Editor’s Note: Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She is a veteran journalist and author who has lived and worked around the globe, working for National Public Radio, Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington, DC, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
For far too long, the United States has treated Africa as an afterthought, much to Washington’s peril. US leaders have allowed rivals like China and Russia to deepen their ties – both economic and political – while America twiddles its thumbs on the sidelines.
That’s why this week’s three day US-Africa summit, which got underway on Tuesday, is so important. It’s an opportunity to make up for lost time and reconnect with a continent that Secretary of State Antony Blinken rightly calls a “major geopolitical force.”
China’s trade with Africa reached a high of more than $254 billion last year. US trade with Africa is only a fraction of that, at only about $64 billion. And warmongering Russia is now the continent’s largest arms dealer,with major influence in many African countries. These ties have real-life repercussions for American interests abroad. One case in point, Africa’s strong military relations with Russia have muted the continent’s criticism of the invasion of Ukraine, to the dismay of the US and much of the world.
These relationships didn’t just spring up overnight. They have been more than a decade in the making. American leaders have allowed these and other global powers to gain valuable footholds on the continent, potentially threatening our own interests around the world. That was a mistake, and one that President Joe Biden seems ready to rectify.
Forty-nine nations have been invited to the President’s summit in Washington this week. But Biden knows a photo op around a banquet table with African leaders won’t make up for the time the US has foolishly squandered since 2014, when President Barack Obama held the first US-Africa summit at the White House. That brought hope for a new, stronger relationship, which just didn’t happen. This week’s gathering is a chance to change that.
Biden seems determined to make the most of the opportunity to invigorate American leadership by proposing that the African Union join the G20. South Africa is the only African member of the G20. It’s time to change that. (And as long as we’re at it, it’s also time for African states to have a stronger voice at the United Nations. Biden has floated the idea of Africa having a voice in the Security Council. And why not?)
The administration earlier this year released a document outlining an enhanced strategic approach in dealing with Africa. It’s hard to imagine a clearer break with the posture taken by the administration of President Donald Trump, who famously dismissed African countries with a vulgarity.
Biden is said to be planning to travel to Africa next year, according to Axios, a bold move that shows commitment to improving ties across the continent. This week, the White House also announced that it would be sending $55 billion in health, economic and security assistance to Africa – a down payment on future US investment in the continent.
The question is, how will the other global powers, including China and Russia, respond? It’s a good bet Biden discussed these ideas last week during the state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, who already has expressed his support for Africa’s full integration into the G20. And in a speech last month, he signaled his intent to “profoundly change” France’s sometimes tense relations with its African former colonies.
Ever the pragmatist, Macron simply did the math: Africa’s 1.4 billion people represent the fastest growing population on the planet. It’s also among the youngest, with 15.7 being the median age. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Africa’s young population is poised to make their mark on the world economically and geopolitically.
But Biden has shrewdly assessed the situation as well. He’s betting that in serving as Africa’s advocate with the G20, African leaders will see the United State as the ally the continent has long wanted in its relationship with the US. And it could help him counter Russian and Chinese efforts to work against American interests in Africa.
Biden could do even more to maximize the positive outcomes of the summit for Washington. He could propose a new strategic plan for American investment in Africa as bold as China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative. For that, he will need the support of American political and business leaders who will be closely watching events this week.
The summit’s fanfare and publicity will go a long way toward changing American attitudes about Africa. It will help American financial and business interests see the continent as much of the world sees it – a place of opportunity and not just of people in need.
Yes, Africa still has wars, natural disasters, and brutal dictators, like other continents. But it also has minerals and natural resources industries around the world need. It has a vibrant music and film industry that is impacting world culture and a growing population of consumers for American products.
The 2022 US-Africa summit is destined to make history, even if it only changes American attitudes about the continent and its people. The Economist says Africa is home to many of the world’s fastest growing economies, and its trade within the continent. Economists say its trade with the world has grown 300% in the last decade. It’s a market American business should claim now to make up for lost time.
President Macky Sall of Senegal, President of the African Union, has signaled that Africa would welcome closer ties with the US – but on different terms. Africans will no longer sit and patiently listen to what Americans want. They want to speak and be heard. President Biden and all Americans would do well to listen. Africa is a force American leaders can no longer afford to ignore while its global opponents use every opportunity to develop ties and reap the benefits.