Anybody who thinks that Africa is a region on the rise and important to the United States is bound to be glad that President Obama is heading back to the continent on Wednesday. What about the high cost of the trip that everybody is fussing over? It’s simply the cost of doing business, and well worth the expenditure when you realize the potential return on that investment. The real problem with the president’s trip is that he is going to the wrong places and dealing with the wrong issues.
African countries represent more than half of the world’s top 10 fastest-growing economies. More than 800 million consumers, including a quickly emerging middle class, are hungry for all kinds of global products and services. Any U.S. president who fails to include Africa on the global economic-outreach agenda would be downright negligent. However, African countries represent diverse interests and issues. You can no longer simply check the Africa box with a speech and a few photos.
Since President Carter made an Africa visit “the norm” for a sitting U.S. president back in 1978, Mr. Obama is the first president who has not visited Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. Nigeria’s energy exports and contributions to regional security make it arguably the most important relationship the United States has on the African continent. The Islamic fundamentalists who terrorize many parts of the country’s north, killing Muslims and Christians alike, will certainly find it easier to recruit if a charismatic leader such as Mr. Obama does not bother to make the case for American ideals and friendship.
For a president fond of firsts, Mr. Obama might have considered Angola. No sitting president has visited the oil-rich southern African country. In 2002, Angola emerged from several decades of debilitating civil war to become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Rather than encourage countries such as Angola to orient toward our global trade competitors, the United States must invest in these relationships critical to our economic future. China certainly has.
If Mr. Obama would travel to Zambia, he might draw attention to growing wariness over Chinese neocolonialism. Leaders across the continent now recognize that the “no strings attached” Chinese way of bringing infrastructure and cash through its state-owned enterprises turns out to be a bad deal. The Chinese bring their own workers and are not interested in transferring skills and technology. The trade-offs of long-term concessions no longer sit well in many African countries. Mr. Obama should debunk the Chinese aid model and help U.S. businesses enter African markets with a level playing field.
The planned Obama family safari in Tanzania drew immediate fire. They should do the safari if only to show the world that Africa plays host to some of the most amazing vistas and wildlife imaginable. Its animals also happen to be under serious threat of extermination. Africa’s wildlife tourism, one of the continent’s largest foreign-currency earners, needs serious protection if it is meant to be around for future U.S. presidents, not to mention the rest of us.
In South Africa, one of the great icons of our era and a father of the liberation movement, Nelson Mandela, will be seen alongside the first black leader of the free world. That’s a photo worth having, but how about a swing through the Sahel region to countries such as Mali and Niger that continue to battle terrorist threats in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? How about a stop in Africa’s newest nation and a significant U.S. foreign-policy victory, South Sudan?
I commend the president for making another trip to Africa. Back in 2000, I helped manage then-President Clinton’s second Africa visit. The “deliverables” cobbled together were not a cynical repackaging of aid, but instead forced us to define how we wanted to see and be seen by our African partners. President George W. Bush took it further and created some of the most profound and lifesaving programs ever developed, including his HIV/AIDS and malaria initiatives. These efforts continue to pay big dividends in our relationships throughout Africa.
Critics who attack the cost of Mr. Obama’s upcoming Africa visit are missing the point. The real issue is what an American president should do to connect with the African people in a way that makes them aspire to cooperate with us in a world that is safe, economically vibrant and democratic. The United States is broadly held in high regard on the African continent, which makes engagement from an American president particularly effective. Mr. Obama should have given more thorough thought to this trip. Perhaps he will get it right on his third trip to Africa.
Tom Woods is the president of Woods International LLC and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa under President George W. Bush.