Africa is transforming rapidly, and the United States’ approach to Africa is not keeping pace. While other countries are jumping at opportunities to invest in growing African economies, the United States is struggling to keep up. China’s commitments to the continent are stronger than ever, as evidenced by the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, during which China and African countries will strengthen cooperation on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, sign a number of bilateral agreements, and sign a communiqué calling for “a stronger community with a shared future between China and Africa.” U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, delayed two years before finally appointing an assistant secretary for African Affairs last month, and his administration has committed a series of diplomatic blunders in its relations with the continent, such as snubbing the chair of the African Union Commission in a botched visit to Washington and punishing Rwanda for imposing tariffs on secondhand clothes from the United States. On a deeper level, the United States has failed to outline any kind of serious, long-term agenda for engagement with Africa, leaving the continent’s leaders wondering about the future of U.S.-African partnership.
On August 20, First Lady Melania Trump announced that she would make a solo trip to Africa in October. (The goals and itinerary of the trip have not yet been announced.) Her visit is long overdue. For decades, U.S. presidential administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, have partnered with African governments and regional institutions to save African lives, improve African economies, and stop African wars. They did so based on the premise that helping Africa prosper also served the interests of the United States. Past administrations enjoyed the privileged position of being a “partner of choice” to Africa. For example, when Rwandan troops needed to be airlifted to the Central African Republic in 2014 to support an African Union peacekeeping force, they called on the U.S. Air Force for support. When the AIDS pandemic threatened to wipe out an entire generation of young Africans, the United States responded with the transformational President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (or PEPFAR). And thousands of young Africans studied in American universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and rose to prominent roles in government and business in their home countries years later. But the United States is now in danger of losing its status Africa’s “partner of choice,” supplanted by China and others. If the United States is to regain its standing with African countries, both the U.S. government and the U.S. private sector must make serious efforts to improve their understanding of Africa: how it is changing, how other actors are responding to those changes, and what the implications are for their own approaches to the continent.