A sorry summit

Meeting with African leaders, Biden avoids the pivotal issues.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks on the phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Feb. 9, 2022, in the Oval Office of the White House. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden talks on the phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Feb. 9, 2022, in the Oval Office of the White House. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House.
Clifford D. May
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), as well as a columnist for “The Washington Times.”

Last month, President Biden hosted 50 African leaders in our nation’s capital. There were security barriers around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center where the main events took place, street closures nearby and traffic jams throughout much of the city.

But at least the “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit” achieved significant goals, right? I’ll report (with just a little commentary), and you’ll decide.

The convocation, according to official communiques, focused on “the vital role of civil society and the strength of our African diaspora communities in the United States.” (Who doesn’t love civil society and diaspora communities?)

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and members of the Cabinet “engaged extensively” with African leaders on “topics ranging from trade and investment; to health and climate change; to peace, security, and governance; to space cooperation.” (Space cooperation!)

There were discussions on “food security and food resilience, a critical issue for our African partners who have been disproportionately impacted by the rise in food and fertilizer prices and disruptions to global supply chains as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine.” (More on this below.)

To conclude the summit, President Biden hosted “all 50 heads of Delegation and their spouses for dinner at the White House” where he re-introduced himself to his guests. “My name is Joe Biden” he said. “I am Jill Biden’s husband.” (Uproarious laughter did not ensue.)

Four paragraphs into his remarks, Biden apologized for “the stolen men and women and children who were brought to our shores in chains subject to unimaginable cruelty. My nation’s original sin was that period.”

Soon after, the White House issued a statement claiming that the summit had “highlighted the U.S. commitment to expanding and deepening our partnership with African countries, institutions and people,” and pledging “to invest at least $55 billion in Africa over the next three years, working closely with Congress” whose approval should be necessary for such expenditures.

Platitudes, happy talk, virtue signaling and promises of largesse—all that would be defensible had there also been serious discussions about what most ails the peoples of Africa and what might make their lives better (or at least not worse). But there appear to have been no such conversations.

Start with the most basic of Africa’s problems: When the European empires withdrew from the continent in the aftermath of World War II, almost all African leaders took the “socialist path to development.” As a result, most African nations have developed slowly—if at all. Free market reforms would do African economies a world of good, but America’s current leaders will not praise—much less promote—capitalism.

What else would benefit Africans? Abundant and affordable energy. That must include fossil fuels. African farmers cannot use electric vehicles to plow their fields or haul their crops to market.

Most sub-Saharan Africans—roughly 600 million people—don’t even have electricity. That means they cannot refrigerate food, read with adequate light after sunset, or cool off with a fan. Claims that power from the sun or wind can substitute anytime soon are fanciful.

Yet the wisdom of Biden’s pledge to “end fossil fuels” was not questioned. Nor were realistic options suggested for African farmers if the cost of hydrocarbons continues to rise—a likely consequence of Washington discouraging drilling and refining. Fertilizers also are necessary if African farmers are to produce sufficient crops for a growing population. But because natural gas is a key ingredient in fertilizer, that too is becoming more expensive.

Instead of debate, there was dogma: a session on “exploring the ways that the governments and peoples of the United States and African nations are partnering” to “transition away from fossil fuels” as part of a “just energy transition based on shared priorities.”

Another topic conspicuously avoided: Beijing’s neo-imperialism in Africa. Thousands of children are mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under inhumane conditions and in ways that cause environmental damage. The cobalt they extract is exported to China for use in batteries that power electric vehicles.

Shouldn’t this concern Biden? If it did, would he be urging—and subsidizing—Americans to “transition” to EVs that run on such batteries?

Chinese loans to African nations often lead to debt traps. Chinese business executives with ties to the Chinese Communist Party can cut deals that Americans cannot since allegations of bribery against the former are unlikely to be investigated.

Also unsuitable for discussion: Vladimir Putin’s propping up of compliant African dictators through the deployment of the Wagner group, a shadowy military organization.

Wagner now operates in “more than a dozen African countries,” according to an extensive report by The New York Times’ Roger Cohen. He adds: “As in Syria, its readiness to use force secures the outcome it seeks,” including the exploitation of diamonds, gold and other natural resources.

Last month, Sens Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a bill to designate Wagner a terrorist group, citing, among other things, the trafficking and raping of women in the Central African Republic.

Speaking of terrorism, another critical issue given short shrift at the summit: the atrocities being carried out by Boko Haram and a list of Africa-based terrorist groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

This summary leads me—and I suspect you, too—to the conclusion that the Biden administration has no coherent Africa policy. To be fair, the same can be said of previous administrations. But a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit might have been an opportunity to begin forging one.

On the positive side, I have it on good authority that many of the African leaders who came to America dined at Washington’s finer restaurants and managed to squeeze in a bit of shopping.

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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