Minding the Gap at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

By the time the United States hosted its first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in August 2014, President Barack Obama had already visited Africa twice. In 2009, he had delivered two historic speeches, one to the Muslim World in Cairo, Egypt, and the other to Africans in Accra, Ghana. From the halls of Ghana’s parliament, Obama had called for the end of strongmen and dictatorships and signaled his administration’s support to emerging democracies. In 2010, a year into his first term, he had launched the Young African Leaders Initiative. Three years later, in 2013, the president had visited Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania where he announced the Power Africa initiative, a U.S.-Africa energy partnership, which aimed to double access to electricity across the continent. That same year, the administration also initiated Trade Africa.

Coming on the heels of Obama’s visits and his administration’s new initiatives, which generated goodwill toward the United States, the 2014 summit raised expectations even higher than when Obama came into office as the United States’ first-ever African American leader. Because the summit was a novelty, analysts saw it as the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Africa relations. And rightfully so. The United States already lagged behind its competitors and allies alike. For instance, China, the United Kingdom, France, and others have been holding high-profile gatherings with African leaders for years, sometime decades, as in the cases of the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation and the Africa-France Summit, which happen yearly and are hosted either in China, France, or an African country.

Thus, the 2014 summit held great promise and signaled a new and much-needed third pillar in U.S.-Africa relations to complement the fanfare of presidential trips to Africa and the seeming alphabet soup of signature development programs that presidents since Bill Clinton have been rolling out targeting a specific African need. But in the end, after the tents came down and the delegations returned home, the proceedings did not usher in a new era of U.S.-Africa relations.

There was no follow-up summit before his term expired, and it would take eight years (the equivalent of two U.S. presidential terms) for the United States to host another summit, with the intervening years seeing an “America First” strategy gain popular appeal and stoke a retrenchment of Washington’s external engagement, which is still being felt. For the African leaders, who are adept at negotiating with foreign powers, this whipsaw suggested a lack of seriousness to the U.S. approach and painted Washington as, at best, an unreliable partner.

The Biden administration is thus approaching this second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit with a trust deficit that it must overcome if it hopes to truly give life to a new era of “partnership.” To be sure, high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power have done their part to inject new energy into relations, taking multiple trips to different countries in Africa to underscore traditional U.S. values and advance interests on everything from food security to climate change and anti-corruption to women’s empowerment. Importantly, Blinken launched the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa in August in Pretoria, South Africa—one of Washington’s fiercest critics on the continent—in a signal that it has heard Africa’s concerns.

However, there is no substitute for head of state connections and here, President Biden has not signaled any particular interest in Africa—having so far met with fewer African heads of state than either Obama or Trump at this same point in their tenures. Nor has the White House signaled whether the president will travel to Africa sometime during his term, a traditional pillar of the U.S.-Africa relationship and one whose symbolism and imagery have often set the tone of the overall relationship. 

Given the attention that African leaders more regularly receive from their counterparts from China, Turkey, France, Russia, the Emirates and others, whose visits to Africa are not seen as historic but rather as matter of course, the lack of a visit—no matter how successful next week’s summit—will only undermine efforts at demonstrating Washington’s renewed seriousness.

The same can be said for Washington’s recent Africa Strategy, which garnered great interest among Africans for its framing of partnerships versus paternalism and its emphasis on Africa’s essential voice in global affairs. However, there remains well-placed skepticism about the implementation of such a strategy in a world where global decisionmaking remains in the grip of those same countries that set up the post-WWII international system nearly 80 years ago. It is not enough to tell Africans that the U.S. government has read the African Union’s Agenda 2063 or that it supports permanent African seats on the UN Security Council. Biden must now table proposals, pass budgets, and devote some of his precious time demonstrating that his fine words for Africa are not merely talking points, but deeply held convictions that he is willing to act upon.

When African leaders attend the summit from December 13 to the 15, Biden will have his first opportunity to personally make the case for Washington’s renewed approach. But Africans have a long memory. While Washington was never a colonial power, from the Cold War to apartheid, it remains on the wrong side of history for many African leaders today. To bridge that gap, there are several things the president should do before his guests depart:

  1. Announce the next U.S.-African Leaders Summit in 2024 somewhere in Africa before his term expires, as a signal of Washington sustaining its commitment, but also demonstrating that the administration is prepared to travel to meet Africans where they are.
  2. Establish a working group with a select group of African leaders to study the reforms and propose genuine changes to the international system and multilateral institutions that they have been demanding and that Biden says he is open to.
  3. Tell Africans what his priorities are in the relationship. CSIS’s Africa Program has spoken to Africans on their way to Washington, and they are struggling to figure out what the president actually cares about since his rhetorical flourishes on democracy, human rights, and business so often contradict the reality of U.S. policy on the ground. The summit’s “everything under the sun” agenda, covering everything from space technology to humanitarian response, only further obscures his true interests.
  4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. One gets the impression that the president’s Africa team are adept at listening to African concerns and telling them what they want to hear. But if the goal of this summit is to rebuild lost trust, then it is better to overdeliver on modest expectations than underdeliver on lofty ones.

Next week’s summit is a huge opportunity to operationalize some of the well-intentioned commitments the Biden administration has made up to this point, but with that opportunity comes the risk of failing to deliver. Biden would do well to err on the side of caution as he bridges the gap Washington has created for itself, and should be satisfied meeting the modest expectations Africans have for him.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is the director and senior fellow of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.Cameron Hudson is a non-resident senior associate with the CSIS Africa Program.