Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee, President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s top diplomat for Africa was sworn into office on Thursday, September 30, 2021, by U.S. State Department Under Secretary Victoria Nuland, almost five months after she was nominated last April to take on one of the most difficult jobs in the world at a time when Africa is riddled with crises from Ethiopia in the East to Guinea and Mali in the West.
“Honored to swear-in Ambassador Molly Phee as Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. U.S. efforts to support democracy, security, and prosperity across the continent will be driven by @AsstSecStateAF Phee’s passion, creativity, and expertise. Welcome aboard, A/S Phee!,” Nuland tweeted last Thursday.
President Biden nominated Phee on April 15, 2021, to serve as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and chair of the Board of the Foreign Service.
But who is Mary Catherine Phee and what is her background?
As a graduate of Indiana University, she earned a B.A. and an M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, Ambassador Phee most recently served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan. She was sworn into office on July 15, 2015.
Prior to that, she was Chief of Staff to the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan. Ambassador Phee also completed a three-year assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2014.
In addition, she was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, where she was responsible for coordinating the U.S. transition from military to civilian operations culminating in the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in December 2011.
From 2005 to 2008 she served as Counselor for Political Affairs and Deputy Security Council Coordinator at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she advanced U.S. policies on issues such as Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli peace process, Burma, Iraq, Lebanon, and sanctions.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus invited her to join the Joint Strategic Assessment Team established in 2007 to revise the U.S. campaign plan in Iraq, and she was the Senior Civilian Representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority to Maysan Province, Iraq, from 2003 to 2004.
Ambassador Phee has also served at U.S. Embassies in Rome, Italy; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Cairo, Egypt; and Amman, Jordon. Assignments in Washington, DC include special assistant to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, desk officer for UN Security Council Affairs, and desk officer for Iran.
During her career, Ambassador Phee has received many awards, including the Baker-Wilkins Award for Outstanding Deputy Chief of Mission, 2014; the Order of the British Empire, 2006; the Secretary of Defense’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, 2004; and numerous Department of State Superior and Meritorious Awards.
Before joining the Foreign Service, Ms. Phee was a deputy press secretary to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The difficult task ahead
Phee is coming into office at a time of increased instability across Africa, from Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, where a humanitarian crisis is worsening by the day in the Tigray region, to Mali and Guinea, where the military has overthrown democratically elected presidents there, and in Sudan where the Prime Minister has just survived a coup attempt.
There is also a volatile election coming up in Libya where the United Nations just failed to agree on a physical presence in Tripoli ahead of the December 24 vote, and in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, where anger is growing among the youths and other parts of the country that have been sidelined by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Ambassador Phee will also have to confront food shortages across Africa, the increased threat of terrorism spreading from Mozambique to Somalia, the worsening climate crisis threatening the entire planet, the deadly coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Africans and the ravaging corruption straining decent relationships with the United States.
President Biden’s top diplomat will also have to confront China and Russia and other autocratic nations who are rapidly increasing their influence in Africa while attempting to downplay the value of democracy, and paying no attention to human rights.
But, of all those continental problems, Ambassador Phee will confront another monumental crisis, the use of the Internet, the spread of disinformation and misinformation by America’s adversaries, mainly China and Russia.
On her day to day job, Phee will attempt to promote fruitful diplomatic relations with African nations.
Her confirmation and swearing-in represent a significant step in the right direction when it comes to United States-Africa relations, especially as President Biden has repeatedly emphasized that diplomacy will be at the center of his foreign policy. But the task ahead will be as hot as hell.