While it's always dangerous to offer general observations about an entire continent (there are sites fully dedicated to debunking this practice), regional analysis is a critical component of geopolitics, economics and foreign policy, and Africa is no exception.
Today, there are two competing narratives of Africa in American media and policy circles. The good news is that neither of them involve images of starving children, bloody civil war or caricatures of despotic African leaders. Not that those problems no longer exist (Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe turned 89 last week, East Africa is in the midst of yet another drought and the security situation in DRC continues to deteriorate), but the urgency of two other major trends have very much come to the forefront over the past few years.
The first is of Africa as a safe haven for displaced jihadist terrorists bent on inflicting harm on Western countries like the U.S., France and Britain. While the recent U.S.-assisted French intervention in Mali, the Algerian hostage incident and the announcement that a new American drone base has opened up in Niger have brought this problem to the forefront, the militarization of American foreign policy in Africa has in fact been happening for years, largely under the Obama administration.
Africans have long been vocal opponents of an American policy increasingly based on counterterrorism. The fact that the U.S. military's Africa Command, or AFRICOM, remains based in Stuttgart, Germany is testament to this sentiment. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, was widely praised for his policy of "compassionate conservatism" across the continent (a highway in Ghana is even being named after the 44th president), but many Africa hands worry that drones and counterterrorism could over shadow many of the gains in health and development made under the Bush administration.
Still, the threats emerging from Africa today are real. Policymakers cannot ignore the fact that terrorism has most certainly been on the rise across the continent, with groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram and other emerging groups in Nigeria wreaking havoc and bullying local populations into living under Sharia law -- not to mention destroying ancient holy sites and repressing music and artistic expression. Piracy continues to plague shipping vessels off the coast of East Africa and more recently, in the oil producing Gulf of Guinea. More importantly for the U.S., militant groups have attacked Western interests in the region, kidnapped scores of tourists in North and West Africa and threatened to carry out acts of terror in European capitals. It's a regional problem that must be addressed.
The second Western narrative dominating coverage of Africa these days is the economic rise of the continent (see this week's edition of The Economist, "Aspiring Africa"), and fear that the U.S. is losing out to its biggest economic competitor, China, when it comes to doing business with Africa. Growth across the continent is expected to stay at close to 5 percent in 2013, despite a slowdown worldwide. Sectors beyond resource extraction, such as mobile communications, are growing at unprecedented rates. And by 2020, experts envision Africa as a major consumer market with 2 billion people spending roughly $1.4 trillion annually. As best-selling author Dambisa Moyo told me in an interview for an episode about China in Africa for Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS, "Africa is open for business."
Other global affairs experts I have spoken with in recent months agree. "Fifty percent of sub-Saharan Africa is living in cities, they are getting wealthier, they are getting more educated, women are getting more educated," said Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group. "These countries are moving toward better more transparent governments and along with that is more of an inclination to work with the advanced industrialized democracies and not just work with China. That's a very important and promising development."
Despite a long history of economic engagement in Africa under the Clinton and Bush administrations, surprising little has been to advance and encourage trade and investment opportunities for American companies in Africa. Rosa Whitaker, founder of the Whitaker Group and a former State Department official who was instrumental to the creation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) under President Clinton, says the U.S. can do better.
"I think we've done well with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has resulted in a significant increase in African exports to the United States," she said. "Since that Act, I think we've done, quite frankly, very little."
The question is, will the long-term opportunity to engage Africa more deeply in terms of trade and investment be trumped by security initiatives? The answer is likely yes. And that's not good for the U.S. or Africa.
"The area that I think the U.S. has to be very attentive to is too much attention to counter terrorism," said Ambassador David Shinn. "It's an important topic, it's one that has to be dealt with, but you can't let that run your policy."
So what should a comprehensive American policy toward Africa look like?
While the U.S. should continue to be concerned about the terrorist threat in Africa, it should back up its rhetoric with real partnerships on both a bilateral and regional level through the African Union. This includes firm support for capacity building, particularly in the security arena.
Speaking in Paris this week about the current situation in Mali, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that Western powers have no desire to "have a long-term presence" keeping the peace in hostile regions of Africa. "There has to be an African solution, ultimately. And our shared goal now should be for African and UN entities to step up so that France has the ability to be able to step back," he said.
One concrete step the U.S. could take is to supply additional funding to the fledgling African Standby Force, a Pan-African initiative that envisions five regional forces under the African Union that could respond quickly to crises like Mali. Funding shortfalls have prevented the program from coming to fruition. Secondly, the U.S. should use its leadership role in NATO, which has a working security relationship with the African Union, to better fund and stand up African security forces. The U.S. could also take a page from the Millennium Challenge Account model of awarding such partnerships to countries that embrace democratic institutions and transparency, a longtime goal of U.S. foreign policy in Africa.
On the economic side, the U.S. needs to stop fretting about China's head start and start taking advantage of new opportunities in Africa. Some of those very opportunities, ironically, stem from Chinese investment in infrastructure and the construction of ports across the continent.
According to Whitaker, the U.S. needs to do more to incentivize American companies to engage Africa. "What we really need to do, which would help Americans and Africa, is to incentivize U.S. companies to do more," she said. "If we were to say that U.S. companies could invest in sectors in Africa with a significant development dividend, that those companies would be able to repatriate their profits to the US, tax free. That would help a lot." Such incentives, along with new free trade agreements, would help the U.S. compete with state-controlled Chinese industries that invest heavily in Africa.
At present, there is little indication that U.S. Africa policy will evolve dramatically over the next few years as the Obama administration winds down the wars in the Greater Middle East, "pivots" to Asia and tries to address big ticket domestic issues like immigration reform. By not addressing the realities of the new Africa and its growing importance to the global economy, though, the U.S. risks alienating a whole generation of Africans who have long held the U.S. in high regard, not to mention missing out on the fruits of a mutually beneficial relationship based on strong economic and security partnerships.