President Donald Trump of the United States has never been known for his attention to the African continent, with the exception of unfortunate negative remarks that reverberate around the world. With the 2020 U.S. presidential race taking off, though, other candidates are starting to address the importance of Africa in the global future and the need for thoughtful U.S. foreign policy on Africa.
Democrat Pete Buttigieg delivered his first such speech Tuesday and put the continent in the spotlight. He located it squarely within a framework of repairing U.S. relationships across the globe damaged by current U.S. policies, and restoring the values and integrity on which the U.S. must ground and guard its reputation in the future.
“On the African continent the winds of change are sweeping aside old regimes and certitudes,” said the 37-year-old politician, who would be the youngest U.S. president if he were to be elected. “In Algeria a new generation has risen up against a sclerotic government. In Sudan women have led revolt against a criminal one, and in Ethiopia we have seen what it looks like when hope triumphs over hostility.”
By 2025 nearly one fifth of the world’s population will live in the nations of a rising Africa, 60 percent of whose people are now under the age of 25, he added.
“That continent now boasts some of the fastest growing economies in the world, which have lifted millions out of poverty and into the global marketplace. And as African peoples demand greater accountability and transparency from their leaders, the United States must stand ready to put our values into action, to promote empowerment alongside economic engagement,” Buttigieg said.
In contrast, Trump spoke for 35 minutes at the United Nations General Assembly last September and never once mentioned Africa, its nations or its interests. Trump rarely speaks directly about the continent and, from political appointments to funding to foreign policy decisions, hasn’t made Africa a priority.
Buttigieg, the mayor of a city in the U.S. state of Indiana, has emerged as an unlikely but qualified top-tier candidate for the nomination. Among other achievements with a foreign affairs focus, he has studied Arabic in Tunisia, served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories. A Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and holds a bachelor’s degree in History and Literature from Harvard University.
His talk comes ahead of the first round of candidate debates for the Democratic Party later this month. There are 20 candidates expected to participate after meeting requirements based on polling results and campaign fundraising. They include former U.S. vice president Joe Biden, a current front-runner who served two terms with former President Barack Obama, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, who ran for a nomination in 2016 that ultimately went to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and wife of former President Bill Clinton.
Biden’s eight years in the Obama administration and previous tenure as a U.S. senator led to many trips to the African continent, including visits to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. Hillary Clinton also traveled extensively in Africa, making stops in seven nations during a 2012 mission to promote U.S. partnerships as opposed to those pursued by China.
Concerns over Chinese influence have only escalated since then, with the Trump administration engaging in a trade war with Beijing, encouraging allies in its rejection of Huawei and repeatedly warning that China’s interests on the African continent are malign. Biden gave his own address on Tuesday, a few hours after Buttigieg, and made China a priority when it comes to trade and tariffs hurting American workers who were promised better from Trump.
For his part, Buttigieg recognizes legitimate challenges on China, from its techno-authoritarianism and human rights violations, to intellectual property protections to security in the South China Sea. On the other hand, Buttigieg thinks it important to work with the Chinese on climate change, counterterrorism and other issues shared by the broader international community.
“We will not be able to meet this challenge by sticking to a 20th-century strategy,” he said, indirectly speaking of Trump’s approach. “Nor will it suffice to reduce the China relationship to a tit-for-tat trade fight as if all that matters is the export-import balance on dishwashers.”
Perhaps the greatest insight on China and the U.S. struggle for global influence, so clearly seen in African affairs, was Buttigieg’s warning that the U.S. cannot expect its global leadership to be perceived as legitimate if Americans cannot manage their own human rights, infrastructure investment, health care and domestic security issues.
“The idea that the American way is superior will be difficult to authenticate as long as our federal government is liable to shut down over policy disagreements, as long as Congress can’t deliver even on items of consensus among the American people,” the candidate said. “We will not be very convincing if the world sees China invest more in infrastructure abroad than we are prepared to invest here at home.”
As for climate change, Buttigieg makes it a priority and consistently notes that his generation, and those who come after, will live with the consequences of the decisions made today and the lost opportunities of yesterday. He vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement left behind by the Trump administration if elected, as a first step in reasserting U.S. leadership on meeting global climate challenges.
The complete Buttigieg address is available at this link.
Image: Buttigieg campaign