Obama vs Romney Foreign Policy: Both Candidates Completely Miss the Mark on Africa Policy

After having successfully reduced the world to the Middle East, Russia, and China in their last presidential debate, on domestic foreign policy, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have left much of the globe speculating about what to expect from the next U.S. president. In Africa, as in most other places outside the U.S., President Obama is winning the popularity vote by a landslide. This optimism is however difficult to explain; U.S. Africa policy during Obama’s first term has been disappointing at best. Unfortunately, there is little to indicate that a Romney presidency would be any better for the continent. So how do the candidates stack up?

Irrespective of who wins in November, here’s what we can expect from U.S. Africa policy.

1. Indifference

It was made abundantly clear during Monday’s debate, that this election is not about foreign policy. With the U.S. economy on the forefront of both candidates’ minds, foreign policy has been resigned somewhat to the background. Save for some sort of international crisis, this is likely to be the case for the better part of the next four years. When foreign policy does come up, one can expect that Africa policy will rank low on the priority list. On Monday, the president referenced Africa twice, only in passing, and only to illustrate that America’s is forming global partnerships. Besides a new found interest in Northern Mali, Gov. Romney was similarly silent on Africa policy. However, when the former governor did speak on Africa, his lack of experience with the continent was painfully obvious. Responding to a question about the Middle East, Romney included militant activities in Northern Mali among his examples of unrest in the Middle East. He also advocated treating Iranian diplomats like “pariahs” like the U.S. “treated the Apartheid diplomats of South Africa” – the former governor was apparently unaware that the United States maintained full diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout Apartheid.

A simple internet search of both candidates’ stated positions on Africa reveals a similar lack of depth. Romney’s plan for Africa, as contained on his website, is little more than three paragraphs. In this regard, the president ranks slightly better; the White House website lists a number of detailed “accomplishments” in sub-Saharan Africa during the president’s first term. This coincides with the president’s new Strategy for Africa, launched in June this year. The accomplishments must however be taken with a grain of salt. The luxury of incumbency allows the president to take credit for developments in existing programs such as PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and MCC (The Millennium Challenge Corporation), all of which were begun during the Bush administration.

Even in the Africa policy areas that both candidates claim to care deeply about – i.e. security and humanitarian issues – they both go after the low hanging fruit. Much of Romney’s “plan for Africa” is devoted to discussing Sudan while Obama is quick to tout his efforts to go after the severely decimated Lord’s Resistance Army. However, neither candidate makes mention of arguably the greatest security and humanitarian crisis in Africa; the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the president’s case, this is particularly disappointing: as a first term senator, he drafted, introduced, and ensured the passage of US Public Law #109-456, i.e. The Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (2006). None of the major provisions of this bill (which was co-sponsored by the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton) have been implemented.

Given that Romney and Obama agreed so much in other areas of foreign policy, there is no reason to believe that a Romney presidency will be any more engaged in Africa than the current one.

2. Continuity

In the event that the next president does make an active effort to engage in Africa, Africa policy will likely be business as usual. Both candidates continue to view Africa through old paradigms. Just as in previous administrations, the Obama administration has overwhelmingly engaged with the continent through the military. The intervention in Libya (whatever your views on it) had a destabilizing affect across the sub-region and was a direct cause of the current unrest in Northern Mali. With the growing threat of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and other terrorist and rebel movements across the Sahel, there is a real fear that the morally questionable drone strikes which have already been employed in the Horn of Africa (leading to numerous civilian casualties) may be extended to this part of Africa.

Traditionally, the United States has placed the wrong-headed pursuit of an ill-conceived notion of the "national interest" ahead of the aspirations of ordinary citizens in Africa. While President Obama has paid lip service to the idea that Africa needs “strong institutions and not strong men,” his administration has continued to support “big men” such as President Kabila in the DRC, President Museveni of Uganda and (until his death) President Zenawi of Ethiopia, despite their poor democratic and humanitarian records.

Unfortunately, despite Obama’s disappointing record in this area, Romney could be even worse. Perhaps the most concerning statement he made during the debate was the following:

“Our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us, a responsible government, if possible.”

It is terrifying to think that a government’s responsibility towards its own people is only an afterthought in deciding whether or not to support it. Many countries in Africa are yet to recover from the United States practice of installing and supporting foreign governments who were friendly to the United States and only minimally responsible to their citizens. The world cannot afford a return to this way of thinking.

Finally, both candidates recognize the need to improve America’s global trade as a tool in foreign policy. The candidates focused primarily on China, and Romney spoke at length about the overlooked opportunities for greater trade with Latin America. However, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, it is baffling that Africa was again ignored in the discussion of unexploited trade opportunities. Improving trade links with Africa, is yet another arena where the United States seems to be losing out to China and the BRICs.

Overall, when it comes to Africa policy Obama gets a slight edge in my book – the better of two candidates whose African policy credentials leave much to be desired.