Top 6 Takeaways from the Administration’s New Africa Strategy

December 14, 2018 By Zach Wehrli

At the Heritage Foundation yesterday, National Security Advisor John Bolton introduced the Administration’s new Africa strategy, which he said reflects the president’s “central campaign promise” to put the interests of the American people first.

He kicked off the speech with a declaration that “lasting stability, prosperity, independence and security on the African continent are in the national security interest of the United States,” and as anticipated, much of the strategy focused on competition with China and Russia with the goal of “helping African countries move toward self-reliance.”

Here are six key takeaways:

1. Great Power Competition Drives Foreign Policy

The new strategy prioritizes countering great power competition from China and Russia, which are attempting to gain a comparative advantage over the United States. It highlights waning U.S. influence in countries indebted to China like Zambia, but also hard military threats like China’s newly acquired military base in Djibouti. He emphasized the importance of “independent” nations, echoing the theme of sovereignty in the President’s UNGA speech earlier this year and argued that the “the predatory practices pursued by China and Russia, stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment, interfere with U.S. military operations, and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interest.”

2. Prosper Africa

Bolton announced “Prosper Africa” – a new initiative to support U.S. investment on the continent by growing Africa’s middle class, improving the business climate in the region, and encouraging Africa’s leaders to pursue sustainable, responsible foreign investment projects. He promised to leverage America’s “expanded and modernized development tools to support access to financing, and provide strong alternatives to external state directed initiatives.” This is welcome news with China becoming the continent’s top trading partner nearly a decade ago.

3. Continued Focus on Violent Extremism

Bolton highlighted the continued threats posed by violent extremism – ranging from ISIS and al-Qaeda to the civil war in Libya – and declared that “billions upon billions of U.S. tax payer dollars” have failed to stop “the scourge of terrorism, radicalism, and violence.” He identified new priorities, arguing that we must help build the capacity of partner forces, security institutions, and regional security agreements – such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force – in order to ensure Africans are able to provide effective, sustainable security and law enforcement for themselves and ultimately be better prepared to address a range of security threats.

4. Bilateral Assistance

The strategy emphasizes “bilateral mechanisms to maintain maximum American control over every American dollar spent.”  This includes bilateral trade deals that would “insure fair and reciprocal exchange.”  Bolton also promised to “reevaluate” America’s support for UN peace keeping missions and threatened to withdraw support for United Nations peacekeeping missions on the continent.

5. Conditioning U.S. Foreign Assistance

While Africa receives the largest share of U.S. foreign assistance around the world (32%), it was disappointing to hear Ambassador Bolton repeat the claim that the U.S. provides “indiscriminate assistance across the entire continent without focus or prioritization.”  He reaffirmed the Administration’s commitment to conditioning aid, saying that countries that receive U.S. assistance “must invest in health and education, encouraging accountable and transparent government, support physical transparency and promote the rule of law.”  He also noted that countries that oppose U.S. interests, pursue policies contrary to American values, or vote against the U.S. at the United Nations may be stripped of U.S. foreign assistance.

6. Strategy Ignores Last Decade of Aid Reform

Ambassador Bolton stressed that we must not allow “hard earned tax payer dollars to fund corrupt autocrats who use the money to fill their coffers at the expense of their people, or commit gross human rights abuses” and “we should target resources toward areas where we have to most impact to ensure efficient use of tax payer dollars.” Yet these sentiments ignore the bipartisan legacy of reforms that have dramatically increased effectiveness, transparency, and accountability and catalyzed private sector investment over the last 15 years. This agenda – started with PEPFAR during Bolton’s years in the Bush Administration – failed to earn a mention along with any significant focus on global health or pandemics.

When it comes to Africa, there’s no question that the U.S. should strengthen economic ties, respond to the increasing influence of China, and combat violent extremism – but progress against these goals will be hard to achieve without a fully funded International Affairs Budget. As we enter the next budget cycle, it remains to be seen whether the administration will again propose significant cuts to the International Affairs Budget – or if this new focus on Africa will translate into concrete support to resource this new agenda.