As 100 days approaches, what is Biden’s Africa doctrine?

“We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world,” President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in his inaugural address to the American people. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.”  

Biden, as a former Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President who visited over 50 countries in the world, including three in Africa – Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa in 2010 – is steeped in foreign policy, but since taking office has been largely absent from it.

Although he has spoken to foreign leaders at a handful of multilateral events, including at the 34th African Union (AU) Summit in February

where all 55 members of the AU he said the U.S., “stands ready now to be your partner, in solidarity, support, and mutual respect” – he has largely left the speaking and really diplomatic revival to his deeply trusted staff.

”They know that when you speak, you speak for me,” Biden said to Secretary State Antony Blinken moments before delivering his first foreign policy address.

On standby

Speaking of trusted staff, Biden last week announced he was nominating Mary Catherine Phee for Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and for the Board of Directors of the African Development Foundation (USADF), the latter a U.S. government agency that makes grants to support small businesses and entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“President Biden has signaled to the world his support for strengthening our partnership with the continent of Africa and the countries there,” said House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Chair on Africa Karen Bass (D-CA) on Wednesday, as the U.S. House passed the Young African Leaders Initiative Act.

But as Today News Africa wrote on the day of Ambassador Phee’s nomination, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa “will have a very heavy workload” with yet no clear strategy to addressing issues on the continent.

Aside from the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and food shortages in Nigeria and South Sudan as previously reported, there is now increased uncertainty as to the security situation in Chad after the death of President Idriss Déby Itno. Although the U.S. has pledged support to the G5 Sahel group, it’s not clear how its security policy would change in response to heightened instability in the region.

Of critical concern as well is the lack of Covid-19 vaccine availability on the continent. The U.S. has committed $4 billion in funding to COVAX and other financing for Johnson & Johnson vaccine production in India, but it has yet to donate vaccines to the Facility, focusing instead on vaccinating Americans first.

It is also not clear how the Biden administration would support initiatives on the continent such as African leaders’ commitment to mobilizing $25 billion for climate adaptation.

And what about supporting trade integration or combatting Chinese influence on the continent? And will U.S. Ambassadors engage more with regional institutions or will U.S. policy be largely geared towards select countries, if there is any doctrine at all?

Time will tell. But in the meantime, looking domestically at where Biden has focused most of his energy and in other global regions where his foreign policy team has begun to etch out his doctrine elsewhere can offer some perspective. (Domestic affairs are discussed first followed by foreign affairs).

“Uniting a nation”

Aside from broad domestic support for the U.S. to reenter the Paris Climate Agreement – nearly 70 percent of all registered voters according to a Yale study – foreign policy was certainly not at the forefront of many Americans’ minds at a nearly vacant and boarded up U.S. Capitol on January 20.

What’s telling is that even before Biden made any reference in his inaugural address to foreign policy, he listed several domestic priorities first: jobs, schools, Covid-19, the middle class, health care security, and racial justice.

Even before any specific policy area, his said his “whole soul” was in “Bringing America together, “Uniting our people,” “And uniting our nation.”

In broad terms, Biden has been focused on accelerating the Covid-19 vaccine rollout and supporting households, small businesses, and communities at home. His $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” passed Congress through reconciliation (no it’s not French), then signed into law on March 11, has addressed each of these areas.

As of Monday, Biden’s Covid-19 Task Force announced that 84 million Americans are fully vaccinated and that roughly half of adults 18 years and older have received a first vaccine dose.

Additionally, they said 28 million vaccines are sent out weekly and about 3 million vaccines are administered daily. Biden also gave a vaccine update on Wednesday.

The goal, like anywhere else in the world, is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, especially, according to the U.S. CDC, as cases in the U.S. have risen since the end of March and there are fears of widespread virus and its variants circulation.

Biden’s first plan addressed immediate challenges brought on or worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, and his second plan, the $2 trillion “American Jobs Plan” is a broad investment in jobs and infrastructure.

The goal of “Building back better” – and doing so equitably, is both to recover from the pandemic as well as to strengthen America’s economy and national security in the long run – also, in part, to make up for past underinvestment in certain places.

“This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy,” the White House said in a statement.

Biden has only hosted one foreign leader in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, yet he has twice hosted members of Congress in the Oval Office to discuss his “infrastructure and economic recovery plan.”

Currently, the administration and Congress are wrangling over how to pay for the massive plan – corporate tax hikes vs. user fees – and whether the administration’s definition of infrastructure is too broad.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, in an interview with Politico today, pushed back on the latter issue saying that investments in home health care workers, broadband, semi-conductor manufacturing, and research and development (among a slate of other areas) were all infrastructure and of critical importance.

She also said that Biden was adamant that the bill be $2 trillion and that anything less, especially the $600 or $800 billion being thrown around by some Republicans would be woefully insufficient to meeting America’s needs.

And this isn’t even the end. At his address to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday April 28, Biden is expected to announce a $1 trillion “American Families Plan,” the so-called second portion of his “Build Back Better Agenda,” “centered on child care, pre-K, paid leave,” according to the Washington Post.

With all this spending, the White House in a statement reminded Americans that “Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s” – when “we built the interstate highway system” (an impressive feat although at points greatly disruptive and dangerous to predominantly Black and other communities of color) and “we won the space race.”

On that last point, time will tell if China’s own massive public investment in critical and emerging technologies will induce a robust American response – for comparison’s sake on par with its response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, you know, before it was a vaccine…

Mapping Biden’s foreign policy doctrine

Biden’s foreign policy team has been busy repairing alliances in Europe and East Asia. It has also worked to strengthen ties with key partners such as India and Australia as it executes what is at least a decade-long shift to the Indo-Pacific region.

This tending to allies and shifting regions is partly in an effort to approach China “from a position of strength,” but also because, in the Biden administration’s view, it’s “where the big issues are playing out.”

Still in the Biden administration’s view, however, is the Middle East. While there are issues the U.S. has prioritized and continues to play a role in, it has been wary of causing too much disruption or becoming engulfed in the region. (More detail on U.S.- Middle East policy can be found in the final section).

In the Western Hemisphere, meanwhile, the U.S. has yet to enact a broader policy beyond addressing the influx of migrants at its southern boarder, in part by addressing the “root causes of migration” through working with the governments of the three Northern Triangle countries. Vice President Kamala Harris has been asked to lead both these efforts.

More recently, the U.S. finally responded to Russian election interference and cyber attacks, though its still seeks to engage with Russia.

And as U.S. and NATO pull troops out of Afghanistan, the Biden administration signaled its commitment to supporting the country in other ways; for example, it is working to secure nearly $300 million in additional civilian assistance in 2021.

Select Middle East policy under the Biden administration

Although the U.S. ended its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, it remains committed to Saudi security.

Even as it published an intelligence report naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the likely mastermind behind the murder of dissident- journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. has not sought further retribution.

Likewise, although the Biden administration supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, it has held back from leading efforts at reconciliation, a break from U.S. tradition. It remains committed to Israeli security.

In Syria, Biden has authorized airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias and the U.S. has called for humanitarian assistance to the country at the UN Security Council.

Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s destabilizing activity in the region is the U.S’ biggest and most pressing issue in the region. Indirect talks between the two are ongoing, and it’s not clear how Iran’s threat to enrich its uranium up to 60 percent and Israel’s alleged attack on an Iranian nuclear facility will effect negotiations.

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