Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's tour portrayed Washington's official strategy as more benevolent than it actually is
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin embarked on a tour of Africa this week, marking the first such visit by a Pentagon chief since 2020, when Mark Esper visited Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. In contrast to that occasion, when no attention was paid to Sub-Saharan Africa, Austin's trip was intended to reaffirm the Biden administration's posture that the US is "all in for Africa."
While Africa is still marginal on America's foreign policy agenda, Washington is persisting with its efforts to cultivate closer ties on the continent. Evidently, the US is cognizant of Russia's recent inroads in the region, as well as China's high visibility in most African nations. To counter what the US perceives as "harmful activities," Washington has recently recalibrated its behavior.
A coordinated charm offensive
Austin's visits to Djibouti, Kenya, and Angola built on other trips to Africa by high-ranking American officials. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was first to embark on a visit in January, traveling to Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa. US First Lady Jill Biden soon followed suit, touring Namibia and Kenya in late February. That was followed in March by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's negotiations in Ethiopia and his visit to Niger, marking the first ever trip to the country by Washington's top diplomat. In August, Blinken went to South Africa, DR Congo, and Rwanda. Elsewhere, Vice President Kamala Harris had already kicked off a 'charm offensive' of her own by heading to Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia in March. In addition, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was also dispatched to Africa, where she visited Ghana, Mozambique, and Kenya earlier this year. Throughout the summer, rumors persisted that arrangements were being made for a long-pending visit by Joe Biden himself. All this suggests that Austin's trip should be viewed in the context of America's broader reengagement with Africa amid mounting competition for influence in the region.
Making a show of friendship and kinship
The US defense chief opened his three-country tour with the small nation of Djibouti, known for hosting a dense network of foreign military bases at the mouth of the Red Sea, including Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US military base in Africa. Since 2002, the facility has attested to the "strategic partnership linking the two countries in the critical field of defense and security," which Austin discussed with Djibouti's leader, President Ismail Omar Guelleh. The two nations are reportedly considering an expansion of the base's mandate beyond "a tandem stationed at the forefront... to fight terrorism, extremism of all kinds, and maritime piracy."
Discussions continued in a similar vein in Kenya, where Austin thanked his counterpart, Aden Duale, "for hosting US forces at Manda Bay." Defense cooperation between the two countries was soon reinforced by a new five-year agreement, charting the path toward upscaling Kenya's leadership in providing security in its own subregion and far beyond, most notably in Haiti, where the country is poised to lead a Multinational Security Mission. The accord provides for comprehensive training as well as financial and technical assistance to Kenya, which makes it a privileged partner among the few African nations that have signed Defense Cooperation Agreements with the US. These include Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana. Despite flowery rhetoric, there have always been concerns in these countries as to the true benefit of such arrangements. In Ghana, for instance, former President Jerry Rawlings was joined in 2018 by former Chief of Defense Staff Joseph Nunoo-Mensah in arguing that the agreement, similar to the one signed in Kenya, fails to reflect Ghana's national interests. Specifically, they claimed that the US sought to compensate for the absence in Africa of AFRICOM's headquarters, which are now located at Germany's Ramstein Air Base, with the deal providing Washington with an opportunity "to use the country as a staging post and permanent ground for its military operations across the African continent."
But there was obviously more behind Austin's trip. In Djibouti, for example, he unveiled America's new strategic mantra for Africa: "Defense, diplomacy, and development." The rebranded approach should cement the US as 'a partner of choice' for African countries, preferably as the antithesis to China and Russia. In stark contrast to the language of the US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, presented in August 2022, the Pentagon chief repeatedly noted: "We don't ask countries to choose between us and other countries," mostly referring to the Chinese base in Djibouti. It was as if he had finally heard Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying that Moscow never drags Africans into taking sides, instead offering a balanced approach for mutual interest. This time, the US official seemed to echo this long-standing tenet of Russian diplomacy - but does Washington really mean it?
The final leg of the tour, in Angola, was much more political. In essence, security cooperation with the Southern African nation, now touted as "a highly-valued partner" and "a rising leader in the region," was sidelined by the speech Austin delivered at the Historical Archive of Luanda. In his remarks, the US official touched on the broader aspects of American involvement in Africa, such as conflict prevention, female empowerment, cybersecurity, the fight against infectious diseases, and climate change.
This was a programmatic address, or even a vision, on "a partnership of principle and progress," clearly directed at an audience larger than the ministers and ambassadors in attendance. Indeed, Austin was a perfect fit for such a speech, attempting to build bridges and heal deep-rooted wounds amid the rising rhetoric of anti-neocolonialism across the continent. "I grew up in a time of legalized and racist segregation in America, and I stand here today in Africa as America's first black secretary of defense," said the official. His leading idea was that "Africa matters" for common prosperity and shared security, with the US being serious about its engagement. Indeed, Washington's policy for Africa has largely been an 'on and off' endeavor, with interest in the continent sparking just as quickly as it waned. For Africa, other partners, even if more limited in their capabilities, were simply more reliable.
Not content to be first among equals
A prominent feature of America's positioning in the world, much as in Africa, is how Washington promotes itself as being different from other potential partners. This time, too, the secretary of defense promised that the US sees "African nations as partners," while other countries may see them "as proxies or even pawns." Stating that "the people of Africa deserve to chart their own sovereign paths," Austin made reference to "autocrats undermining free and fair elections and blocking peaceful transitions of power." Democracy is an attendant issue for the US in Africa. The official strategy offers a more assertive approach than the one presented by Washington's defense chief. In fact, the strategy deems it impossible to counter "harmful activities of external forces" - a blatant reference to Russia and China - without concomitant changes in African countries. This reveals a certain discrepancy in America's approach to the region. On the one hand, no one should interfere in the internal affairs of African nations; on the other hand, it is notably the US that "offers choices to Africans as they determine their own future, limit openings for negative state and non-state actors." For that, "the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers" needs to be stemmed or even reversed, and the strategy employs the carrot and the stick for that purpose. In the official 2022 strategy document, this reads as "a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions."
This leaves Africans with mixed feelings. Being serious about reengagement, the US still bets on its exclusivity, rather than a willingness to be a partner among many.