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Could sub-Saharan Africa be what unites the US and Europe?

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In the coming decades, sub-Saharan Africa will grow increasingly important to both the U.S. and Europe. Its growing population and proximity to Europe make that fact undeniable. Chinese political and economic inroads may be irreversible. Yet, by working together, the U.S. and Europe do have the ability to create the space for African governments and their people to have a viable alternative strategic direction. Such an undertaking not only would benefit Africa, but would  put a much-needed item of converging interest on the transatlantic agenda.   

The transatlantic relationship between the United States, the European Union (EU) and major European capitals is rife with a growing sense of pessimism that the two sides of the Atlantic have set themselves on independent courses. American and European leaders have parted ways on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Paris Agreement to fight climate change. Beyond that, the two sides continue to have running disagreements on trade, defense spending and how to tax and regulate digital services. The U.S. and Europe also broadly continue to fail to find a coordinated approach to China’s aggressive and mercantilist economic stance.

These substantial policy disagreements are compounded by political statements that have diminished mutual trust and goodwill. President Trump has called the EU a “foe” that treats the U.S. “worse than China.” Donald Tusk, then the president of the European Council, said last year that Trump is “perhaps the most difficult challenge” facing the European Union. While the history of the transatlantic relationship has no shortage of contentious disputes, both America and Europe remained committed to one another in a mutually beneficial strategic alignment. Yet, confronted with numerous disagreements over fundamental issues, today’s European leaders have taken to discussing “strategic sovereignty” for Europe with renewed urgency.

The U.S. and Europe undoubtedly will remain close economic partners for the foreseeable future, but the strategic alignment between the two continents is at risk of losing cohesion. And once abandoned, it will not be easily or quickly restored.

To avoid such a result, what is needed is a strategic project where the skill sets and political interests of both the U.S. and Europe can complement one another to achieve a mutual interest. That could be achieved by cooperating in sub-Saharan Africa to expand market-oriented economies and democratic governance. That would help African countries to better navigate the threats from violent extremist groups, the rigors of environmental changes, and the siren call of the Chinese economic model.  

While often left out of transatlantic conversations, the future of sub-Saharan Africa holds potentially enormous implications for both the United States and Europe. Over the next 30 years, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is slated to grow to over 2.2 billion people, or nearly a quarter of the world’s total population. The U.S. and Europe share a common interest to see this region develop into a zone of stability and not a source of mass irregular migration of the type that has proven so politically destabilizing to Europe in recent years.

Between 2000 and 2017, nearly 1 million sub-Saharan migrants sought asylum in Europe. As Africa’s population grows, the potential for future mass flows of people north because of climate change or conflict could be overwhelming.  

By working together, the U.S. and Europe could align their approaches to sub-Saharan Africa in a way that provides Africans a meaningful alternative to China’s coercive debt-diplomacy while also allowing for a positive project that restores confidence in transatlantic cooperation. Such a strategic arrangement could work because the United States and Europe could each focus on different, but complementary actions. 

The EU could emphasize the types of programs for which it has shown an affinity, including in the development, health and environmental sectors. The U.S., along with select allies, could use its military might and superior intelligence collection abilities to defeat terrorist groups and work to mature the newly established U.S. International Development Finance Corporation into a mechanism to provide a viable, sustainable and transparent financing options to balance the influence of China. That would cater to the political preferences of the Trump administration. 

Both Washington and European capitals should understand that sub-Saharan Africa increasingly will be a valuable export market and economic partner. While only about 1 percent of current U.S. trade takes place with sub-Saharan Africa, the opportunities in coming decades as extreme poverty recedes and urbanization grows are exponential. It is only prudent to take steps now to ensure African countries remain open to Western business and embrace rule of law and market capitalism. If not, American and European companies could well be crowded out by state-supported Chinese rivals and the non-market economic conditions they bring.

In just the past several weeks, Washington and Brussels have turned their attention to Africa. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his EU equivalent, Josep Borrell, each made separate visits to the continent. Additionally, Ursula von der Leyen made her inaugural visit as EU Commission president in February, leading an unprecedentedly large delegation of 20 EU commissioners.

This attention is surely welcome, but the West is lagging behind China. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s Global Investment Tracker, China has invested some $300 billion in sub-Saharan Africa since 2005. China has opened dozens of Confucius Institutes, mostly within African colleges and universities to propagate its soft power, invested in media organizations to deliver Beijing’s interpretation of the news, and even built the underlying information technology infrastructure in many cases.     

The U.S. and Europe find themselves at numerous political and policy impasses, and the time is right to expand the scope of what is possible. U.S. and European leaders should reframe sub-Saharan Africa as a transatlantic issue. Sub-Saharan Africa is where the American interest in competing with China meets sound economic and governance goals shared by Europe and Africans themselves. 

Scott Cullinane is the executive director of U.S.-Europe Alliance. From 2011-2018, he served in various positions with the U.S. Congress, including as the professional staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Europe Subcommittee where he covered a broad jurisdiction, including the European Union, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Central Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ScottPCullinane.

Tags Donald Trump Economy of Africa European Union Mike Pompeo Sub-Saharan Africa Transatlantic relations

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