Having not mentioned Africa in any of the debates, or in any campaign speeches, President Obama made a big point (albeit indirectly) to American voters that the sub-Saharan region is rarely, if ever, on his capacious mind. In gaining re-election, might Obama bring African issues to the fore?
Not likely, given the urgent domenstic fiscal and economic issues bearing down on his second term. But the insular focus on the American homeland should not alter the established trajectory in U.S.-Africa relations. The trajectory clearly suits Obama’s wider personal preference for African self-reliance and also reflects the reality that in many ways Obama’s own African roots are not especially relevant to the defining issues in U.S.-Africa relations.
In only one sense are these issues shaped by culture and identity, and that is in the potential role for recent African immigrants to the U.S. — many already naturalized and politically active — in promoting new directions in relations between their region of origin and the U.S. To be sure, Obama’s own job as Commander-in-Chief insures that some kind of “inherited” African perspective is always present at the highest levels of the American government. More broadly, the expanding set of human relationships, linking Africans and Americans, and building on their legacy of the rich engagement of African-Americans with Africa, remains a source of profound surprise.
More predictable certainly are a set of well-established concerns that define U.S.-Africa relations under Obama. Far from redefining or revolutionizing this relationship, as president, Barack Obama did much to continue and carry on the forms of engagement initiated by Presidents Clinton and Bush. Indeed, the roots of every major aspect of U.S-Africa relations in the Obama era were laid during the two-term Bush presidency.
Under Bush, humanitarian concerns dominated; the most dramatic evidence came in the expensive pledge by American taxpayers to fund ARV treatment for Africans with HIV-AIDS. Enormously generous and effective in providing life-saving treatment for millions of ordinary Africans, the partnership on ARVs, launched by Bush, was renewed by Obama. While humanitarianism (to paraphrase a prescient book on the subject by the Council on Foreign Relations) is not enough to build a durable relationship of mutual benefit between the sub-Saharan and the U.S., the impulse to help — and the help itself — remains central to official policies.
“Humanitarianism-plus” might accurately describe the U.S. posture except that the movement on the ground suggests far greater complexity in U.S.-Africa relations and emerging set of self-interested security reasons for U.S. engagement and for a “mutual benefit” partnership with African governments.