Our Stake in Africa

Our Stake in Africa


By Mora McLean


Washington Post- Sunday , August 27, 2000 ;


President Clinton's visit to Nigeria and Tanzania this week raises again the question of what stake the United States has in

Africa. By any measure, the Clinton administration has devoted unprecedented high-level attention to Africa; this is the president's second visit to the continent since 1998, and no fewer than seven Cabinet officials have ventured there, including the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, treasury and transportation.


Critics, including many in the foreign policy establishment, have characterized this special focus on Africa, variously as a sop to African Americans, dangerous dabbling in international "social policy" or an irresponsible diversion from more important strategic interests.


The implication is that the United States does not have much at stake in Africa, that what happens there might tug at our heartstrings but ultimately does not affect the security or prosperity of the average American.


Let's examine this premise, starting with economics.


Is a stable source of foreign oil important to the United States? When the United States marshaled its military forces during

Desert Storm, no one doubted that a major motivating factor was the impact of Iraqi aggression on world oil supplies. Well, here's a little-known fact: The United States imports as much oil from Africa as from the entire Persian Gulf, and U.S. energy imports from Africa are expected to increase substantially over the next decade.


African countries also comprise one of the last great untapped markets for American trade and investment. While U.S. trade with Africa is small compared with that with Europe and Asia, it is greater than U.S. trade with the former Soviet Union and is directly linked to many thousands of American jobs. Africa boasts some of the highest economic growth rates in the world, and U.S. businesses are beginning to discover that African countries are good places both to invest and to sell American products.


Developments in Africa have a direct effect on the health and well-being of Americans. By now, almost everyone is aware of the enormous scale of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. It doesn't take an epidemiologist to point out that AIDS and other communicable diseases don't respect borders. Nor do the effects of environmental degradation. Helping Africans to address

AIDS and environmental problems is not just the right thing to do; it's in our strategic interest. And efforts to resolve African conflicts and support fledgling democracies there, such as that in Nigeria, are not only consistent with our values but will help to reduce Africans' vulnerability to disease and privation.


Moreover, Africa is important to the United States because fully 13 percent of Americans trace their lineage to Africa and derive an important part of their personal identity from this association. This includes recent African immigrants to the United

States--the so-called neo-diaspora--who are among the fastest growing, most educated and highest achieving immigrant groups in this country.


U.S. foreign policy should not be driven or controlled by ethnic groups, whether they be Irish Americans, Jewish Americans or

African Americans. But these groups have every right to help shape U.S. policies, and we Americans have every right to insist

that our political leaders take into account the views and concerns of these groups in making foreign policy.


It's also worth noting that, as amply documented by the thousands of Americans who gathered at the National Summit on Africa in Washington this February, the American constituency for Africa is not wholly African American and includes corporate leaders, infotech entrepreneurs, faith-based communities, returned Peace Corps volunteers and those concerned with issues such as debt forgiveness, land mines and the environment.


I am a realist. I do not expect that U.S. interests in Africa are likely to eclipse our interests in Europe or Asia any time soon.

But I do believe that the countries of Africa are more important to the United States than is generally acknowledged and that

U.S. policymakers are finally beginning to recognize this.


During this campaign season especially, the growing number of Americans with business, humanitarian and personal interests in

Africa will be looking to their leaders to address these interests.


The writer is president of the Africa-America Institute.


2000 The Washington Post Company