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Beyond East-West concerns in Africa

When defining United States national interests in Africa, the Reagan administration, like its predecessor, cites investment, trade, human liberties, political security, and strategic concerns. It argues, however, that US policy toward any region of the world should be strategic in its conception. Yet it has not really defined what it means by strategy beyond stating a priority for building up US and the allies' military strength, confronting the Soviet Union, and, in Africa, preserving access to resources.

While Carter's foreign policy advisers debated internally the importance of sea lanes and the feasibility and value of projecting military power to Africa, the Reagan team takes for granted the need to project military power in order to promote influence in Africa.

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But is Africa of strategic interest to the US?

In military terms it is hard to see that the projection of military power on the continent is crucial for global balances of power. The US has given up bases and electronic listening posts in North Africa and Ethiopia without any loss of strategic capability. Even the Reagan administration has not rushed to convert Berbera in Somalia to a full-fledged base. If the fear is one of interdiction of oil tankers around the Cape, oil can more easily be attacked at its source in the Gulf than on the high seas.

Total US direct investment in Africa, including South Africa, is about 3 percent of total worldwide US investment. Total exports to Africa as a share of US worldwide exports were 3 percent between 1976 and 1981; imports from Africa during this period were less than 12 percent of total US imports, and a significant share of this is accounted for by Nigerian oil.

In the face of these figures, it cannot be argued that US trade and investment with Africa are very important. Yet much of the Reagan administration's understanding of US strategic, political, and economic interests in Africa depends on its having determined that Western access to southern Africa's chromium, diamonds, cobalt, manganese, vanadium, and platinum-based metals is crucial and is called into question by US military weakness.

The debate on the minerals issue is not over facts of current production and probable reserves but over short- and long-run vulnerabilities of supply, substitution possibilities, the costs of stockpiling, and alternate sources of supply. Threats to reliability of supply from southern Africa are more likely to come from internal political instability, labor unrest, sabotage of mines and transport grids, and regional interstate conflict than from Soviet intervention or control of resources.

Regional conflict in southern Africa should not be seen primarily in East-West terms. Nor should the US formulate its policies toward the Republic of South Africa as if it were hostage to a regime change or to the goodwill of the South African government. It has been difficult to persuade South Africa that common opposition to Soviet and Cuban influence requires a settlement in Namibia; it will be harder, should the Reagan admin-istration ever try, to persuade South Africans that fundamental changes in their domestic order are required by strategic concerns and world balances of power.

The Reagan administration's policy of ''constructive engagement'' with South Africa makes sense only if it helps defuse regional conflicts in southern Africa. African goodwill may be ephemeral in the coin of power politics, but the Reagan policy has undone positive perceptions of US attitudes on South Africa that were built up by the Carter administration. The view is widespread in black Africa that South Africa has a green light to destabilize countries on its borders.

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At the same time that the Reagan administration has focused largely on southern Africa, the signs of negative trends in African development are increasing. Per capita income has fallen in many countries. High rates of population growth are outstripping agricultural production and threatening fragile ecologies. Many African countries have severe debt problems.

Ironically, if one worries most about the possibilities for Soviet incursions in Africa, these negative trends are of great concern because they imply that African governments are unable to cope with their economic and social problems, thus increasing the potential for chaos and Soviet exploitation of instability.

Yet African underdevelopment is a human problem in its own right. While the Reagan administration has not been either oblivious to or insensitive to African needs, its emphasis on US and African private sectors is not going to be able to speak to the problems of the poorest countries - where there are few comparative advantages for foreign investors and where many local bottlenecks exist before trade and investment opportunities can be exploited profitably.

The Reagan administration is correct to insist that African countries alter poor management practices, modify overvalued exchange rates, stop protecting extremely inefficient industries, and stop discriminating against agriculture. But in order to have a useful dialogue with African countries, the gamut of trade and assistance issues of concern to Africans must be addressed apart from East-West issues and US security concerns. Furthermore, there must be some sense of predictability of US policies, especially in the assistance areas. We might well want to link US concessional aid flows to types of economic policies. But this kind of conditionality can only work when countries know that the risk entailed by new policies will be partially covered by donors for a period longer than one year.

Security for much of the continent is a matter of trade, aid, population movements, transportation, and debt relief as much as it is a matter of interstate conflict or Soviet power. And for southern African states, security is threatened by a powerful and active South Africa more than it is by the Soviet Union. To ignore these facts is to build policies on flawed assumptions about Africa and thus to threaten the very security we seek to protect.