Traveling across Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken saw firsthand the limits of America’s influence abroad.
Blinken confronted growing threats from newly energized extremists and persistent challenges posed by COVID-19, all of which have stubbornly resisted various U.S. interventions.
And, nowhere on his three-nation tour last week — to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — was he able to escape obvious signs of the intense competition between the U.S. and China: a geopolitical power struggle that has been playing out largely in China’s favor for the past two decades, especially in Africa.
The limits of Washington’s reach have been evident for some time but have been highlighted in recent months as President Joe Biden has promoted an “America is back” narrative, intended to signal a U.S. return to the international arena and institutions that his predecessor had eschewed.
In Nairobi, much of the secretary’s visit and drives through the Kenyan capital took place in the shadow of or literally underneath a massive, Chinese-financed elevated expressway construction project.
In Abuja, Blinken’s motorcade from the airport passed the giant and unmissable headquarters building of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria, where a top official spoke only partially in jest of playing the U.S. and China off of each other and China’s attractiveness as a partner.
And, in Senegal, the capital, Dakar, was gearing up to host a major China-Africa trade and investment event less than 10 days after Blinken’s departure on Saturday.
While the Biden administration’s efforts to help African nations combat the coronavirus pandemic and encourage climate-friendly policies appear to be making some initial progress, the broader picture is less encouraging.
A new wave of authoritarianism has reversed some positive democratization trends despite very public U.S. appeals and protests that have been ignored or only partially heeded by leaders in Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere, who have appeared unconvinced or uninterested in the administration’s message.
“Governments are becoming less transparent,” Blinken said in the Nigerian capital on Friday. “We see this happening across Africa — leaders ignoring term limits, rigging or postponing elections, exploiting social grievances to gain and maintain power, arresting opposition figures, cracking down on the media, and allowing security services to enforce pandemic restrictions brutally.”
And, although Biden has spoken of returning Africa to a place of prominence in U.S. foreign policy, other priorities and urgent developments, including pressing matters in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, have often crowded it out in the administration’s first 10 months in office.
Apart from the attention it absorbed in Washington, the implications of the Afghan exit have left some of America’s friends, including in Africa, wondering about the resiliency of their relations with Washington. That has been a particular concern as China has swept in to fill a perceived void in U.S. interest in Africa and a preoccupation with other parts of the world.
That perception, fueled by the Trump administration’s indifference to Africa except through the prism of China’s rapidly expanding power, is something Biden and Blinken are hoping to change. For example, Blinken did not once mention China by name in what was billed as a major speech on Biden administration policy toward Africa that he delivered on Friday.
Yet China was never far from the top of the agenda.
“Our engagement in Africa, with Africa, is not about China or any other third party,” Blinken said in Nigeria. “It’s about Africa.”
“Our purpose is not to make our partners choose, it is to give them choices,” he said in Senegal. “And when people have choices, they usually make the right one.”
Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall, who will co-host the Nov. 29-30 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation with her Chinese counterpart, nodded approvingly at Blinken’s remark.
“We have a diplomacy of sovereignty from which we do not exclude anyone,” she said. “There is not only one choice. We have many choices.”