Amongst Roosevelt’s list of condescending insults, “that large class of men whose intentions are excellent, but whose intellects are foggy,” is easily extendable to the US foreign policy elite in Africa. After its entanglements with Jonas Savimbi in Angola and Mobuto Sese Seko in Congo, I can hardly conceive of a Rooseveltian resurrection not to equate the verbal abuse of the State Department. Hence, the need for structural reforms of US foreign policy in Africa.
China’s well-documented growing influence in the continent evinces the need for change. Djibouti, where both the US and China have military bases, is just one of many examples of overleveraged African countries—their debt-to-GDP ratio is above 100% — with China as the main debt holder, in this case it is over 70%. This is a pressing concern. Alas, the status quo will “remain the mess we are in” if the US continues to practice their defective combination of Machiavellian and naïve diplomacy.
First, the US needs to understand that the cynicism they encounter in Africa is of their own creation. Persistent policy failures, whether in Angola or Congo brought us here. If anything, African states’ refusal to vote “the right way” in the UN General Assembly when the Ukrainian issue arose indicates their growing resolve to no longer be treated as pawns but equal partners.
Secondly, the US must embed this understanding in their foreign policy activities in the continent by embracing bottom-up community initiatives that will raise the standard of living in Africa. Thus, equipping African communities with the skills and resources to carry out democratic reforms by themselves versus top-down initiatives carried out by crooked incompetent regimes that will not change anytime soon.
On the entrepreneurial front, the US can increase the number of accelerators & incubators in African countries with vibrant startup activities like those in Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa; and increase the number of scholarships offered to students in less mature African economies like Mozambique and Sierra Leone to pursue agrarian and industrial studies in the US that will be conditioned to return upon graduation and assisted by start-up funds for graduates to readily support their communities as soon as they return home.
On the humanitarian front, the UN Civil Affairs (CA) forces may offer a blueprint to the state department. In El Salvador, the CA is doing more than merely donating sacks of grain—I acknowledge that USAID does a lot more than that, but that is the impression that haunts them. There, the CA has built schools and a clinic, while also offering critical medical treatment to thousands of civilians. The CA’s engagement with the community and governmental agencies accompanied by concrete legacies moved Salvadorians to extend trust to the US military in ways that Africans no longer do.
On the trade front, the United States can restructure its economic partnership with African countries to expand the range of exports to the US beyond natural resources. For example, it can invite technological startups to leverage low labor costs in Africa as OpenAI attempted by outsourcing the labeling of hate speech for Chat-GPT to Kenyan workers. Contrary to OpenAI’s attempt, nonetheless, these startups should offer more robust psychological support to similarly sensitive work and competitive hourly wages.
Finally, the US must do away with excessive big-stick diplomacy in Africa. While the responsibility to protect was a legitimate casus belli for US intervention in Libya, it was poorly orchestrated and left a legacy of destruction in untold proportions. Even worse, most of the African community is convinced that the US did it for resources, for regime change, and neither for the rights nor lives of Libyans.
At any rate, the historian, Edmund Morris, pointed out that the night one of my favorite presidents borrowed some words from West Africa, his message was misconstrued. Roosevelt meant to be cautionary, not aggressive. He meant to accentuate “that soft-spoken (even secret) diplomacy should be the priority of a civilization, as long as hardness — of moral resolve, of military might — lay back of it.”
Heed my advice and avoid Rooseveltian rebuke.
Milton de Castro is the first Mozambican alumnus and Chancellor Scholar of Texas Christian University. He is now set to join Bain & Company’s Austin office as an Associate Consultant. With valuable political experience under his belt, Milton has worked for Congresswoman Granger in the United States House of Representatives and contributed to State Senator Marilyn Moore’s mayoral campaign in Bridgeport, CT. As the founder of Fundação Renascer, which focuses on promoting academic progress in rural areas of Mozambique, Milton has been recognized for his efforts and admitted as a fellow to the Clinton Global Initiative’s 2023 cohort. His active interest in global development and American political affairs is not only reflected in his professional endeavors but in his writing.