Security and Trade: Washington’s New Political Rhetoric on Africa

Source: Pambazuka News

The past few years have seen a dramatic up-tick in American diplomatic efforts in Africa, which has coincided with a decisive shift in political rhetoric about the continent. At first glance this might seem like a positive development, reflecting a more progressive attitude toward what has long been considered an unimportant global backwater. But a closer look reveals that American diplomacy in Africa is less about serving the good of African people than it is about securing the interests of private American capital. Nowhere has this been more flagrantly clear than on the lips of Michael Battle, the US ambassador to the AU.

First, a bit about Battle. He received a Masters degree in Divinity at Trinity College and a Ph.D in Ministry at Howard University, and served at the Interdenominational Theological Centre in Atlanta until he was nominated to his current post by President Obama in 2009.

Battle’s position at the AU is new and little known outside diplomatic circles. The US only established a dedicated ambassadorship to the AU during the Bush administration in 2006. This mission – known as USAU – is the first of its kind among non-African states, and is designed to facilitate US operations in Africa as a more ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ alternative to bilateral relationships with individual African states.

This month I had the opportunity to attend a speech delivered by Battle during his visit to the Miller Centre of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. I noticed a new diplomatic rhetoric right at the outset of his presentation. First, he referred to Africa as a continent of ‘great riches’ and ‘abundance’, flagging a notable departure from earlier, longstanding representations of Africa as ‘desolate’ and ‘impoverished’. Paralleling this point, Battle spoke at length about shifting US policy in Africa toward corporate ‘investment’ and ‘partnership’ and away from public ‘aid’ and ‘assistance’.

On the face of it this seemed like good news to me, but the rest of Battle’s speech disabused me of any rosy assumptions about his intentions, as the two primary objectives of the USAU rose quickly to the surface: security and trade.

In terms of security, Battle confirmed America’s dedication to working with the AU and the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) to militarise the continent’s coastlines. While he claimed that the goals of this mission include responding to increased maritime piracy and breaking cartels that traffic illegally in drugs and humans, he made it clear that the primary military objective is to protect US oil interests in the Gulf of Guinea, suppress local resistance movements like MEND in Nigeria, and secure a favourable climate for returns on investment for American corporations. When pressed, Battle justified his call for militarisation by invoking the vague and poorly substantiated spectre of ‘terrorism’.

In terms of trade, Battle spoke excitedly about the partnership between the US, the AU, and the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) to integrate and liberalise the continent’s national economies. Battle’s explicit vision is to facilitate the efforts of US corporations such as Chevron, Delta, and GE (which he mentioned explicitly by name) to expand investments across multiple African nations by ‘harmonizing trade rules’ and ‘simplifying regulations’.

He praised the AU for developing ‘free trade’ across the continent at a faster rate than the EU was able to accomplish over a similar period of time, and hailed USAU’s vision for an Africa that is increasingly open for business to American companies.

None of this is particularly new, of course – the US has long used its diplomats to push for neoliberal economic policies. The real newness of Battle’s approach is that he no longer feels the need to hide America’s brash economic interests in Africa. While diplomats of earlier eras invoked the lofty rhetoric of development and democracy, Battle makes no such effort. Instead, he speaks plainly about using diplomacy to facilitate monopoly capitalism, and about paving the way for US corporations to – as he put it – ‘take advantage of Africa’s resources and exploit its tremendous market opportunities’. According to Battle, ‘If we don’t invest on the African continent now, we will find that China and India have absorbed its resources without us, and we will wake up and wonder what happened to our golden opportunity of investment.’ Battle couldn’t have been blunter – or more offensive – if he tried.

One can’t help but find Battle’s approach shockingly redolent of the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, when European nations conspired to divide the continent among themselves, each claiming a share of its abundant resources, its cheap labour, and its untapped markets, all while committing to secure their claims with a military presence. The only thing that has changed today is that the actors are different, and the plunder is being conducted with the full support of the African political elite and the AU, which – not surprisingly – depends partially on funds from the US through USAID.

Before he left the auditorium, Battle agreed to field a few questions from the audience. One student asked him why he focused so much on capital investment and economic liberalisation, but never once discussed fairer labour standards or protective environmental policies or regulatory mechanisms designed to benefit the poor. Indeed, any astute observer of African affairs understands that poverty and instability arise not from too much regulation and too little foreign direct investment, but from too little regulation and foreign direct investment that plunders and exploits without meaningfully benefiting the public. What Africa needs is not investment for its own sake, but investment within a framework that will protect workers and the environment and ensure that common people receive a just share of the resources that are their birthright. But Battle refused to answer the question.

I also took a moment to pose a question to Battle. I asked him how it was that his job as a public functionary of the US government has become about securing the private interests of multinational corporations. I wasn’t surprised when he refused to answer me. But I was surprised that he made no effort to contradict me. Indeed, Battle was entirely prepared to defend his role as facilitator of American military intervention in the service of private American capital. And this without even the usual claims to altruism: he didn’t even gesture to the pressing problems of poverty, inequality, and exploitation in Africa. Given that Battle’s training in African affairs prior to his post at the AU amounts to almost zero, I suppose this shouldn’t be so shocking. Still, I expected more compassion and critical insight from a man trained in theology and educated at a historically black university.

As much as I want to criticise Battle for his lack of diplomatic decorum, I actually find myself grateful for it – grateful that he has spoken so bluntly about his gunboat diplomacy, grateful that he has exposed the market-oriented motives of the USAU, grateful that he has stripped away the romantic mystifications that usually shroud US foreign policy in Africa. Gone at last is the fig leaf of humanitarianism; Battle has given lie to any pretence that the Obama administration has the best interests of the beleaguered continent in mind. Indeed, Battle’s rhetoric represents nothing less than the formal inauguration of a New Scramble for Africa, and of a complicit AU that has been thoroughly co-opted by the US government and multinational capital.

Jason Hickel teaches courses in African studies at the University of Virginia while working on his doctoral dissertation in anthropology.

Photo by US Army from Flickr