America’s top diplomat sees limits of US influence in Africa
Traveling across Africa this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly witnessed the limits of America’s influence abroad, according to a report on Monday by the Associated Press.
During his three-nation tour last week — to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — the top U.S. diplomat was unable to escape obvious signs of the intense competition between the U.S. and China, the AP report said.
The geopolitical power struggle between Washington and Beijing has been playing out largely in China’s favor for the past two decades, especially in Africa.
Before leaving the continent at his last stop in Senegal, Blinken said he had been well received by all three leaders he met. But, he allowed that “we have to be judged on what we do, not simply on what I say.”
The decline of Washington's influence has 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 for the U.S.
In Ethiopia, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, was rebuffed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in calls for an end to a blockade of the northern Tigray region, home to rebels who are now advancing on the capital.
On Friday, the White House announced that Biden would convene a U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit next year “to strengthen ties with African partners based on principles of mutual respect and shared interests and values.” But the announcement was short on key details such as who would be attending and when it would occur.
And, it came as Blinken reached Senegal, the third and final stop on his first official trip to sub-Saharan Africa, which had been postponed from August, in a telling sign of priorities, during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
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. As Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama pointed out, his country and others want the best deals they can get, and often that means looking to China.
“We saw a great opportunity with the Chinese,” he said of several major infrastructure projects now underway in Nigeria. “I mean, they’re used to a lot of these huge capital projects and infrastructure projects. We would have gone with anybody else that was providing something at a competitive rate for us, but in many areas they were.