“Smart Power” at Work in Africa?

August 24, 2012 By Zach Silberman and John Glenn

In recent years, Africa has begun to draw even greater attention in foreign policy circles, with calls for enhanced engagement in diplomacy and development.  In 2010, for example, the Center for Global Development suggested that a renaissance in African countries has shown “the world that it is possible to combat poverty, secure peace, increase prosperity, and widen the global circle of development.”  The Economist reported in 2011 that 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies were in Africa.

The nature of the challenges in Africa, intertwining security, economics, and humanitarian concerns, means that a traditional separation of “hard” and “soft” threats often doesn’t apply.  For example, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken about the importance of American engagement in Africa, noting that Africom, the combatant command created for the region five years ago, has been working with the State Department to provide assistance to help combat starvation.  A recent column by Rosa Brooks (who served in the Pentagon in recent years) highlights significant areas of achievement by Africom that fall outside traditional military projects, such as the establishment of the East African Malaria Task Force, construction of closed wells with solar-powered pumps in Senegal, and collaboration with Botswana’s military to support a national education program and HIV screening.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent trip to Africa highlighted areas where the U.S. is successfully cooperating with African partner countries, particularly on public-private partnerships. In South Africa, she emphasized that the best way to reduce poverty and create stability in the region is to maintain a commitment to the strategic relationship with African countries in order to promote democratic principles.  Clinton argued that it was important for government and businesses to work together “in a public-private partnership to deliver the kind of results that both of our peoples deserve.”

These efforts follow President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive on Africa, released in June, which focused on strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development.  Greater civilian-military cooperation can work towards making a difference in two key pillars of this strategy: strengthening democratic institutions and advancing peace and security.

But how well is this working?  Combining the work of Africom with the State Department’s efforts to foster economic growth in the region are positive signs of greater civilian-military collaboration and engagement with the private sector.  Brooks’ column notes that there have been concerns in both the military and civilians about growing military involvement in the region, even if not especially when it concerns non-military threats such as development which fall outside the military’s core competencies.  And the challenges in the Horn of Africa, for example, are significant with pressures for efforts to respond to the famine at times thwarted by concerns over terrorist groups in the region.  Yet continued coordination of all of the tools of American national security promises the potential for providing greater stability to a region where American interests are also rapidly growing.