The current struggle by Western democracies to isolate Russia over its assaults on Ukraine and international rule of law will be costly to sustain. Spiking prices for fuels, fertilizers and foods that Russia exports are risking wider socio-economic instability in many countries. A long-term solution must include a Western partnership to invest economically and politically in Africa, arguably Russia’s most formidable potential economic competitor. This strategy can strengthen a rules-based world against economic coercion by authoritarian powers, stabilize African democracies by enabling them to deliver for their people and strengthen international institutions and laws by including African countries more fully in them.

Motorcycles haul cobalt ore, vital to “green” industries such as electric vehicles, from a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Development of Africa’s economy can dilute the influence of authoritarian powers. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)
Motorcycles haul cobalt ore, vital to “green” industries such as electric vehicles, from a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Development of Africa’s economy can dilute the influence of authoritarian powers. (Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times)

The world’s current setbacks for democracy and the rule of law include President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of a democratizing Ukraine and Africa’s string of military coups in states weakened by economic despair and closing civic space. A transatlantic partnership focused on investment to accelerate African development offers answers to both, this in the face of rising risks from Russian and Chinese authoritarianism.

Hiding in Plain Sight: A Preventive Strategy

Democracies must use all methods to support Ukraine’s defense and bring peace as soon as possible. Our main economic tools are sanctions that, while necessary, are part of the war’s impacts that raise global costs for food and fuel, worsening economic and political crises across many poor and middle-income countries. And sanctions regimes can be hard to sustain over time, particularly against a “commodities superstore” like Russia. Thus we must begin now long-term work to prevent economic blackmail by authoritarian regimes by investing in Africa’s development.

Investment in Africa’s development can strengthen the global economic basis for a rules-based order by reducing countries’ dependence on the most potent authoritarian governments — Russia’s and China’s. Partnership with African countries to develop their natural resources could, within a decade, create a new global supplier of energy sources and raw materials that Putin has used as leverage over European democracies. What Russia sells, Africa has in the ground: oil, gas, nickel, cobalt, iron ore, and gold.

While Africa now depends on Russia for 40 percent of its grain supplies, investment in agribusiness could help realize the continent’s enormous potential as a supplier, like Russia, of food. With 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, Africa could feed itself and become a significant global food source. This would not only dilute the world’s heavy reliance on Russia for food, it would strengthen African countries internally against threats to democracies that are rising with growing populations and changing climate. Aside from democracies’ concerns over dependence on authoritarian states, a vital task for peace and stability in the coming decades will be to work with African countries to boost food supplies even as water becomes scarcer.

Investment for Democratization

Democracies and stability are possible only where peoples’ basic needs are met. Thus a surge in investment through a new transatlantic partnership with Africa is the most effective stabilizing force against the erosions of democracy that have led to spreading violence and human displacement, notably in the Sahel region — and to last year’s spate of coups d’etat in Africa.

Investment is the vital tool to “flip the script” of many past U.S. and European efforts to promote democracy. It reflects a bargain, based on democratic values and human needs, that is a win-win for investors and for African governments that invite investment with reforms that fulfill citizens’ needs. It requires African governments to heed citizen demands — from Guinea, Sudan, Nigeria and across the continent — for accountability in governance and the rule of law. And it requires the United States and other developed nations to heed African voices seeking investment rather than aid.

An early U.S. step in building an investment partnership with African countries should be to expand U.S.-Africa trade that can help drive U.S investments and African exports, an imperative in view of the 2025 expiration of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. A transatlantic increase in trade and investment can leverage new opportunities of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). By World Bank estimates, the increasingly unified trade area, if properly harnessed, could free about 30 million Africans from extreme poverty and raise the incomes of another 68 million who live on less than $5.50 per day.

To help build a democracy-driven economic power that can mitigate Russian or Chinese coercive influence, an investment-led Africa strategy must plan and work on longer timelines — at least a decade.

To help build a democracy-driven economic power that can mitigate Russian or Chinese coercive influence, an investment-led Africa strategy must plan and work on longer timelines — at least a decade. A transatlantic investment plan for Africa will become more critical in coming years to meet two colliding changes: the demographic “youth bulge” that will nearly double Africa’s population by 2050, and climate change that imposes disproportionate dangers and costs on African countries. Africa is rich in the renewable energy sources, natural gas and minerals to help build African and global economies more resilient to climate change. African countries will receive investment to develop these resources, if not from democracies then from authoritarian powers. Western-backed investments in this critical sector will solidify global supply chains and ensure its development is done to the high standards Africans and the world deserve.

From Nonalignment to Full Inclusion

The vision for a new transatlantic partnership with Africa is an opportunity to include Africa more fully in — and thus strengthen — international institutions such as the United Nations Security Council, the Group of Twenty (G20) forum, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Russian, Chinese and other authoritarian rulers often challenge the legitimacy of such institutions by portraying them as too narrowly the expressions of Western influence. Greater inclusion of African countries can undermine that criticism and increase the effectiveness of the multilateral system.

This will require African leaders to affirm, across multilateral institutions, principles they promote in the African Union and the continent’s regional economic communities: the inviolability of states’ territorial integrity, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and universal protection of human rights. While Africans iterated those principles during the Cold War from a stance of nonalignment, that approach will not fit in a more inclusive global rules-based system in which African countries are full stakeholders. Nonalignment might have been an option when most African countries were newly independent or still colonized. It becomes ineffective today when African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are poised to be major global geopolitical partners; and when the lines being crossed are those of international law, respect for territorial sovereignty, and human rights. In this case of Putin's war on Ukraine, it is less about choosing sides than standing up for values and principles which African countries have long promoted.

The United States, European Union and Group of Seven (G-7) countries have committed to many of the necessary principles, promising greater trade and investment with Africa, including infrastructure and investments to support African countries’ recovery from the COVID pandemic and its costs. A vastly greater effort is required and could be advanced with these steps:

  • As the U.S. government plans a new U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit (to follow the initial one in 2014), it should give prominent place to African proposals addressing the challenges to global collective security and to a more effective partnership with African countries. This summit should be regularized, not just a consultation held sporadically.
  • After years in which several U.S. administrations have been outworked by China, Russia and other governments, the United States should intensify high-level visits and engagement with African counterparts. 
  • The United States should frame a trade and investment policy to support a transatlantic partnership with Africa, especially as the African Growth and Opportunity Act is set to expire in 2025.
  • The G-7 countries should implement, with deliberate speed, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment announced at their summit conference last month with its commitment of $600 billion in investment over the next five years. It should make Africa a priority.
  • To support that G-7 initiative, it is vital that the U.S. government provide its International Development Finance Corporation with the resources on the ground and all of the investment tools that Congress intended.
  • The European Union recently promised 150 billion euros of investment in public and private infrastructures in Africa by 2027. Now it should move from pledges to concrete projects in partnership with African governments and the business sector.

This year could be a rare moment to seize in creating the united, transatlantic approach to Africa that long-term U.S. and international security interests require — and that American values demand. North America and Europe share an unusually broad consensus now about the need to confront authoritarian dangers, such as Russia’s war. U.S. and European policymakers and commentators have long anguished about the dangers of Russia’s roles in Africa — through armed actions of the Wagner Group, weapons sales and corruption. They likewise are concerned over China’s growing influence. But Western governments have been slow to respond on the ground. The Ukraine crisis emphasizes the imperative to invest in the more stable, democratic, prosperous Africa that we, and our children’s generation, will need.

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