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Advice for the U.S. in Africa: Stop lecturing about China and Russia. Instead, offer better options.

What message is Secretary of State Antony Blinken really sending on his trip to the continent?

To discuss U.S. policy toward Africa, and the balancing act between “not dictating” and effecting change in these countries, Grid spoke with Elizabeth Shackelford, senior U.S. foreign policy analyst at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As a career diplomat, Shackelford served in Somalia, Kenya, South Africa, and Poland before resigning from the State Department in 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. She believes it’s imperative that the Biden administration’s approach makes good on its promise to answer the needs of African people — and not only view the continent through the lens of global geopolitics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elizabeth Shackelford: This new policy has been really anticipated in the circles of Africa watchers and African foreign-policy folks for months. The word was that there was going to be a big focus on democracy and human rights and that it would reflect a recognition that our foreign policy has been really militarized and that it hasn’t really worked.

But reading through it, at best it seems like some aesthetic improvements. It almost seems like they were trying, but they just couldn’t quite get past that this focus on security. Now, if you ask folks in the White House, they’ll say, “Well, of course, insecurity is an obstacle to everything we’re trying to accomplish there,” and it is! But it just doesn’t reflect a recognition of what hasn’t been working.

My other criticism is that we’re trying to make this play that our foreign policy in Africa is not driven by broader geopolitical issues, that it’s driven by the needs of Africans and our relationships with countries in Africa. But I don’t even think we believe those talking points. Even in the little two-page executive summary of the new policy, there are references to China and Russia.

Even as Blinken is crossing the continent saying, “Absolutely, this is about our relationships in Africa. It’s not about other geopolitical issues,” they keep circling back to criticisms of countries’ relationships with China and Russia. [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Linda Thomas-Greenfield was certainly making that pretty plain in her various comments across the continent. So yeah, I’m not convinced there’s much of a shift.

But you know, one of the perennial challenges with Africa policy is that you get more attention when it’s directly tied to bigger geostrategic issues. That’s what happened with international terrorism, and now it’s happening with great power competition. The problem is that greater attention has never translated into better outcomes. On the one hand, you might be happy if you are an Africa policy expert in the National Security Council that Blinken and other high-level officials care a lot about our relationship with Africa, because it matters in this bigger context. But when we try to say that our concern is about Africa itself, not about Russia or China, it comes across as very disingenuous.

What you get with Wagner Group is quite simple. You’re basically trading commodities for security assistance. And that security assistance means actual troops and actual bodyguards. It’s pretty straightforward. U.S. assistance isn’t as transactional and that’s because we’re looking for something other than just taking raw materials out of the country.

But the problem is that we found this kind of perfectly bad medium, where we will wag our finger long enough to piss off the autocrats, but we won’t actually change our behavior enough to not continue to enable those actors. We kind of walk this middle line where we reduce our influence because we are critical, but we don’t remove the assistance that we’re providing.

Rwanda supporting rebels in Congo is nothing new. There’s this new report out, but this is not something that should surprise anybody. What’s surprising is that we think that Rwanda is a great country to use to commit peacekeeping troops in some of the same areas where it is fostering conflict. One of the things that keeps it in the good graces of the West is that Rwanda is one of the major contributors to peacekeeping troops and U.N. missions. And countries that don’t want to risk their own troops by contributing them as peacekeepers to missions around the world, but want to keep these missions open, are willing to forgive a lot of ills for that.

Now, if you combined better staffing in these embassies with better respect for the information coming in from the field, I think we would have a better and more nuanced policy toward different countries in Africa. But you’d have to have that combined effort.

We had people who were doing great and really heroic work in the various countries that I served in. But at the end of the day, you could do the most persuasive reporting, but when it gets back to Washington, what we end up doing and executing on the continent is still going to be driven by the White House’s priorities. I was kind of amazed at how little our reporting seemed to shape the decisions being made back in Washington.

In terms of the influence on democracy, I think that’s more long-term and generational, but I do think it matters to a country like Uganda that they can look next door and say, “Hey, Kenya is having an election and we don’t know who the president is going to be after that. Isn’t that novel?” It’s not going to change things overnight, in particular because [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni has such a lock on power. But I do think that it changes the expectations of the generations coming up.

Going back to U.S. policy in Africa, Washington’s always freaking about out about the next big emergency. But if Kenya, fingers crossed, continues to follow a more democratic path and, you know, fingers crossed, it says something for democracy.

Democracy is not something that Russia and China are championing. They’re trying to show that democracy is this messy, unstable thing that can’t deliver for its people. So to the extent that democracy shows some dividends, that Kenyans are doing better off than Ugandans or Sudanese or others living under more authoritarian regimes, that does bode well for the larger argument for democracy.

So that level of kind of greater independence and ability to choose could benefit a number of countries, if they play it well. That could mean playing the great powers off against each other in order to gain better infrastructure and better trade agreements and the types of thing that could benefit people.

Instead of wagging our finger at countries working with Wagner or having infrastructure projects built by the Chinese, we could offer them something better. If we don’t raise the stakes to where it’s such a competition, maybe these countries can act independently and navigate their own way.

Unfortunately, what’s more likely to happen in a lot of these countries is that leaders will exploit [foreign competition] for personal gain and their political dynasties and the people will never benefit at all. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

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