COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to refresh US foreign policy

COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to refresh US foreign policy

 Americans are doing a lot of soul-searching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, questioning everything from public health systems and political polarization to U.S. economic resilience. It seems like everything is on the table, except how the United States formulates, implements and communicates its relations with allies and competitors. In response to this life-altering health crisis, U.S. foreign policy must change too.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in sub-Saharan Africa. U.S. policies desperately need a rethink. The virus has devastated the continent. Cases are rising, economies are crashing and, ominously, the political class is self-isolating. COVID-19’s damage will only worsen in the coming weeks. The region is uniquely vulnerable, with weak health systems, dense urban populations and security conflicts impeding access.

This unfolding tragedy presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine U.S. policies, programs and public diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward the region has been fairly consistent. “Bipartisan consensus” has been a mantra – and a source of pride – in Africa policy circles. Even the Trump administration, which dislikes many longstanding principles and programs, has struggled to break with past policies. The devastation of the pandemic, however, is forcing the U.S. government to work differently. With partial or full shutdowns in Washington and African capitals, it has become essential to forge a new approach.

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First, it is time to revamp U.S. programming in sub-Saharan Africa. U.S. policymakers too often see Africa as a globally disconnected, rural continent with economies anchored in agriculture or extractive industries. The COVID-19 outbreak has forced policymakers to reckon with a cosmopolitan, integrated and dynamic urban continent. The virus is spreading rapidly in the region’s cities, home to 40 percent of the population. It is ravaging the informal sector, where 85 percent of Africans work. Africans, meanwhile, are relying on fast-growing access to the internet to work, bank and stay in touch with the world. At the very least, these changes are an indication that the United States should shift its policy toward urban zones, invest in technology, and tap the underappreciated informal sector. It is vital to deepen ties with municipal leaders and direct the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation to prioritize broadband access, reliable electricity and other necessary infrastructure. 

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to redefine how the United States works with African partners. Since the early 2000s, U.S. engagement with African security services has been shaped almost entirely by counterterrorism priorities. The health crisis, however, underscores that there are other deadly threats to the region. U.S. allies such as Ethiopia, Senegal and Uganda are using their security forces to secure borders and enforce restrictions — and not always with positive outcomes. 

There have been reports of security force abuses in several countries, including Kenya. The United States needs to move beyond terrorism and refocus on building responsible security partnerships that address health and humanitarian challenges, not just violent extremism. 

The U.S. government also must use the outbreak to reaffirm its commitment to democracy, human rights and good governance. U.S. standing has always been bolstered by unapologetic support for universal values, including freedom of speech, individual rights and protection of vulnerable populations. African leaders who are accountable to voters exemplify these values and are more likely to weather this crisis. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, has reached across the political aisle and partnered with civil society and the private sector to mount a full assault on this virus. The region’s media, where it is free and vibrant, has pressed governments to share updates and counter misinformation. The United States needs to resume its partnerships with democratic reformers in tandem with investments in legislatures, judiciaries and civil society organizations.

Finally, it is imperative to reinvigorate U.S. public diplomacy, which is losing badly to China and Jack Ma’s headline-grabbing response to this crisis. With most diplomats in lockdown, U.S. officials must be more creative. It is not defensible to rely on staid statements issued via an embassy website. It is time to unleash U.S. diplomats to experiment and engage with Africa’s youthful and tech-savvy populations. U.S. ambassadors have to showcase American ingenuity if they want to connect with African publics. Courting the region’s influential pop stars, movie luminaries and sports icons is one first step. A few diplomats so far are adapting to this new environment, such as the U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who posted a video with a Congolese hip hop artist on hand washing.

The COVID-19 outbreak is an unmitigated disaster for both the United States and sub-Saharan Africa. While it is crucial to address the health crisis at home, the U.S. government can’t miss this opportunity to support its African partners in their fight against the pandemic. It would be equally tragic if the United States wasted this moment by failing to evolve its policies and redefine its relationships to confront a new reality.  

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). He is the former national intelligence officer for Africa at the Office of National Intelligence.