monga9_JEWEL SAMADAFP via Getty Images_biden africa JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

An Africa Roadmap for Biden

For years, the US-Africa relationship has fallen short of what it could be, owing to misaligned priorities and a mix of neglect and contempt on the part of the United States. But the door is open for the US to improve its engagement with the continent; President Joe Biden's administration need only walk through it.

CAMBRIDGE – In recent decades, the US-Africa relationship has disappointed both sides. Republican and Democratic US presidents alike have treated the continent with benign neglect, if not with outright contempt, and the United States has duly fallen behind China, India, and France in terms of overall trade with Africa.

Although Barack Obama, America’s first black president, launched a modest “Power Africa” initiative, his four trips there are mostly remembered for his lectures on “good governance.” And this from an administration that turned a blind eye to autocrats in countries hosting US military bases, and then joined forces with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a misguided and costly military intervention in Libya. The consequences for the Sahel and beyond have been catastrophic.

Then came Donald Trump, who did not even consider Africa a destination worth visiting. His racist insults about the continent (“shithole countries”) confirmed his disdain, and will not soon be forgotten or forgiven. True, Trump’s administration did acknowledge that lasting stability, prosperity, independence, and security in Africa are in America’s national interest. But his pledges to advance trade and commercial ties, and to counter Islamic terrorism, did not materialize. Instead, the administration weaponized trade policy by suspending duty-free status for some African exports under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, in retaliation against Rwanda for its efforts to protect its garment industry.