The conservative case for a routine US-Africa summit
Last week, diplomats and dignitaries from 49 African countries convened in Washington, D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The first of its kind since 2014, the summit stands out as an exceptional feat of common sense among the Biden administration’s parade of foreign policy missteps and blunders.
Despite this, an ad-hoc confab will not restore America’s place as the global partner of choice. Rather, a regular meeting with African leaders, in pursuit of a targeted and defined agenda, would advance conservative foreign policy goals.
Although US-Africa summits have so far been associated with Democratic administrations, recent Republican presidents have nonetheless pursued consequential initiatives with African partners. George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), for example, has prevented the intergenerational transmission of HIV to more than 2.8 million children. More recently, the Trump administration successfully facilitated the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco and Sudan.
Economic engagement was also a hallmark of the 45th president’s policy toward Africa. While Trump battled European allies for fair and reciprocal trade, his administration simultaneously began formal steps towards forging a free trade agreement with Kenya. Following the inking of 1 billion dollars worth of private sector deals on the continent in 2018, then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared that “We are finding solutions to transition aid-based economies to trade-based economies.”
Through each of these flagship initiatives, Republican presidents prioritized clearly defined and measurable objectives to advance life, liberty and mutually beneficial economic cooperation. And each initiative necessitated African buy-in, rather than just acquiescence, to form the basis of a productive partnership. Approaching African leaders as partners means dispelling the soft bigotry of low expectations on a continent-wide scale.
This conservative foreign policy towards Africa remarkably differs from its counterpart on the left. In an effort to buy favor, progressive checkbook diplomacy prefers to heap aid upon target countries. With little African equity at stake, the enlightened experts in Foggy Bottom dole out cash to conform the interests of the 1.2 billion people of Africa to American progressive dogma. When woke diplomatic priorities are predetermined in the faculty lounges of liberal arts colleges, there is little need for the hard work of diplomatic consensus-seeking. That President Biden had not deigned to schedule formal bilateral meetings with his African guests speaks volumes about progressive foreign policy today.
A conservative foreign policy necessitates more than a patina of goodwill towards the countries of Africa. Unlike endless promises of charity or the self-serving promotion of leftist fads, genuine partnerships require time and effort to develop. A routine summit that periodically convenes African and American leaders would serve as a venue to foster these relationships.
While the idea of a routine summit may seem novel, the United States is already behind the pack. Since the turn of the millennium, China has coordinated a routine summit with African leaders. In three-year intervals, the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meets alternately in Beijing or an African city. Japan similarly holds a routine conference on African economic development which, in recent years, has been held on the continent. The European Union, for its part, has held six summits with the African Union since 2000.
But America’s engagement with the people of Africa is not about China, Japan, or Europe. It needs neither external affirmation nor competition for its legitimacy. Rather, our relationship represents an opportunity to strengthen ties between some of the world’s fastest-growing population centers and the single deepest and most liquid capital market. Drawing from our unique strengths, becoming each other’s partner of choice should be a shared objective for America and the countries of Africa.
Yet, every government initiative needs scrupulous oversight for waste and wandering. A routine summit with African leaders should not devolve into an early Christmas for the aid-industrial complex, nor a biannual jaunt for bureaucrats. Ultimately, political leaders need steely nerves to pull the plug on failing public initiatives. African leaders know this and by ditching the United Nations General Assembly for Beijing’s routine summit in recent years, have voted with their feet.
Following the close of this year’s summit, political, business and civil society leaders from across Africa and the United States will question whether the confab was just a flash in the pan. By prioritizing relationships and outcomes over progressive patronage, there is a conservative case for a routine US-Africa summit.
Oliver McPherson-Smith is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.