So much has been written about President Barack Obama’s paternal roots to Kenya. In Kenya and all across the African continent, Obama’s victory was a momentous occasion that brought forth excitement, euphoria, and celebration. And because of Obama’s heritage, in Africa as well as the United States there was and remains a perception that U.S. policy toward the continent will be somehow unique or different than his predecessor’s. America’s foreign and defense policy priorities, however, reveal this perception about Obama’s Africa policy to be fanciful – more hope than reality.
“Common security” is the central theme of Obama’s foreign and defense policy. Through the use of “smart” diplomacy and other nonmilitary instruments of national power (like foreign assistance), it is believed that America will be made more safe and secure. Applying these concepts to the African continent, the United States will note its shared security concerns with Africa and consult with Africans more closely, perhaps even allocating more than the $5 billion in annual aid that former President George W. Bush’s administration allocated. The new administration may alter Bush’s PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and direct more funds for agricultural aid in Africa, but the bittersweet reality is that little will change in U.S. policy toward Africa under President Obama.
The list of foreign and defense priorities above Africa includes wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, not to mention the global jihad against the West led by Al Qaeda and its associated movements. To be sure, Obama’s national security team has capable and interested personnel who know Africa, such as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and National Security Advisor James Jones, who was former commander of U.S. European Command (which had most of Africa in its area of operations prior to the activation of U.S. Africa Command in 2008).
For the sake of global freedom and democracy, we may hope that Africa rises in order of priority. But how will smart diplomacy and foreign assistance solve conflicts as diverse as the on-going genocide in Sudan’s Darfur, an Islamic extremist-inspired insurgency in Somalia, and organized ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Change may be needed, indeed.