On Friday, the official White House Twitter account posted a brief video featuring a message from President Joe Biden to the African Union. In the message he expresses support for the AU summit, and solidarity with the peoples of Africa in dealing with crises like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the one hand, the measured and inclusively mainstream tone of the message was comfortingly familiar. It made me miss Jennifer Lopez songs from the late 2000s. On the other hand, trying to imagine ex-President Trump delivering a similar message, it almost felt like I was watching sci-fi.
An interesting diplomatic contradiction is emerging at the moment. On the one hand we’re seeing a hardening of attitudes towards China across the aisle in Washington. This is echoed on the Chinese side. Both Washington and Beijing seem to think of each other as fundamentally different to itself, and their competition as a zero-sum one. At the same time, both sides see alliance-building as key tool in this conflict, which is leading to an emerging arms race in the language of global cooperation, inclusion and friendship.
The Trump era of blunt (if incoherent) talk is over for the moment. Instead, the Biden message seems to herald a moment where China and the United States (and other actors like Japan and various European countries) will all pursue wildly different agendas in places like Africa through rhetoric that will sound almost indistinguishable.
The challenge to Africa won’t only be to parse the rhetoric from the strategy. African actors will also have to find ways to get these ‘friends,’ ‘partners,’ ‘stakeholders’ – choose your poison – to put their money where their mouth is.
I foresee that the late-COVID era will be long on sweet talk and short on action in Africa. What the continent needs now is pragmatic, non-ideological participation from many stakeholders at once. African countries face so many overlapping crises that for them it could make sense to apply foreign assistance in a patchwork approach, pragmatically slotting different kinds of help into different problems without worrying about larger ideological or geostrategic narratives.
This of course runs directly opposite to the needs of these foreign partners, who all face their own COVID crunches at home. For them, any assistance to Africa must be weighed against distinct public diplomacy and geostrategic benchmarks.
What we’ve seen from the vaccine rollout is that while big powers put enormous value on how ‘their’ vaccine is faring compared to competitors’, many Global South governments are grabbing as many doses as they can from wherever they can. In many cases it’s less “Well, the Chinese have been very opaque in their testing…” and more “Whatever! Stick it in my arm!”
The reality, both in COVID and in development more generally, is that no single external partner will be enough. Africa will have to draw on all of them. The challenge is making them all play ball. An additional challenge will be that, as Africa uses the language of inclusivity and solidarity to ask for help, many of these partners will use the same language to refuse that help, or to limit it to narrow fields that pay off strategically.
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