7 August 2014

Africa: U.S.-Africa Summit Showcases Continent's Expanding Economies


This week's US-Africa Summit was an unprecedented event. Forty-five African leaders gladly attended, and as other analysis wryly pointed out, unlike the recent EU-Africa Summit, the decision not to invite President Robert Mugabe did not spark any boycott threats.

African countries' so-called 'Look East' policies diversify rather than displace 'traditional' partners - and no one is going to ignore a partner like the United States.

The summit's main purpose was to shift the narrative of engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, giving a fresh coat of paint to relationships with the continent's most pre-eminent diplomatic, security and development player.

The three-day event showcased the role that the private sector can play in economic growth, essentially promoting the idea that US models of partnership might better serve its long-term interests.

In this, it appeared to emulate high-level summits that have long been undertaken by the continent's 'new' partners (China, Japan, Turkey and so on). It was no doubt an indicator of the continent's expanding economies, which potentially afford greater opportunities for US firms in a still low yield global economy.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether this confab of public diplomacy and business interest will become a periodic way to 'institutionalise' relations between the United States and African countries.

Funding commitments from US government bodies that promote US foreign investment (e.g. the Ex-Im Bank, which has doubled its Africa financing this year) are already embroiled in Congressional bi-partisan politicking.

The 'catch-up' narrative that permeates Washington still appears misplaced. This is primarily because it tends to assume that sub-Saharan Africa should be more important to the United States than strategic priorities elsewhere indicate (the Asia 'pivot', Middle East instability etc.).

Moreover, while high-level political support and funding from US government bodies may help reduce risks involved in African investments, these initiatives will not displace US firms' independent approaches and risk appetites. The United States does not exemplify a state-led commercial strategy.

The economic and investment focus of the summit did not indicate any shift in US strategic interests, which remain concerned with the mitigation of perceived security threats. President Barack Obama's trip to the continent last year was ostensibly designed to strengthen economies ties, but also to further broader foreign policy objectives.

In Africa, these promote the expansion in the capacity of US military operations across the continent - even though the conventional 'footprint' might look small with only one permanent base in Djibouti, the 'places' not 'bases' approach is the cornerstone of US power projection. Increasingly, these blur with traditional development and diplomacy roles.

So while there is little chance that economic relations will reframe US-Africa ties, the summit was an indicator of the continent's expanding economies, and an attempt by the White House and the State Department to present the United States as a partner seeking to advance mutually beneficial goals. Time will tell on its 'positive spin' attention span.

Hannah Waddilove is Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica.

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