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Africa: Obama presidency would bring new dimension to Africa policy

Published date:
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
Source: (Washington, DC)

Electing Barack Obama the next president of the United States would bring a new dimension to U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to Africa, according to Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

"Obama's ascendancy to the presidency will have enormous symbolic political power throughout the African continent," Wolpe told "The fact that someone of African ancestry can be the president of the United States is going to substantially increase our moral stature and enable us, I believe, to have much more greater sway in our relationships with African states."

Wolpe, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and a specialist in African politics, chaired a House subcommittee on Africa for 10 of his 14 years in Congress. He also served as President Clinton's special envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region. He recently shared his views with on what an Obama administration would mean for Africa, with the preface that these are his personal opinions as a career Africanist and he was not speaking for the nonpartisan Wilson Center.

In a separate conversation, asked former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen what a John McCain presidency would mean for Africa. (See "McCain Presidency Would Likely Expand Bush Africa Policy.")

Africans are very excited about the U.S. presidential election, Wolpe said, and are watching this race as closely as their own elections. An Obama presidency will "greatly facilitate the diplomacy required to try to make some progress on these difficult issues," such as the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan or the political situation in Zimbabwe.

In the long term, Wolpe said, the central challenge facing Africa is the building of cohesive states. An Obama administration would be particularly focused on helping Africans search for common ground and eliminate conflict across the continent, he predicted. "Unless you can tackle that issue, the prospects for long-term sustainable economic development will be constantly compromised," he said.

Obama has a "general sensitivity about the nature of the economic, social and political challenges that are facing the so-called Third World, not just Africa but Asia and Latin America. He has demonstrated ... a much deeper appreciation of the kinds of issues that need to be tackled than many of our national leaders have heretofore."

In addition, Obama's African heritage (his father is Kenyan) enhances his cultural sensitivity and his understanding of the challenges facing developing countries, according to Wolpe.

Building on accomplishments of previous administrations

Wolpe credited the outgoing Bush administration with making great strides in Africa. "As sharply as I and others have disagreed with many facets of Bush foreign policy, there has been much more continuity than discontinuity of Bush administration African policies and initiatives with the previous Clinton administration policy and initiatives." Aid has been increased through programs like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

"That," he said, is "reflective of the point that Africa is no longer subject to partisan war," as it was during the Cold War. There is now broad bipartisan consensus in the Congress in support of expanded trade relationships, the danger of failing states and the need to address the significant health threats and human rights concerns that still linger, he said.

"That is good because there is much more of a bipartisan foundation for pursuing a much more informed, and I would argue effective, policy towards Africa," Wolpe said.

Conflict resolution is an area that still needs work, he said, and it could receive particular attention from Obama.

According to Wolpe, an Obama administration would focus on three key themes for Africa:

• Accelerating Africa's integration into the global economy. Wolpe said opening markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is only half the problem. "The other half of the equation is building capacity in Africa so that the African states and economies can take advantage of those new markets. That is the fundamental challenge now."

• Enhancing the peace and security of African states. "The challenge in Africa is that these are divided societies. The challenge in Africa is not to help people compete well -- that they have got down. ... The challenge is to build collaborative capacity and not competitive capacity. That requires a different approach to our diplomacy and new techniques to bring leaders together to help build their own relationships to help them get beyond the zero-sum mentality of conflict."

• Strengthening relationships to deepen democracy and accountability and reduce poverty. "During the past there has been a tendency in the West to romanticize civil society as the 'good guys' and the counterpoint to government power. So the model we have had is strengthening civil society organizations to keep governments honest."

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