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Great-Power Competition Is Coming to Africa

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Under President Donald Trump, the United States withdrew troops and resources from Africa as part of a broader national security shift from counterterrorism to great-power competition. The Trump administration used the euphemism “optimization” to describe the pivot away from Africa that began around 2018, but a more accurate term would be disengagement. It pared back efforts to fight jihadis in Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, downsizing the U.S. military footprint in some of the continent’s most volatile regions. And in the final months of Trump’s presidency, his administration withdrew nearly all U.S. troops from Somalia.

The shift in U.S. strategy toward Africa reflects an assumption—shared by many in Washington—that counterterrorism and other long-standing U.S. priorities in Africa will diminish in importance as competition between the United States, China, and other significant powers intensifies. But that assumption is wrong. In fact, far from being a distraction from great-power competition, Africa promises to become one of its important theaters. And if anything, great-power competition will increase the need for the United States to battle terrorists and safeguard democracy, trade, and free enterprise in Africa—but to do so with particular attention to limiting the malign influence of Russia and China.

President Joe Biden’s administration needs a new strategy that pursues these ends together, sustainably, and at an acceptable cost. For as long as the United States has had an Africa policy, it has run day-to-day operations through its ambassadors, tailoring its approach to each of the continent’s 54 countries individually. But today’s most pressing issues—terrorism, climate change, pandemics, and irregular migration, for instance—would be better served by regional coordinators whose authority transcends national borders. To safeguard its interests on the continent and to limit the influence of its rivals, the United States must start thinking regionally instead of nationally.

Devising such a policy is a matter of some urgency. As current and former military officers, one of whom led the U.S. Special Operations Command for Africa from 2017 to 2019, we believe that the United States must position itself as the partner of choice for African countries in the era of great-power competition. Failure to do so will imperil U.S. interests on the continent—and possibly U.S. security at home.

Like it or not, a twenty-first century “scramble for Africa” is underway. Russia and China in particular are ramping up economic and military activity on the continent at the same time as the United States is scaling back. Both countries see opportunities to build economic relationships, secure access to natural resources and rapidly growing markets, forge political alliances, and promote their own illiberal models of government.

Russia has dramatically expanded its footprint in Africa in recent years, signing military deals with at least 19 countries since 2014 and becoming the top arms supplier to the continent. Just days after the United States announced its plans to withdraw from Somalia in December 2020, Russia said it had reached an agreement to establish a new naval base in Port Sudan. Its mercenary companies, including the Wagner Group, which fought a deadly firefight against U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria in 2018, now operate across the continent, from Libya to the Central African Republic to Mozambique.

China, too, is angling for influence in Africa. It established its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017 and spends vast sums on infrastructure projects to secure access to resources and to buy goodwill and votes in international........

© Foreign Affairs

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