Keep Africa on Agenda, Rice Advises

The United States should support democratic governance and responsible sovereigns, the former secretary of state says in a speech at the Kennedy School.

Although the U.S. government has momentous and urgent problems to confront—the reverberating shock waves of a global financial crisis; continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—it should not let relations with Africa slip from its list of priorities, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a November 30 speech at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Rice, now a professor of political economy at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution (also at Stanford), spoke as part of the W.E.B. DuBois Lecture Series.

Tracing U.S. foreign policy toward Africa over the last several decades, Rice recalled that the contours of the Cold War long defined this policy, as the Soviet Union supported Communist states and the United States supported those that espoused capitalism—or in some cases, simply states that the Soviet Union did not support.

These alliances were the subject of Rice’s dissertation research; she finished her Ph.D. in 1981, but a quarter-century later, when she became secretary of state in 2005, she found that the “post-Cold War” mentality still lingered. (She recalled that some members of the African National Congress—the party of Nelson Mandela, and the governing party in South Africa since the end of apartheid—were still on terrorist watch lists when she assumed the post, due to the ANC’s onetime status as the opposition party.)

After President Bush took office in 2001, she said, he sought to redefine the country’s policy toward Africa, but then came the September 11 terrorist attacks. The response to those attacks naturally became the nation’s first priority. One consequence, she said, was a keen awareness of the dangers of failed states and the importance of responsible sovereigns. This led to some success stories, such as the cooperation between the United States and the Organization of African Unity in 2003, when U.S. Marines secured Liberia’s ports and airport during the removal of military dictator Charles Taylor. Rice also named Kenya a “good story”: after the country descended into violence following a disputed presidential election in 2007, the two sides reached a power-sharing agreement (brokered by parties including Kofi Annan, with the backing of international organizations including the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union, as well as the U.S. government), and Kenyans approved a new constitution by a wide margin in August.

Since 2001, the United States has turned to a policy of making “big bets on those states that were governing wisely,” investing in development through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (formed by Congress in 2004) in states such as Tanzania and Ghana, where leaders rooted out corruption and were responsive to their people. Between this and a “compassion agenda” of aid to fight diseases such as malaria and HIV (including the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), U.S. aid to Africa reached $7.2 billion in 2008, up from just $1.65 billion in 1996, Rice noted.

Through these success stories, “a vision” emerged “for a democratic, functioning Africa that could be more prosperous” and would have “a place in the international community of states,” Rice said. “We started to see the emergence in Africa of democratic leaders, mostly in smaller states, who were making a difference for their own people, who were governing in a way that was not corrupt.”

That isn’t to say there weren’t setbacks, she noted: in Sudan, a 2005 comprehensive peace agreement stood to end decades of civil war, only to have hopes dashed by genocide in Darfur. And AFRICOM—the U.S. Africa Command, intended to train African peacekeeping forces—was “misinterpreted as a recolonialization of Africa.”

The United States, Rice said, is “a deeply ideological country,” bound together not by religion or ethnic allegiance but by the ideal of democracy. But through advocacy of this ideal, the U.S. position is sometimes misconstrued as more rigid and less flexible than it actually is, she said, recalling a speech she gave in Egypt in 2005 in which she called for democracy across the Middle East: “I wonder if I somehow gave the impression, either that we thought it would happen immediately, or…that the United States simply was not going to deal with Egypt until it was a democracy. Neither of those is true.”

Rice’s lecture (titled “The National Interest, Africa, and the African Diaspora: Does U.S. Foreign Policy Connect the Dots?”) was the first in a series of three sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. Rice was also scheduled to speak the Graduate School of Education on December 1 ("Multiethnic Democracy: Is the American Experience Unique?") and December 2 ("Why Democracy Matters: Education, Empowerment, and the American National Myth Abroad").

The one and only audience question about the biggest news story of the day, the WikiLeaks release of thousands of American diplomatic cables, involved U.S. dealings with states with authoritarian governments and poor human-rights records. “The United States is not an NGO, and so it is never going to have pure policies in terms of only dealing with democracies,” Rice responded. “That won’t work.” But, she emphasized, when dealing with authoritarian states, “you ought to be doing everything that you can to encourage change and to empower those who bring change”—supporting civil society, women’s rights, and education. “We should never lose sight of the fact that in the long run, your interests and your values are going to have to come together.”

Rice’s own credence in the democratic ideal came into view during her discussion of China, a country on the rise as “a new power in Africa.” China’s concerns on the continent are not idealistic but “mercantilist,” she said, as it seeks resources to fuel its own growth. The future of economic development, in Africa and elsewhere, hinges on the question of mobilizing human potential toward innovation and creativity, she said, and here, the United States is better positioned to lead. “Can a country that is so terrified of the Internet that it is hacking into people’s e-mails…lead the knowledge revolution?” she said. “I don’t think so.…I’ll take my bets on free peoples given the opportunity to give full flight to their imaginations.”

She concluded her remarks by noting a persistent and important “psychic connection between Africa and the United States,” given the history of slavery and the importance of the civil-rights movement in making it a reality to “say, ‘We the people,’ and mean all the people.” “That’s why I hope, despite all of our problems, that Africa will not again fall from the radar screen,” she said. “It’s high time that Africa stopped being a place of high potential. It’s been a place of high potential for a really long time. It’s more than time that that potential be realized."


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