Foreign Policy Blogs

Will They “Sell” U.S engagement with Africa Tonight?

Will They "Sell" U.S engagement with Africa Tonight?

Photo Credit:AP

In advance of tonight’s presidential foreign policy debate, U.S. policy towards Africa should be an important question the candidates are considering. It’s an issue the candidates and their teams have undoubtedly thought about and already answered for themselves.

But I’ll be (pleasantly) surprised if either of the candidates gives U.S. engagement in Africa much attention. I suspect most of the airtime for Africa will focus on one country located way up in the North.

But whether they speak to pan-African issues and, if so, how they do it, will likely depend on whether they believe they can “sell” the American people on long-term consequences.

Marketing guru Seth Godin recently penned a blog entry entitled “truth or consequences,” in which he posits that trying to sell the long term to short-term focused audiences is insanely difficult. “If you are selling tomorrow,” cautions Godin, “be very careful not to pitch people who are only interested in buying things that are about today. It’s virtually impossible to sell financial planning or safety or the long-term impacts of the environment to a consumer or a voter who is relentlessly focused on what might be fun right now.”

Most people think the American electorate is only “today” focused. So, when it comes to Africa, some of the really important issues (ones that don’t involve a recent attack on an American embassy) are unlikely to get much play. There are many good foreign policy reasons for the U.S. to be engaged with Africa. But most of them have more to do with tomorrow than today. For example:

  • Many Americans associate Africa with extreme poverty. But while extreme poverty is still a real and present challenge for the continent, over the past decade six of the world’s ten fastest-growing countries were African. In the future, will they look to the U.S. or elsewhere for new trade and investment?
  • Safety and security? The African continent is making great strides in this area. There are many functioning, democratic states with close ties to the U.S.  There are also failed states that threaten the stability of the region and the rest of the world. Which direction will the continent as a whole take?
  • And finally, I know I’m going to sound like an NGO worker when I say this (I am) but caring about others, apart from the economic or security pay-off, makes us better versions of ourselves. It gives America a role beyond global cop, and Africa, for all its rich promise, still faces some significant humanitarian challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead.

I won’t be surprise if these issues don’t get mentioned tonight, but I don’t think that means the candidates aren’t thinking about Africa. I  think it means they don’t believe they can call sell it to the American people.

What messages do you think could work when it comes to foreign policy issues with largely long-term consequences?




Krista Zimmerman

Krista Zimmerman works for a non-governmental organization as its senior advisor on international development assistance and food security policy. She has worked as the deputy director for a rule of law advocacy project in Karnataka, India and as a business services attorney for a leading multinational law firm. Krista grew up in the Philippines and has traveled extensively throughout Asia and Africa. In her free time, she enjoys experimental cooking, canning and blogging. She has a BA in History from Goshen College and a Juris Doctor from the University of Notre Dame Law School.