Tthere was only the way up. When Donald Trump was not denigrating “shitty countries”, his administration had little interest in Africa. During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s second visit to the continent, which ended in Rwanda on Thursday, he sought to continue to rebuild US relations, moving past not only Mr. Trump’s scorn, but also the previous tendency to lecture other governments on their real needs and best options. No one should dictate African choices, Blinken insisted. Washington would not treat democracy as “an area where Africa has problems and the United States has solutions,” but would recognize common challenges to be addressed as equals.
Such humility is welcome and necessary. The question is what such rhetoric means in practice. And although Mr. Blinken said the commitment to a stronger partnership was “not about trying to outdo others,” it is clearly rooted in Washington’s concerns about China’s growing influence and , more recently, Russia’s attempt to woo and build support, with last month’s four-country tour of its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Many African countries refuse to take sides in the war in Ukraine. The Gulf States are also playing an increasing role on the continent, particularly in the Horn of Africa. Beyond security interests and competition for mineral resources, there are the opportunities offered by demography: by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa.
There is no shortage of skepticism on the continent about Russian and, above all, Chinese involvement. But that does not equate to sharing US perceptions or priorities. Most Africans still welcome the role of China. He quickly built much of the useful infrastructure. American aid, although substantial and sometimes very effective, has barely proven beyond reproach. When Covid-19 hit, the West hoarded vaccines and left Africa hanging. As the United States stresses the need to address the climate crisis and preserve pristine rainforest and peatlands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all Mr. Blinken offered during his visit was a work group.
Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, was incisive in a joint appearance. While she said the United States had not asked South Africa to choose, she spoke of a “patronizing sense of intimidation” from some partners in Europe and elsewhere. She highlighted the Russian mercenary group Wagner alongside wider concerns about countries whose thirst for minerals has proven destabilizing. She noted the uneven application of international law.
As Mr. Blinken observed, polls show that Africans want democracy. America’s reserves of soft power are dwindling but persisting. In a speech at the University of Pretoria, the secretary of state sought to move beyond the political elites courted by China and their peoples, more than half of whom will be 25 or younger within a few years. They may not remember Soviet and Chinese support for liberation movements, nor American support for right-wing authoritarianism, as their elders do. But they too can see the inconsistencies.
US concern for democratic standards has not deterred support for Paul Kagame, although Mr Blinken said he raised human rights concerns during his meeting with the president Rwandan. Washington does not place the same importance on democracy when it visits the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia as when it addresses Africa. Mr. Blinken’s speech this time was both astute and appropriate. But Africans across the continent and at all levels of society will look to the United States for deeds as well as words.