Biden administration shows promise for U.S.-Africa relations, but can it deliver?

On the day of his inauguration, President Biden issued a series of executive orders to “restore America’s standing in the world” and therefore America’s standing in Africa.

“By rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO), President Biden has given millions of Africans another chance to benefit from America’s generosity in the form of vaccinations, treatments and research of global illnesses,” reported Simon Ateba of Today News Africa.

By re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. commits to mitigating climate change and protecting the world’s most-vulnerable areas. Notably, Lloyd J. Austin III became the first Defense Secretary to acknowledge climate change as a threat to national security and commit to including climate change in the next National Defense Strategy.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen, in her calls with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva and World Bank President David Malpass, stressed the importance of addressing climate change, responding to the health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and supporting the recovery of low-income countries.

In addition to these broad initiatives, President Biden has also taken measures that impact Africans directly: he reinstated theDeferred Enforced Departure for Liberians, ended discriminatory bans on Muslims and Africans, and sent an immigration bill to Congress.

Marine One, carrying President Joe Biden, approaches for a landing Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)
Marine One, carrying President Joe Biden, approaches for a landing Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. (Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe)

Le Monde, a French newspaper, noted that Biden had appointed several people with experience in Africa or members of the African diaspora to senior level roles: Former Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Linda Thomas- Greenfield to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Powers to Administrator of USAID, Dana L. Banks to Senior Director for Africa at the National Security Council (NSC), Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo to Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, and Osaremen Okolo to Covid-19 Policy Advisor.

Christopher Fomunyoh, of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), was quoted, “She [Ambassador Power] therefore shouldn’t have the naivety of certain of her predecessors as the agency [USAID] is a big player in relations between the U.S. and Africa”.

The Biden administration has also responded to ongoing crises on the African continent.

On February 4, the Biden administration extended, for a year, Executive Order 13566 that first declared a national emergency with respect to Libya on February 25, 2011, citing continued threats to U.S. national security.

That same day, Secretary Blinken spoke with Ethiopian Ethiopia Prime Minister Abi Ahmed about the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray Region and “urged immediate, full, and unhindered humanitarian access to prevent further loss of life”.

President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
President Joe Biden walks with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken after delivering remarks Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Biden, however, has not had any calls with African leaders.

Indeed, as Biden reengages with key allies in Europe and Asia to tackle regional and global issues – climate change, vaccine administration, nuclear non-proliferation and China – it seems he has overlooked engagement with Africa. But this misses a central pillar of his foreign policy.

So far, Biden has prioritized multi-lateral engagement. In response to the military coup in Myanmar, the Biden administration worked with the UN Security Council to issue a joint statement on the situation there before applying targeted sanctions on coup leaders.

In Haiti, the Biden administration is working with the Organization of American States (OAS) and other partners to monitor the situation in the country.

In Africa, Secretary Blinken affirmed U.S. support for the G5 Sahel, a group of five African countries, at meetings over the past two days. France also participated.

“The G5 Sahel does vital work to bring security, stability, and good governance to your region. The United States is committed to being a strong partner to you…Tactical counter-terrorism work is essential, but on its own, we know it’s not enough. Instability and violence are symptoms of a crisis of state legitimacy,” he said.

In terms of an Africa strategy, Joshua Meservey of the Heritage Foundation had last summer advocated for a targeted approach to the continent: “Washington should focus on countries where it can make a headway for its strategic priorities, such as Botswana, Ghana, and Kenya”. It should also engage with African civil society, he wrote.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had campaigned on an agenda for the African diaspora, which included continuing the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) founded under President Obama.

Additionally, Biden has already shown signs of fulfilling his campaign promises of re-engaging with regional institutions including the African Union (AU). The administration is taking the right steps, yet it remains to be seen whether it can truly set the course towards a new U.S.-Africa relationship.

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