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UPDATED: August 3, 2015 NO.32, AUGUST 6, 2015
The Homecoming King
Together with success in Cuba and Iran, is bolstering U.S.-Africa relations intended to be the final component of a foreign relations hat trick?
By Sun Chenghao

U.S. President Barack Obama (first left) and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (center) attend the Sixth Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 25 (XINHUA)

Twenty-eight years after his first visit, U.S. President Barack Obama set foot once more on the soil of Kenya, birthplace of his father and a place which some people believe to be more his hometown than his native Hawaii. On the first visit, Obama was met by a half-sister and an aunt in a battered old Volkswagen Beetle. In 2006, he visited the country again as a senator, criticizing human rights abuses and corruption in Africa and receiving a hero's welcome in the process.

This time around, strict security measures were taken ahead of President Obama's visit, with 10,000 police officers from Nairobi being deployed to prevent al-Qaeda's Somali-led affiliate, the al-Shabab, from disrupting his three-day visit. One can only speculate, but it would not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to surmise that under such radically different conditions, Obama's most recent visit must have stirred in him very different emotions than did his first.


Ever since Obama was sworn in as the U.S. first African-American president in 2009, expectations as regards his Africa policy have been high. Yet during his first term, he never paid an official visit to any country on the continent, not even Kenya, a country whose approval rating of the U.S. president is higher than that of the U.S. population. Some critics claimed that despite his roots, Obama was attaching less importance to Africa than his two predecessors.

Relieved of the burden of seeking reelection, in his second term, Obama has started a drive to secure his diplomatic legacy. Along with Cuba and Iran, Africa could prove one more jewel in Obama's foreign policy crown. In 2013, he traveled to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania to meet with leaders from the governments, business communities and the private sectors. Last year, he held the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, inviting 50 African leaders and senior officials to an event which primarily focused on trade, investment and the security of the continent, raising U.S.-Africa relations to new heights.

His recently concluded African tour started with a visit to Nairobi for the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit and was followed by a short stay in Ethiopia where the African Union is headquartered. It was Obama's fourth trip to Sub-Saharan African as U.S. president, more than any of his predecessors have made. The trip had three major goals.

First on the list was further promoting economic cooperation between the United States and Africa. A conspicuous feature of Obama's Africa policy is improving bilateral commercial relations between the two parties while expanding cooperation in the fields of trade, investment, agriculture, food, energy, and electricity. As a country fast becoming an African leader in terms of financial institutions, healthcare infrastructure, education and cellphone technology, Kenya is naturally eager to draw more American investment and business.

During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit last year, Obama made a series of commitments amounting to more than $33 billion in value, supporting economic expansion all across Africa. The reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was passed by Congress on June 25 with President Obama signing it into law on June 29, providing certain African countries with preferential trade conditions such as more quotas and duty-free entry into the United States. Participation in the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a U.S.-backed initiative that brings together young business leaders from all over the world aims to continue this positive momentum by engaging with business leaders and government officials.

Second was seeking collaboration on anti-terrorism. Kenya's economic development has of late been curbed by vehement attacks from various terror groups, among which al-Shabab is the most aggressive. Obama said both countries had systematically reduced the territory that al-Shabab controlled, but the problem had not been resolved. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta placed a lot of stress on anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries. Nonetheless, the prospect of cooperation in this particular field is not so promising due to the U.S. unwillingness to be embroiled in another battle in Africa what with the nagging persistence of the ISIS (Islamic State) issue. Security cooperation might therefore narrowly focus on technical assistance, military training and limited intelligence sharing.

Last but not least on Obama's to-do list was putting the stamp of "value diplomacy" on his African tour. During his visit, Obama called for gay rights in Africa, comparing homophobia to the racial discrimination he had encountered in the United States. He openly expressed his disagreement with his counterpart Kenyatta at a joint news conference after their meeting, "As an African-American in the United States, I am painfully aware of what happens when people are treated differently under the law. I am unequivocal on this," said Obama. However, countenancing gay rights was perhaps a step too far for Kenyatta, who termed it "a non-issue."

Pivot to Africa?

It is instructive to place the trip against the wider backdrop of history. During the Cold War, U.S.-Africa relations were largely overshadowed by the bipolar system. After the Black Hawk incident in Somalia and the genocide in Rwanda, the U.S. strategy toward Africa started to change toward the end of Bill Clinton's administration. President Clinton took the final lead in developing the AGOA and it was signed by him into law in May 2000. President George W. Bush then carried the torch, initiating the Millennium Challenge Corporation and Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) to reward "good-governed" countries judged upon the criteria including openness, free markets, democracy and political freedom. From 2002 to 2008, according to Bush's memoir, the MCA invested $6.7 billion of seed money in 35 partner countries. Bush also established a President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) which was dedicated to caring for vulnerable people.

However, in Obama's first term, there was little if any discernible African strategy at all, save for empty promises. He merely visited the continent with a whistle-stop stay in Ghana lasting less than 24 hours. He basically maintained the same funding level for global health as his predecessor Bush, yet owing to his more diversified programs, the amount of funding dedicated to PEPFAR and combating AIDS has actually been reduced. According to South African archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2010, "Under the Bush administration, about 400,000 more African patients received treatment every year. Obama would reduce the number of new patients receiving treatment to 320,000."

To clarify things, the White House released its U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa in 2012, a set of guidelines setting forth four strategic objectives to be achieved by the end of Obama's tenure, namely strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade, and investment, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development. Over 2013 and 2014, Obama's whirlwind diplomacy toward Africa included his visit to the three aforementioned countries and the first U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit.

Some scholars argue that in his second term Obama is "pivoting to Africa." Such rhetoric, however, is hard to swallow. On the economic front, despite its emphasis on promoting trade and investment in Africa, the United States has failed to sign a single new bilateral investment treaty or free trade agreement with any African country. The only highlight may be Obama's Power Africa Initiative, which pledges an investment of $7 billion and involves working with African governments, the private sector, and other partners to double electricity access in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years. However, only a tiny portion of the budget has been allocated toward off-grid energy solutions, which means off-grid projects and renewable energy solutions are not the priority of the initiative as originally claimed. Moreover, the U.S. Export-Import Bank's charter expired on June 30 and new loans could not be approved, greatly hampering American companies in their efforts to get financing for potential power projects in Africa.

On the security front, the United States has sped up its limited cooperation on anti-terrorism with African countries. Obama understands the risks to U.S. army personnel and his own political standing if the United States were to deeply involve itself in the battle against terrorism. To avoid direct intervention, the United States has supported regional and sub-regional organizations in spearheading military action. From 2005 to August 2014, through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, the United States trained more than 248,000 peacekeepers from 25 partner countries across the continent.

In fact, Africa has never been deemed a priority in U.S. strategic consideration and the superpower's real pivot is toward the Asia-Pacific, a point clearly articulated by many senior U.S. officials. That's part of the reason why the United States depends heavily on its allies to intervene in the continent's internal conflicts. In 2011, the United States adopted the so-called "lead-from-behind" tactic, offering intelligence, logistical support, and search and rescue assistance to NATO's military actions in Libya in the absence of boots on the ground. In August 2014, Obama authorized $10 million in military aid to help France fight terrorists in the Sahel region.

Obama's visits to Kenya and Ethiopia represent symbolic gestures rather than strategic maneuvers. Yes, he intends to solidify his diplomatic legacy because the clock is ticking on his presidential tenure and Africa is a nice addition to his recent list of wins. Owing to limited resources and the relative insignificance of Africa in the grand scheme of U.S. foreign policy, however, he has neither the desire not the inclination to conceive a clear, consistent and inheritable strategy that can be followed by his successors in order to make a difference to the African continent in the decades ahead.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of American Studies under the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Eric Daly

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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