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By Henri Kouam (Download Pdf Version)

The Biden Presidency Could be a Renaissance for U.S. Diplomacy in Africa

The recent election in the United States and the resulting win of President Joe Biden will impact Africa in several ways. This is especially true for the liberal world order that has come to underpin the post-WWII era. The last four years have been blighted by polarized and incendiary politics, stemming from climate change skepticism, trade wars, and a blatant assail on multilateralism.

The global rules-based orders frayed under a targeted assail from former President Donald Trump that culminated in the reneging of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the North American Free Trade Area, the INF treaty, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Meanwhile, as the largest donor to the World Bank, IMF, and the U.N., the outgoing administration’s approach to global diplomacy has dented decades-long efforts to introduce Africa to liberal values.

President Biden’s win will usher in an era of tolerance, even as his ability to influence domestic politics might be hampered by the Supreme Court, not least the Senate, should it remain explicitly republican. Meanwhile, history suggests that every U.S. president has implemented a different foreign policy; but President Biden’s policies are likely to stay consistent with the Obama-era style of consensus building. All this holds grave implications for Africa, which is besieged by COVID-19, gradual implementation of structural reforms, and a dearth of data-driven policies. Even so, the Biden-Harris presidency is significant for Africa for three reasons.

Firstly, while multilateralism is far from perfect, it has served as a credible anchor for financing Africa’s health care, education, and structural reforms that are indispensable for economic development. Secondly, governments have equally benefited from technical support

and capacity building across sectors spanning health care, education, and agriculture due to information sharing latent under such frameworks.

Foreign aid as a Tool for Soft Power

In addition, foreign aid is a credible tool for U.S. soft power, and the Biden Administration will leverage this tool to serve America’s interest without upsetting Allies. Africa is a diverse continent with different interests for itself as well as its engagement with the U.S. Fragile states cooperate in implementing U.S.-style democracy, anchored by human rights and the U.N. charter for a peoples’ right to self-determination. As such, the stakes for countries like South Sudan and Mali are much different from those of Rwanda and South Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. prioritizes democracy, education, health care, and governance for lower-middle-income countries such as Cameroon, hoping to reach emerging status by 2035.

For countries like Cameroon, the U.S. government provides health assistance to Cameroon through the Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, the Global Health Security Agenda, the Malaria initiative, and a range of other programs designed to address specific concerns within the framework of U.S. global health policy.1 President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will likely prioritize U.S. aid to Africa in a manner that aligns domestic needs with global priorities.

For example, the objective of improving gender equality through education should accompany a rigorous reassessment of the skills gap that continues to hold African Countries. Such an approach will prime the African market for U.S. products and improve the value and quality of two-way trade over the long run. This will equally enable a convergence in values and create an incentive for countries like Cameroon and Nigeria to align closely with the

United States on civil liberties, press freedoms, the right to protest, and democratic norms that are indispensable to societal progress.

It will be premature to posit that the era of trade wars is over, but a left-leaning democrat in the White House will utilize the U. S’s. economic heft differently. Rather than strong-arm countries into acquiescing to U.S. values, economic, trade, and security approach in the region, the Biden presidency should prioritize mutually beneficial engagement whilst ensuring that trade agreements occur within the frameworks of the WTO. Not only did Trump fail to appoint WTO judges to the appellate body,2 he equally refrained from using official channels to renegotiate trade agreements or articulate concerns regarding anticompetitive behavior and regulatory challenges from China.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act is a credible tool to foster and encourage bilateral trade between the U.S. and African economies, the majority of who see China as their biggest trading partner (Ighbor, 2013).3 For example, Cameroon’s membership in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)4 had been suspended by Trump after Cameroon failed to address concerns regarding persistent human rights abuses committed by Cameroon’s security forces in the Anglophone regions (See U.S. – Cameroon Trade Balance in Figure 1).

Meanwhile, AGOA has caused exports from Lesotho’s textile and apparel industry to spike, with the private sector creating 40,000 jobs or 43% of private-sector employment. Meanwhile, a 2017 study by the University of South Africa5 found that the U.S. imported 10% of its wine from South Africa, which stands to lose up to $8.1 million if AGOA6 were replaced with reciprocal tariffs through the Most Favoured Nations.

The U.S. could use trade agreements to reinforce structural reforms such as improving the quality of exports – from naming ingredients to packaging – to creating high-skilled employment and making exports from African countries more competitive. Such policies are far from clear-cut as they have impeded African exports to advanced economies. Those policies are accompanied by targeted up-skilling programs through additional technical transfers and non-concessional spending; the U.S. will ensure values convergence, economic development whilst creating a more competitive market for its products in the future.

As illustrated in Fig. 1, Cameroon currently has a trade surplus with the United States and while two-way trade in 2019 stood at $531, with exports and imports totaling $200 million and $330 million, respectively. Cameroon is currently the U.S. 115th largest goods trading partner, supported by a Bilateral Investment Treaty7 ratified in 1986 and the recent Africa Growth Opportunity Act. As such, rather than use sanctions to achieve its geopolitical and strategic objectives across Africa, the Biden administration should utilize its financial heft and diplomatic relations to ensure African countries transition to free, equal, and prosperous democracies whilst upholding human rights.


In other, for the Biden Administration to redress America’s seeming decline on the global stage and improve its standing with the international community, the United States’ economic heft and soft power tools should be used in a manner that aligns global priorities with the immediate needs of African economies. This approach is diplomatically salient and suggests economic pragmatism for trade, employment, and liberal values.

Henri KOUAM is an Economic Policy Analyst at the Nkafu Policy Institute. He currently works as an economic consultant for a global expert network – Global Wonks.