“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
In a speech outlining the Biden administration’s sub-Saharan Africa strategy this past August, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States will engage with the region as equal partners to tackle shared challenges. It’s a strategy that “focuses on what we will do with African nations and peoples, not for African nations and peoples.”
It’s a great strategy on paper. Yet, years of underfunding and political dysfunction have left the United States without the diplomatic muscle to carry it out. The United States is missing ambassadors in ten African nations. For example, there is no ambassador in Ethiopia, a nation reeling from civil war and an ongoing humanitarian crisis, or Rwanda, an increasingly important security partner. Rank-and-file vacancies in embassies across the continent hamstring US foreign policy further. Even worse, a Government Accountability Office report found that 34% of overseas African posts were filled by officers who did not meet the language proficiency requirement of the US foreign service.
CLOSING THE GAPS
In recent congressional testimony discussing the administration’s new Africa Strategy, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee acknowledged that staffing and funding deficits at the Department of State will make it more challenging for the Africa Bureau to meet its ambitious goals under the new Africa Strategy. These gaps in diplomacy undermine US policies and interests and ensure everyday Africans go unheard and unengaged in problem-solving.
Intelligence and military failures associated with recent US efforts to defeat Boko Haram in the region highlight the limits of US security assistance without the bilateral trust and mutual understanding that comes with strong diplomatic cooperation.
Closing these gaps is important for three reasons. First, Africa and its young, rapidly growing population are transforming the continent’s economies. The United States and Africa benefit from cooperation in areas like financial technology, e-commerce, and infrastructure. US diplomats are the eyes and ears on the ground informing US efforts to foster commercial ties, such as Prosper Africa and the US African Development Foundation — two US government initiatives working to increase trade and investment between the United States and African nations. The Department of State should increase cooperation with the Department of Commerce to deploy more Foreign Commercial Officers in the field and strengthen its Embassy Deal Teams initiative, which focuses on helping US companies do business in African markets. Doing so could help unlock Africa’s economic potential as it rolls out the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Second, American diplomacy positions the United States to respond better to security challenges. For example, the 1994 closing of the US consulate in Kaduna, Nigeria, withdrew US diplomatic presence in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group, operating in the region, has wreaked havoc on Nigerian security in the years since. Alternatively, a sustained diplomatic presence would have potentially fostered more dialogue and a deeper understanding of local history, cultures, and contexts. In addition, it would have better informed US conflict prevention efforts to date.
Intelligence and military failures associated with recent US efforts to defeat Boko Haram in the region highlight the limits of US security assistance without the bilateral trust and mutual understanding that comes with strong diplomatic cooperation. Increased threats of political violence ahead of Nigeria’s 2023 election, rising ethnic tensions between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a fragile peace deal in Ethiopia all make a renewed focus on US diplomacy as a tool of conflict prevention particularly timely.
Third, stronger US diplomacy in Africa is needed to out-compete China and Russia globally. Through regular high-level visits and its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing is using diplomacy to foster stronger economic and security ties to the continent. Despite the predatory framing through which the West often views China’s role in Africa, many African governments welcome this engagement. On the other hand, Russia has Cold War-era relationships with African governments that make it easier to deploy mercenaries like the Wagner Group under the façade of security assistance. Not only do China and Russia undermine US interests in Africa, but they also bolster their influence at the UN and other international organizations with African support. If the United States is serious about countering Russian and Chinese efforts to shift geopolitics in their favor, revitalizing US diplomacy in Africa is critical.
PROVIDING US FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICERS WITH THE RIGHT TOOLS
Simply put: An equal US-African partnership — as well as mutual security and prosperity — must start with the US engaging African nations more comprehensively, consistently, and inclusively. In addition to confirming US ambassadors to fill vacant posts, the US government needs to expand its recruitment and retention of Civilian and Foreign Service Officers working in Africa.
Legislation like the State Department Authorization Act, signed into law last year for the first time in nearly two decades, expands pipeline opportunities for students eager to pursue diplomatic careers. In addition, it encourages new language training and professional development opportunities for American diplomats. It also revitalizes our public diplomacy tools to ensure we are better engaging target audiences. Legislation reauthorizing these programs is working its way through Congress again this year. While this is a promising step toward ensuring US diplomacy is equipped to address today’s global challenges, additional measures to recruit, retain, and train our diplomatic corps with a specific emphasis on engaging African nations are necessary.
Some may argue that with limited State Department resources and massive global challenges like Russia’s war in Ukraine, increasing diplomacy in Africa should not be a top US priority. However, in his speech, Blinken aptly highlighted how this thinking is misguided. “Sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force, one that shaped our past is shaping our present, and will shape our future,” he said.
The US-Africa Leaders’ Summit is an important moment for the US to mobilize this rhetoric into action. Filling our diplomatic gaps from the bottom up would signal to some of the world’s most populous and diverse nations that we are listening and are serious about incorporating their perspectives and agency into addressing our challenges and seizing this opportunity. Moreover, a renewed US-Africa partnership rooted in diplomacy will advance our mutual understanding and shared interests in prosperity and peace. Never has an investment in diplomacy been more worthwhile.
Josh Schroeder is a current master’s student at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he studies conflict resolution with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. He is also a Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network member and serves in its Africa and Diplomacy working groups.