It’s Time for a U.S.-Africa Cities Summit
In June of this year, President Biden invited leaders from across the Western Hemisphere to Los Angeles for the Ninth Summit of the Americas. Alongside the regular diplomatic hobnobbing, an innovative commitment emerged: in April 2023, Denver mayor Michael Hancock will host the first ever Cities Summit of the Americas, a gathering of subnational leaders—governors, mayors, local officials—from across the hemisphere. When President Biden hosts African leaders in Washington this December, he should follow the same script: announce the first U.S.-Africa Cities Summit in partnership with a U.S. mayor or governor.
The United States is playing catch-up in subnational diplomacy, in which subnational leaders engage on a range of political, economic, and social issues with their counterparts abroad, often trading ideas and solutions to shared challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and rising authoritarianism. Cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America have built robust teams to lead their international engagement; in the United States there is only a single city, Los Angeles, with a deputy mayor focused on international affairs. In Africa, cities, including Freetown, Accra, Dakar, Abidjan, and Johannesburg, have been active in subnational diplomacy.
The good news is that there is progress afoot: in September the State Department appointed its first Special Representative for Subnational Diplomacy (Los Angeles’ former deputy mayor for International Affairs). With high-level support from the Biden administration and a fully-resourced team, the State Department can make rapid progress in elevating diplomacy led by U.S. cities and states.
Africa should be a focus of that diplomacy. No region has greater untapped economic potential, owing to the large and energetic youth cohort and growth of innovation hubs such as Nairobi and Lagos. Africans broadly aspire to live under democratic governance, and view the United States in a largely positive light.
Furthermore, in some of Africa’s largest countries, such as Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya, subnational governments are increasingly assertive, making state-to-state diplomacy all the more logical. Nigeria, especially, is ripe for greater subnational engagement by Washington and by U.S. cities and states. Before long Nigeria will be roughly equivalent to the United States in population, with its 36 states rivaling the United States’ 50. The federal government in Abuja may be ineffective, but some states can be dynamic engines of growth.
A U.S.-Africa Cities Summit does not need to be driven solely by overburdened Biden administration officials. U.S. cities can also be in the lead; Houston, for example, focuses much of its diplomacy on Africa, and in September hosted the Houston-Africa Energy Summit. U.S.-based groups such as the African American Mayors Association, United States Conference of Mayors, and National League of Cities can all be invited to be part of organizing the summit, as can United Cities and Local Government Africa, the continent’s affiliate within the largest global coalition of subnational leaders.
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is a serious demonstration of commitment to bolstering relations with the continent, but it will come and go quickly. More valuable are sustained bilateral relations at multiple levels of government—especially when U.S. embassies are chronically understaffed and global competitors are ramping up their presence. Many Africa-watchers in the United States have been making the case for decades that Washington consistently undervalues relations with Africa, but we have to be honest that the argument is not getting much traction. So alongside federal engagement, it is time for U.S. cities and states to ramp up their partnership with counterparts of the continent; a U.S.-Africa Cities Summit can provide a timely spark.
Jon Temin is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.