Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Qassem Soleimani. War with Iran. The Afghan papers.
These are some of the more important topics that have been trending in defense and foreign policy news. Russia and China, conversely, have been conspicuous in their absence.
But, arguably, these two countries are the most important long-term threats to U.S. national security. And their strategy, when it comes to Africa, has largely been sidelined by the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
What do Russia and China offer to autocratic African regimes? Arms and money. What does the U.S. offer? Democratic values, high-speed Special Operations trainers, and the occasional loan or grant, which, however, comes with a hefty and unenviable package — to the regimes — of domestic reforms (human rights, rule of law, democratization, etc.). Although the American option is the moral one, the foreign policy chessboard is brimming with immoral players.
U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), however, seems to have developed a new strategy to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the African continent. This strategy is based on building and enhancing partnerships with African nations, thereby making America the go-to choice of a foreign friend on the continent.
“I think the most important part of our approach is, it’s about relationships, it’s not about access to a resource or to a mineral, or to sales of U.S. equipment,” said U.S. Army Major General William Gayler, the director of operations for AFRICOM. “I think the relationships we build will have a far-lasting impact.”
Yet foreign policy doesn’t work in a void. You can’t — twice — abandon the Kurds and hope no other current or future partner notices it. Allies and partners aren’t fools. They can see that American foreign policy lacks foresight and tends to wander like a master-less ship.
To be sure, on the tactical and operational levels, human relations go a long way. But when it comes to national strategy, African autocratic regimes are bound to pick the easiest of the two options.
U.S. efforts in Africa primarily focus on combating terrorism (for example, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda) and supporting democratic institutions.
The political instability and perpetual conflicts in numerous parts of Africa offer ripe ground for Russia and China to exploit. The former focuses more on providing military support through mercenary groups (for example, Wagner) and arms sales; the latter focuses more on infrastructural projects and bankrolling African regimes with loans.
Despite their diverging approaches, Russia and China share a common objective: to secure as many natural resources as possible (that is, minerals, oil, natural gas, etc.). China, however, has an additional objective that adumbrates its superpower aspirations. Through its loans and infrastructural initiatives, Beijing aims to solicit the support of African countries on the international stage.