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AFRICOM and US-African Relations

AFRICOM and US-African Relations

What is the United States interest in Africa? What do African leaders and the people they are supposed to serve want from American engagement in their continent and in their countries? If we have a Venn diagram where the answers to these two questions exist as circles, where is the overlap between them that represents shared interests?

The US Africa Command (AFRICOM), established under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama has represented an example of increased American engagement across Africa that raises this question of whether American intentions, and especially American intentions that manifest through military means, are on the whole a net positive or negative for the people on the continent. Of course from an American realpolitik vantage point African interests may be secondary, but where that is the case realpolitik is at minimum problematic.

Despite some pretty clear successes (in Mali, in Somalia) US military forces are quite literally facing economic decimation as a result of sequestration cuts (and therefore Africa is by no means being targeted in these across-the-board reductions.) It is unclear that this will necessarily have deleterious on-the-ground effects (much of the cutting, for example, comes from reductions at the AFRICOM base in Stuttgart, Germany) although it is certainly likely that in the long term cuts will have consequences.

At the Los Angeles Times Andrew Bacevich questions whether a predominantly military approach to Africa is sage to begin with. His concerns are reasonable, although I would argue that military considerations should play into a multi-pronged attempt to develop a coherent holistic policy toward the countries on the continent. It is also worth noting that while an Africa policy is important, even more important is the understanding that there must be multiple Africa policies. Sometimes these policies should be geared regionally (utilizing existing regional bodies such as ECOWAS and SADC) and always with an understanding that even in such regional bodies there can be significant differences and that therefore that nation-level policies are crucial. Beyond that, the voices of Africans need to be front-and-center.

We are not there yet. There is little evidence that the United States has developed much more than cursory and piecemeal policies toward the region. This has been the case for virtually the entirety of the history of American engagement with the continent, so it may well be futile to imagine change coming any time soon.





Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid