President Obama wrapped up a three-day summit with African leaders Wednesday, making a rare foreign policy advance even as his administration continues to face daunting challenges abroad.
The massive gathering of nearly 50 African heads of state and government in Washington allowed top U.S. officials to broker deals between American companies and African dignitaries, as well as press privately for action on security and human rights concerns. And at a time when Europe and major economies such as China are expanding their foothold in Africa, the conference gave the United States a chance to reinforce its long-standing connection to the continent.
While the summit yielded a handful of high-profile announcements — including new public and private investments in economic, agricultural and health development totaling $37 billion — it also featured the kind of behind-the scenes diplomatic interactions that could produce meaningful benefits later on. Elected U.S. officials and their African counterparts discussed issues ranging from tensions within the Great Lakes region to the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
In a press conference Wednesday evening, Obama called the meeting “an extraordinary event” that can be “a forcing mechanism for decisions and action, so we agreed that the U.S.-Africa leaders summit will be a recurring event to hold ourselves accountable for our commitments and to sustain our momentum.”
The leaders agreed Wednesday to create a “new peace-keeping rapid response project” to enhance Africa’s ability to defuse conflicts, the president said, along with a security and governance initiative to professionalize security forces on the continent. The group is also exploring the idea of launching a partnership to combat illicit financing, he added.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) cautioned in an interview Wednesday that the real value of the meeting will be best judged a year from now, “when the words on paper and the hours of talking are implemented and acted upon.”
Symbolism and emotional appeals were integral to the administration’s pitch this week: As they have with issues ranging from gun control to education, the Obamas used their personal history to make their case for closer diplomatic and economic ties.
Speaking at an event on women and girls along with former first lady Laura Bush, Michelle Obama remarked, “I am an African American woman.” During his opening toast at Tuesday night’s dinner, Obama described himself as not only the U.S. president and “a proud American” but “the son of a man from Africa. The blood of Africa runs through our family. And so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents, are deeply personal.”
Several conservatives, as well as some African policy experts, have faulted the president for failing to engage more aggressively with the continent during his first term. Charlotte Florance, a research associate for economic freedom in Africa and the Middle East, wrote in an e-mail that it took Obama “too long to show up to the table. The rest of the world is already working on the main course, while the U.S. is still talking about what it is going to order.”
But the frenetic pace of events in recent days — including bilateral meetings between African leaders and top American officials, dozens of elaborate dinners and receptions, and Obama’s attendance at several summit events — made an impression on many of the government and corporate leaders who had journeyed here.
Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré said in an interview that during discussions the leaders had Wednesday on such issues as electrification and economic development, he was impressed by Obama’s “knowledge of the subject and his commitment to Africa.”
Although the president hosted a dinner at the White House for all the leaders and attended sessions on two days of the summit, much of the diplomatic heavy lifting was done by some of his top aides and a handful of lawmakers who stayed in town despite the August recess. Secretary of State John F. Kerry alone met with more than 10 heads of state, while Vice President Biden held sessions with three.
Royce, who met with the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, said he had “tough meetings” that were “not uplifting” but delved into pressing issues, including how to stabilize parts of the continent and share intelligence to how to combat wildlife trafficking.
“These leaders have their work cut out [for] them,” Royce said, adding he was more encouraged by the young African musicians he met at a party sponsored by the ONE campaign who have been mobilizing support for democratic reforms in their home countries. “My confidence rests with Africa’s younger generation.”
In his meeting with South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, Royce raised the issue that the conflict there has impeded assistance in the region. Silke Pietzsch, technical director for Action Against Hunger, said that in May, her group identified 176,000 children who faced serious or acute malnutrition in the country, along with 420,000 more who were experiencing moderate malnutrition.
“We’re seriously concerned about the real survival of those people,” Pietzsch said.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, said that his talks with the presidents of South Africa, Rwanda and the DRC “touched on the economy, and on security and humanitarian concerns that are very real and of great importance for our countries.”
At the same time, many of the discussions focused on potential economic opportunities. Coons brokered meetings between Delaware firms and senior African officials to resolve regulatory hurdles to investment in the region; Compaoré discussed a possible solar power project, finalized a housing development deal and chatted with Monsanto officials about improvements in crop production.
Scott Eisner, vice president for African affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said one of the most significant outcomes of the conference was that it brought 200 American and African corporate executives together, and now those U.S. business leaders “don’t see Africa as a homogenous place. Ebola isn’t in every country, there aren’t armed insurgents in every nook and cranny.”
Witney Schneidman, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for African affairs and is now a senior international adviser for the law firm Covington & Burling, said the fact that so many leaders came to the event shows it was “transformational.”
“It just reflects the appetite on both sides to forge a new relationship — built on the past, not ignoring the past — but moving forward with a new vision,” Schneidman said.
And for all the diplomacy, small moments had a powerful impact. At Tuesday’s dinner, the evening’s musical guest, Lionel Richie, brought the crowd — many of whom had listened to him when he was in his prime, back in the 1980s — to their feet.
Coons said the dancing was a stark reminder of both America’s cultural reach as well as why it has a powerful incentive to move quickly to strength its ties to the fast-growing continent of Africa.
“We still enjoy a moment where our music, our movies, our television are listened to and watched across the globe,” he said. “But that will not always be the case.”