From the dismal domestic disarray that continues to sicken and kill Americans across the country to the dysfunction at the UN Security Council and brittle fractures in international cooperation, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of the world and America’s place in it. But the future provides an opportunity to rethink tired approaches, reimagine international relationships, and pivot toward a policy agenda that meets the challenges of climate change, democratic erosion, widening inequality and metastasizing violence. That rethink requires a reckoning with the African continent, not as a venue for competition with China or proxy conflict, but as an increasingly consequential force in shaping the future.
By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African. The continent’s youthful and growing labor force will stand in stark contrast to the aging populations of other regions, and they will be rightly skeptical of international institutions and agreements that deny the region the same agency and voice that others enjoy. The United States should welcome rather than resist a more assertive Africa, because ultimately we confront global challenges that we cannot address alone. There are new partnerships to be forged on the continent in service of shared interests, but one prerequisite to maximizing the potential of U.S.-Africa relations is a concerted effort to support the transformative transitions currently underway on the continent. The United States cannot afford to be a bystander to these dynamics.
Nowhere is this more true than in the greater Horn, where Sudan and Ethiopia are both in the throes of high-stakes, fragile transitions. For decades, Sudan was a force for instability, undermining the region’s norms and institutions. But a stable, inclusive, and democratic Sudan, with its links to the Middle East and the rest of the Sahel, could be a bulwark against a transactional model of international relations that undermines the links between the governing and the governed. That promise will never be realized if the civilians fighting for leverage in its transition cannot deliver the kind of international support needed to ease the shock of structural reform.
Too often overlooked is Angola, where the transition underway since President Lourenço assumed power after José Eduardo dos Santos’s 38-year tenure has been far less dramatic but no less important. Angola faces formidable headwinds, having built its economy around an oil industry now in decline and its political system around patronage that benefits only a narrow slice of the population. But the will to curb corruption, diversify the economy, and build internal strength to match the external heft that Angola can bring to the region is precious; it should be met with a serious commitment to ensure that the Angolan people see concrete benefits of reform as the long process of structural transformation unfolds.
Supporting transitions that bring more stability, prosperity, and justice to the region is a long-term and labor-intensive undertaking. It will require sustained support from Congress (which fortunately has demonstrated leadership on some of these issues), energized and consistent high-level diplomacy, and thoughtful coordination with other actors interested in the region’s future, particularly other lenders, who are essential to ensuring that debt burdens do not strangle critical reform efforts. It will also require innovation and a concerted effort to engage a broad range of voices and perspectives. The United States must heighten its sensitivity to the aspirations and concerns of young Africans, not just political elites, in order to genuinely understand where interests are shared and where they diverge, and to improve our understanding of what sustainable stability requires.
Michelle D. Gavin is senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2011 to 2014 she was the United States ambassador to Botswana, and served concurrently as the United States representative to the Southern African Development Community (SADC). This article first appeared in CFR.
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