The tens of millions of dollars in aid the United States gives Uganda every year has recently bought it precious little influence with the East African country's president, Yoweri Museveni. His February signing of the draconian anti-gay bill was an explicit rebuff of U.S. pressure; National Security Advisor Susan Rice had urged him "at length" not to sign the bill, and President Obama warned that the bill would "complicate" the bilateral relationship.

Museveni's decision is the latest instance of Washington being unable to influence an allied African leader, the result of shifting geopolitical trends and blundering diplomacy. Limited influence over our friends is a challenge that will remain and may well grow, and policymakers need to adopt far smarter and more strategic ways to apply effective pressure at critical moments.


The recent disagreement with Uganda evokes some uncomfortable U.S. memories of other African allies ignoring its pointed advice. Ethiopia passed a law curtailing press and democracy-promotion freedoms over U.S. protests, and both sides of the South Sudanese conflict have ignored an "all-out diplomatic effort" by senior U.S. officials, including a personal call from Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryKrystal Ball: New Biden ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage Krystal Ball: Biden's new ad is everything that's wrong with Democrats MORE to President Salva Kiir, to halt the violence. Ugandan troops remain inside South Sudan after the U.S. called for all foreign forces to withdraw, while the Kenyan army in Somalia has been implicated by the United Nations in charcoal exporting despite UN and U.S. bans.

There are several reasons why countries that receive millions of dollars in U.S. aid every year are sometimes willing to ignore Washington’s requests. The continent’s hotspots – including Kenya and Uganda – are becoming global investment destinations, and bilateral donors are competing for influence over local politicians. China is now the continent's largest investor, other powers such as Russia, Brazil, and India are increasing their investments, and intra-African trade and investment is similarly growing. The United States and Europe are no longer the only game in town for most African countries.

Generous American aid can also signal to recipient countries that they are too valuable an investment to walk away from. The United States pledged over $700 million in aid to Kenya in fiscal year 2012 alone, and nearly $400 million to South Sudan. And some of the millions Uganda has received has gone to support its troops in Somalia fighting al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization the United States badly wants subdued. Washington is not going to write-off those levels of investment, except in the direst of circumstances.

Given these realities, how can policymakers most effectively exert pressure at critical moments?

First and foremost, Washington should stop bluffing its African allies with public threats, as doing so is utterly counterproductive in African states deeply resentful of anything that smacks of Western imperialism. Populations with hair-trigger sensitivities to the specter of neo-colonialism may actually rally to whomever is being threatened: during the 2013 Kenyan elections, presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta adroitly leveraged his indictment by the International Criminal Court into domestic political support by painting it as part of a Western plot against him--after Kenyatta handily won the presidency, Deputy President William Ruto suggested that a U.S. warning against electing Kenyatta had backfired into support for him at the polls. Museveni is similarly using international opposition to the anti-gay legislation to generate momentum in the run-up to Uganda’s 2016 presidential election, and Robert Mugabe’s depressing longevity as president of Zimbabwe is partially due to his ability to paint himself—and Zimbabwe—as a victim of Western imperialism.

And overt pressure may harden a leader's position. By publicly warning Museveni, Western policymakers increased the level of domestic political support he could gain by ignoring the threat (and ratcheted up the political damage he would suffer if he acquiesced). The very outcome policymakers were trying to avoid was made more likely by their inept engagement with Museveni.

The United States also loses room to maneuver when it publicly threatens. When Washington does not follow through on its threats, it appears feckless and future entreaties have less force. The alternative—launching a hasty punishment just to save face—is equally bad, as we are currently witnessing. In response to the bill, the United States declined to renew a loan that resulted in 87 Ugandans working on an HIV/AIDS program being sacked, which is petty and a strange way to affirm a commitment to human rights.

The United States should also coordinate even more closely with like-minded allies active on the continent. Washington still has significant bargaining chips given its economic and military clout, and combining its efforts with the likes of Germany, France, and the European Union would enable all parties to dramatically increase the leverage they can each bring to bear--the recent joint US-EU communiqué was a welcome development in this regard.

Finally, policymakers need to make painful choices to show allies there are real consequences if the US's core interests are not best served by their actions. In worst-case scenarios, proving the point may mean withdrawing military aid. This option is hard to invoke—given Washington’s reliance on proxies in the African war on counterterrorism, it presents major challenges to US security objectives in the region—but it is one of Washington’s few meaningful points of leverage over leaders who rely on their security forces as bulwarks against anti-regime challenges.

US influence with a number of our African allies has eroded recently, exacerbated too frequently by fumbling diplomacy. It is past time to adopt a more informed and strategic approach to ensure the United States remains a relevant and trusted actor on a continent that is only becoming more important economically, politically, and militarily.

Meservey is assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.