This article was originally published by the American Enterprise Institute.
As Africa emerges as one of the most dynamic economic success stories of the past decade, it increasingly seems a prize over which outside countries are willing to compete. China has sent hundreds of peacekeepers to southern Sudan, reopened its embassy in Somalia, inked a $12 billion deal to build arailroad in Nigeria , and moved to support and upgrade the African Union. Recently, it has moved to rebuild a port in the strategic (and oil-rich) island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. Chinese are flooding into the continent, drawn by economic opportunity.
But China isn’t alone. Both Morocco and Turkey have made outreach to Africa pillars of their foreign policy, and the Islamic Republic of Iran has long cultivated diplomatic support on the continent, especially from African nations which produce uranium or those which serve on prominent international bodies like the United Nations Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency.
Meanwhile, India is proving itself to be an economic force with which to be reckoned on the continent. I just returned from the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi which included, among other topics, a panel exploring Asian interest in Africa. The Observer Research Foundation—co-convener of the Dialogue alongside India’s Ministry of External Affairs—has published several reports and monographs detailing India’s rising influence and ambitions in Africa and, in 2015, New Delhi hosted the India-Africa Forum Summit. Any visitor to Africa in recent years will see just how serious India has become about the African side of the Indian Ocean.
The United States, meanwhile, appears asleep at the switch. U.S.-Africa trade has dwindled under President Barack Obama and, aside from short bursts of attention ahead of rare presidential visits, remains largely ignored by the White House and the mainstream American press. Turn on any American cable network covering world affairs, and there will be any number of stories about Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and perhaps Latin America, but little if anything about Africa.
In theory, AFRICOM should suggest a larger U.S. commitment to the continent, but the command is based in Europe rather than Africa and, regardless, the military is only one component of what should be a far more comprehensive approach at which business and investment should be at the center. After more than a dozen debates in the United States, presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle have largely ignored the continent.
There’s a new “scramble for Africa” ongoing. As in the 19th and early 20th century, it is economic, diplomatic, and strategic; fortunately, it is no longer imperial. There’s a new set of players, each of whom will benefit in proportion to their investment. The only loser at present seems to be the United States, simply because the White House has chosen to forfeit.
Michael Rubin is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.