US competition with China, Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs at the Department of Defense, said, “if the United States doesn’t pay much attention to Africa… I can absolutely see not just China but other countries moving in to fill the void.”

As US President-elect Donald Trump continues to build his team and define US foreign policy, he must consider that “any foreign policy that ignores one-seventh of the world’s population is doomed to failure,” said Ham. “We are no longer in an era where Africa can be an afterthought in America’s foreign policy,” he added.

Ham and Dory joined J. Peter Pham, vice president for research and regional initiatives and director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, to discuss Pham’s recent publication: A Measured US Strategy for the New Africa. In the paper, one of a series of strategy papers, written in collaboration with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and intended to advise the incoming administration, Pham emphasizes the strategic significance of Africa as a US foreign policy consideration.

He said: “We have an Africa strategy paper because Africa is strategic,” however, “it’s not always been the case.” While “Africa was not a major campaign issue in this or… any presidential campaign,” Pham said, “Africa will be an opportunity and a challenge for the incoming administration.”

Pham said that Africa is an important consideration for its economic growth, driven by natural resources and economic potential, as well as demographics, rapid urbanization, and new technology. “It’s not just these material aspects, it’s improved governance,” he added, claiming that “virtually every state in Africa has opened up some significant political space.”


Conflict, caused by extremism, piracy, and criminality, “flows north to Europe, east to the Middle East, and in some cases even westward,” he said. Additionally, migration poses a significant political challenge, which affects the stability of many nations outside the region.

For all of these reasons, “what happens in Africa today does not stay in Africa,” said Pham.

In his introduction to the event, Pham outlined the core tenets of his proposed strategy for US engagement with Africa. The approach is defined by an emphasis on earned engagement from African partners, realistic expectations when defining an approach to the region, building effective partnerships, and flexible institutions that can address the multitude of concerns associated with a diverse region.

According to Dory, Africa has consistently been a topic that has bipartisan support. However, she said, “the biggest challenge overall is taking on a continent… and coming up with an approach and principles that apply across that space.” According to Pham, distinctions among African countries necessitate a case-by-case consideration of geopolitical strategy and US approach to engagement.

This consideration becomes particularly important when considering potential partners, said Dory.

While she sees earned engagement as an effective model for interaction, both willingness and ability must be taken into account. From a security perspective, Ham said that those least likely to attain the earned engagement standard may be those countries where US engagement is in the greatest interest to US security. He cited Somalia as an example. Conversely, those countries that most “earn” engagement may be those that are able to manage their own security.

Dory advocated that the United States “avoid mirror imaging as we engage with partners.” Instead, she said the Trump administration should seek to support development and evolution of partner states, not impose US values. However, Pham said that, though the strategy paper was written with a focus on US interests, “America’s national interests are best advanced when they are consonant with our ideals and values,” referring to human rights. For example, Ethiopia is a country of geopolitical importance to the United States, but the human rights situation is a point of concern.

According to Ham, the human rights perspective is a fundamental component of US engagement in Africa. He said that “one of the best things we can do to advance human rights is to partner US security personnel… with African partners to not only talk about what’s right, but to demonstrate by their actions what’s right.”

However, “when it comes to governance models, we are in a competition with China,” said Dory. Engagement with African partners may depend on whether nations prefer the Chinese or US model of governance, she added. For the United States, “what that means is not an adversarial relationship, but a competitive relationship with China in terms of building partner capacity,” said Ham.

While Ham said that “there is a growing military role for China,” in the region, Dory said she does not see a competition in the security space. However, “there absolutely is a competition [with China] when it comes to trade and investment [in Africa], and we’re not where we need to be,” she added, claiming the US private sector should increase its engagement in the region. This is in part due to the fact that China will sell to countries the United States refrains from doing business with due to human rights concerns, according to Dory.

Ultimately, “the implementation is always the hardest part after the strategy comes off the presses,” said Dory, which is where Pham’s emphasis on realistic expectations proves significant.

According to Ham, under the new administration “the US government will have limited resources, limited time, and frankly limited energy to achieve our commitments in Africa.” He added there will need to be a “hard-nosed assessment of sometimes the diminishing returns of increased levels of resources.”

Though Africa poses significant economic, humanitarian, and security strategic considerations, Ham called for the new administration to prioritize, manage expectations, and let this inform the direction of efforts in the region.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham

Image: (from left) Dr. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, joined Amanda Dory, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs at the Department of Defense; and Gen. Carter Ham (Ret.), former commander of the US Africa Command, to discuss a new US strategy in Africa. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)