Africa Demands more U.S. Focus

June 25, 2012 9:00 AM - Updated: February 5, 2013 7:43 PM

A good fighter does not stand in one place fending off blows, he moves around the ring. America’s Asian Pivot is merely a minor weight shift. America has been standing with a foot in Asia and Europe for over half a century; we need to step forward to the ring’s greatest area of potential: Africa.

Sailor with children during U.S. Africa Command’s 2012 Africa Partnership Station
[U.S. Navy Photo]
While the appropriate focus for America’s next step, Africa is prevented in reaching its full potential from the dangers of terrorist groups in vast uncontrolled areas and unstable governments. Africa has the greatest potential energy to drive future changes in the international system. America should pursue further engagement to ensure that those changes realize the best of the continent’s potential, rather than the worst.

Any sense that America’s pivot toward Asia is a major policy change ignores the robust presence that already exists. In the June 2 post, Information Dissemination notes that the Navy’s shift to Asia started long before the pivot talk even began. With bases in Korea, Japan and Guam , the U.S. has no small military presence in the region. The Association of South East Asian Nations may not be as effective or as unified as NATO, but it is still an active and engaged institution of regional diplomacy. And the U.S. has a number of strong bilateral relationships, from Japan to Thailand to Australia. Those who think a pivot to the Western Pacific is a major policy change haven’t been watching policy. America has in the past, if not pivoted, at least kept glancing over its Pacific shoulder.

A reinvestment in Asia is justified. The U.S. must contend with its strongest competitor, China. From its attempts to gain favored access to fossil fuels, to menacing regional allies, to its growing nationalism, China is a source of many worries. In our favor are a series of alliances, military-to-military relationships both in and around China, regional nations’ unwillingness to be dominated by a neighboring giant, and India’s equal interest in being a regional player. A strengthened U.S. presence both politically and militarily will only emphasize these controlling factors and ensure continued stability and prosperity.

America has no interest in maintaining a massive military presence in Europe. Russia, although an occasional irritant, no longer menaces Europe militarily as it did during the Cold War. Europe has no major predators, other than itself. While logistical hubs, joint command centers and the forces necessary to maintain inter-operability are all necessary to retain our strategic military connection with Europe, the bulk of America power in Europe could be shifted back home, to the Pacific, to proximal bases along the Mediterranean, in Africa or proximally in the Middle East. Massive deployment to Europe has defeated itself through the law of diminishing returns. We’ve long ago accomplished our goal. The United States can still maintain in Europe the force-multiplying measures that give us flexibility abroad, but we hardly need huge numbers of idling forces that could be better used elsewhere. This should be way shorter or cut all together. This was actually added due to the number of people asking for that explanation after reading it.

America does not have a choice in whether or not Africa becomes a critical pillar of global commerce and security. This is inevitable, as the drive of African business increases, the supplies of rare earths decrease and technology allows new heights of human organization from politics to terrorism. As America’s war for civilization cleans up old enemies, new enemies — from Boko Haram to Somalia’s al Shabaab — are festering in the uncontrolled spaces. We can neither afford to allow threats to gather in the wings nor can we depend upon a mass of potentially unstable states fueled by the greased palms of market-altering state-dominated firms, both foreign and local. As long as we are a continent-spanning nation with a globalized economy, we cannot take a wait-and-see attitude when great strategic uncertainty arises.

The potential for positive influence is evidenced every day. An incredible entrepreneurial spirit is evident from the prolific movie makers in Nigerian (or Nollywood) to the revolutionary combination of banking and telecommunications taking root across the continent. When combined with the vast untapped natural wealth, especially in the important realm of rare-earth minerals, this commercial drive bodes well for future African growth. Coups and government overthrows have become a rare blemish. The growing stability and security in Mogadishu proper shows the developing military backbone of the African Union. The 2010 dismissal of Cote d’Ivoire and April suspension of Guinea Bisseau show an increased political unity recognizing legitimate elections and civilian government. The curtain of war, poverty and disease is hesitantly parting to reveal Africa’s second act, as an engine of global economic growth.

Clearing the path for this future development depends in large part on the professionalism and strength of local security institutions. In his book, Ambiguous Order: Military Power in African States, Herbert Howe lays out the challenges that arise from strengthening and professionalizing many African militaries. The Malian coup in March is a particularly unfortunate example, showing what happens when civilian and military leadership clash in times of crisis as well as the potential danger when the government loses control of large swaths of territory to groups potentially associated with terrorism. While the military and civilian authorities battle, northern Tuareg separatists align with Ansar Dine (al-Qaeda associates) to form an independent state. Further training and professionalization would also lower levels of corruption, if militaries are willing to resist becoming simple tools of patronage and other corrupting influences. America can aid Africa in building militaries that can resist threats not only in the battlefield, but in the barracks as well.

The challenges in Africa go far beyond military issues. The mixture of increasing urbanization in proximity to vast wildernesses that have borne both AIDS and Ebola are a deadly cocktail in today’s interconnected world. Political instability in formerly so-called safe countries such as South Africa and Kenya show a disturbing possibility for backslide into authoritarianism, civil war, and conflict that could severely damage Africa’s growing economic success and casts a long shadow on the continent. However, institutions domestic, regional and international have helped maintain the forward progress. American engagement could help bolster that stability and growth towards prosperous democratic states.

African engagement has the added benefit of extending America’s challenge to China abroad. China has long used economic weight as a tool of national influence; this was the main thrust of the PRC’s program to globally sideline Taiwan. China has made a point of investing heavily in Africa, gaining favored access to resources from lumber to fossil fuels. Domination of markets and insider politics by state-supported Chinese corporations that often actively engage in corrupt practices on the local level puts the more constrained free-market competitors from the West at a disadvantage. China also dominated the rare-earth mineral market, using a ban on exports to Japan as a diplomatic weapon in the past. Building a stable and open market for rare-earths from Africa will not only help drive a successful global economy but undermine China’s ability to use its mineral monopoly against the U.S. or its allies.

While our investment in Asia steadies our position, our investment in Africa could transform our position. AFRICOM was a first step and a good foundation: a reorienting of the U.S. military perspective to acknowledge the massive continent as its own unique set of challenges. However, beyond merely acknowledging Africa’s separateness, we need to recognize its importance. We’ve spent much blood and treasure securing conflicts on the backside, engaging in wars after they’ve become either necessary or the only effective option to affect change. From its great potential to shape our future economies to its potential for world-effecting disaster and violence, Africa is a region we cannot afford to ignore. America has the chance to help build the relationships that will stave off the many dangers that are simmering on the continent. At the very least, if we get into our fighting stance, we’ll be ready

Lt. Matthew Hipple, USN

Lt. Matthew Hipple is a surface warfare officer. He writes for Proceedings, USNI Blog, Small Wars Journal, and War on the Rocks and is the director of the NEXTWAR blog at the Center for International Maritime Security.

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