Winter 2016

After Obama, four lessons for U.S. engagement in Africa

– Paul D. Williams

In Africa, flexibility will do the United States more good than a strategy that is written in stone.

American governments have long struggled to engage Africa — a continent of 54 recognized states and more than one billion people — in any sustained and thoughtful way. Still, orthodox analysts insist that president after president offer “a strategy for Africa.” Administrations are expected to articulate clear objectives, prioritize amongst them, clarify how they interrelate, and sketch a plan to achieve them using available instruments of national power, all within a maximum of two terms in office.

As the experience of the Obama administration showed, that expectation is deeply unrealistic. In Africa, flexibility will do the United States more good than will a strategy written in stone.

During his first few years in office, President Barack Obama made no move to articulate a new African strategy, nor did he embrace the wildly outsized hopes that his personal ties to the continent would somehow produce a structural shift in American policies. For much of his first term, it seemed that he saw little reason to break with a broad, longstanding, bipartisan consensus on the best ways for the U.S. to engage Africa — one that held that Africa was neither a strategic nor commercial priority, that the continent was a source of headaches rather than opportunities, and that it should be engaged principally as a “humanitarian” challenge (after 9/11, a counter-terrorism lens added to this equation, and applied selectively to some parts of the continent).

In Africa, flexibility will do the U.S. more good than a strategy written in stone.

In June 2012, however, President Obama released what his White House called a “new strategy” for sub-Saharan Africa. The administration said it would pursue four “interdependent and mutually reinforcing objectives” in the region: “(1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.” The president said he would emphasize partnerships with the United Nations, countries in the region, and other multilateral actors to achieve these goals. He would focus on deepening U.S. engagement with Africa’s young leaders, empowering women and marginalized populations, and meeting “the unique needs of fragile and post-conflict states.”

Unsurprisingly, some commentators noted that the document mostly represented continuity rather than change for American policy. That said, the administration did begin a range of new initiatives in an effort to achieve its four overriding goals; the most notable of these include Power Africa, Feed the Future, the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Trade Africa, the Security Governance Initiative, the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, and, in 2014, the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. In 2015, Obama also became the first U.S. president to visit the African Union in Addis Ababa, a unique endorsement of the continent’s largest multilateral institution. The cumulative impact of this push shouldn’t be downplayed — the Obama administration has earned a positive mark for engaging Africa’s youth, making progress on electrification, and bringing the private sector more to the fore of U.S. engagement on the continent.

Nevertheless, disappointment with the president’s legacy in Africa remains widespread. As Nicholas van de Walle concluded in Foreign Affairs, Obama was handicapped by the asymmetry “between the numerous desirable goals for Africa and the limited U.S. interests there.” Budgets for most efforts were capped and capped low. “The world’s sole superpower,” wrote van de Walle, could probably have accomplished a great deal in the region, but it often lacked “the motivation to do so.”

In that respect, the strategy Obama released in June 2012 was doomed to disappoint. Its failure holds lessons for the next president, who will inevitably face the same calls for “a strategy for Africa.”

Lesson 1: Cross the Sahara desert

First, Obama’s strategy was hobbled by its unhelpful and arbitrary division of the continent along the Sahara desert. The distinction between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is a powerful cliché, but the division ignores the deep political, economic, and social ties that connect populations across the Sahara. Few of the continent’s regional economic communities draw the same bright line; the African Union’s membership includes all African states except Morocco.

Whether the issue is drought and food insecurity, the civil war in Mali, or the proliferation of insurgents, trafficking, and terror networks, splitting Africa’s north from the sub-Sahara doesn’t work. While it will often make sense to develop policies for particular sub-regions of the continent — the Sahel, the Horn, the Great Lakes — “sub-Sahara” isn’t a coherent one.

The distinction between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa is a powerful cliché, but the division ignores the deep political, economic, and social ties that connect populations across the Sahara.

Lesson 2: Africa is not a monolith

Just as Africa can’t be easily split into North and sub-Saharan parts, it can’t be engaged as a uniform whole, either. Africa does not suffer from a uniform set of problems, and devising a single set of objectives — let alone a common approach — is deeply problematic.

Take governance. Africa’s states span the entire spectrum from consolidated liberal democracies to what Freedom House calls “the worst of the worst” — deeply authoritarian regimes such as the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia. Consider, too, the hugely unequal levels of economic development and industrialization across the continent, or the widely varying degrees of instability and organized violence that characterize different regions. Such diverse strengths and challenges render the search for a single strategy illusory at best and counter-productive at worst.

But the challenge isn’t simply diversity at the level of the nation-state. In many cases, the U.S. must also find ways of engaging with more actors beyond the governing regimes and dominant political parties, especially in Africa’s more autocratic states. Washington would be wise to develop multiple strategies for each country, strategies that facilitate engagement with the broader local populations, opposition parties, civic associations, and businesses beyond the government in power. In each country, American policy has multiple constituencies; if the American government is thought to be in cahoots with repressive regimes, for example, it risks severe blowback in the event of regime change, and undermines its own human rights agenda for the region in the meantime.

Africa does not suffer from a uniform set of problems, and devising a single set of objectives — let alone a common approach — is deeply problematic.

Lesson 3: The limits of strategy

Most fundamentally, our concept of strategy is skewed. Contrary to popular understanding, it is not wise to think of a strategy as developing a single plan to deliver on aspirational objectives. Strategic engagement is best understood as facilitating adaptable and flexible responses to today’s choices, securing incremental change or reform in our audiences’ behavior.

Sir Lawrence Freedman’s recent history of the concept of strategy makes this abundantly clear. Strategy, Freedman argues, is “about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.” In other words, “the essence of strategy is to force or persuade those who are hostile or unsympathetic to act differently than their current intentions.”

Because of that element of conflict, strategy should not be thought of as synonymous with “having a plan.” Plans, writes Freedman, assume a set sequence of events “that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another.” A strategy, though, is most needed when the sequence of events is unpredictable. An approach that starts with a predetermined set of objectives and works backwards to achieve them will likely fail. Rather, strategy should function as a more or less successful coping mechanism: a dignified way of “muddling through.” Even the most successful strategies can only move us into the next stage of the relationship with the continent’s multiple actors and institutions rather than deliver a definitive or permanent solution to our challenges.

It isn’t wise to think of a strategy as a single plan to deliver on objectives.

Lesson 4: Learning from the octopus

In Africa, the United States has much to learn from the octopus. Our challenge is to deal with today’s challenges better than might be expected, while remaining flexible enough to adapt as circumstances change. Rafe Sagarin has argued that we can learn to do so from nature by taking the octopus as a model. Sagarin emphasizes several traits: the octopus’s ability to learn from a changing environment, its use of “redundant and multi-functioning security measures,” its capacity to “manipulate uncertainty” in chasing prey, and its symbiotic relationships with other organisms.

As strange as the comparison might initially sound, these are the characteristics that American administrations should seek to replicate when engaging with Africa. This means investing in the capability to conduct organizational learning in fluid environments. It means decentralizing decision-making structures to give greater authority to its diplomats in the field, an approach that should apply at both the global level (decentralizing authority to embassies/missions) and the national level (decentralizing engagement beyond capital cities and “fortress” embassies). It would also mean cultivating the full range of tools at America’s disposal and ending the traditional emphasis on the military instrument over diplomatic, social, and economic sources of power. Finally, it would mean forging stronger symbiotic partnerships, emphasizing engagement with a broader range of African actors beyond the continent’s governing regimes that share the United States’ interests, ethical principles, and political values.

In Africa, the U.S. needs the capacity for organizational learning in fluid environments.

When the next administration decides how to engage with Africa, it would help to remember these points. Devising a strategy for sub-Saharan Africa isn’t helpful. Neither is devising a single strategy for such a diverse continent.

Strategies aren’t plans to deliver solutions, they are — at best — simply coping mechanisms to help reach the next stage of an always conflict-driven relationship. But strategies that invest in learning, and are open-ended, flexible, and adaptable, can produce favorable, if not definitive, results.

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Paul D. Williams is associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of War and Conflict in Africa, and can be found on Twitter @PDWilliamsGWU.

Cover photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza