New US security strategy poised to stoke scramble for Africa

Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden. In a new National Security Strategy unveiled on October 12, 2022, President Biden’s administration stridently sets the ideological contours of superpower competition in the decisive 2022-2032 decade.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm | AFP

What you need to know:

  • With the economic centre of gravity shifting eastwards and southwards and new powers, especially China, emerging, the world is caught up in fierce geopolitical competition.
  • In a new National Security Strategy unveiled on October 12, President Biden’s administration stridently sets the ideological contours of superpower competition in the decisive 2022-2032 decade.
  • The Biden-Harris strategy depicts the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran as America’s main challengers in an epic clash of ideologies between ‘democracy’ and ‘autocracy’.


The post-Covid world is at an inflection point. We face unprecedented opportunities created by technological advances, but also tremendous challenges relating to climate change, epidemics, droughts, food insecurity, energy crisis and the War in Ukraine.

With the economic centre of gravity shifting eastwards and southwards and new powers, especially China, emerging, the world is caught up in fierce geopolitical competition.

In a new National Security Strategy unveiled on October 12, 2022, President Joe Biden’s administration stridently sets the ideological contours of superpower competition in the decisive 2022-2032 decade.

Washington is seizing the moment created by the retreat of the “Trump phenomena” – populism, isolationism, protectionism, anti-migration policies and other anti-globalisation trends – to bolster its declining power, advance vital interests and position itself to outmanoeuvre geopolitical competitors, tackle shared challenges and set the world “on a path toward a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow”.

America’s 360-degree strategy – which heralds the age of ‘smart power’ that blends the hard power of the military and the soft power of networks, partnerships and alliances across cultures and regions – is poised to decisively shape Africa’s fortunes in the future of power globally.

The next decade, at least, is one of bipolarity, where China and America will be out-competing each other for influence in global governance. The strategy’s endgame is America’s victory to shape the future of the international order.

The Biden-Harris strategy depicts the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran as America’s main challengers in an epic clash of ideologies between ‘democracy’ and ‘autocracy’.

Although increasingly aligned with each other, China and Russia pose distinct challenges to America. The strategy, therefore, prioritises a two-track approach.

First is maintaining an enduring competitive edge over China as the only competitor combining both the intent to reshape the international order increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Second is constraining “a still profoundly dangerous” Russia as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Globalisation 

America laments that while China has adeptly benefited from globalisation and the openness of the international economy, it has limited access to its domestic market, reduced its own dependency on the world while making the world dependent on its power.

China is investing heavily in a military that is increasingly modernising and with a global reach. Beijing is harnessing its economic muscle, technological capacity and growing influence over international institutions to hew an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-pacific rim, eclipse America and its allies and become the world’s leading power.

China’s competitive edge is likely to increase following the re-election of President Xi Jinping, Beijing’s most consequential leader in the 21st century, for a third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the party’s recently concluded 20th National Congress held in Beijing on October 16-22, 2022. 

America is harnessing smart power to out-compete China. At home, it will invest in democratic values, competitiveness, resilience and innovation of its people, a dynamic and strong economy and its military. Abroad, it will align its efforts with allies and partners.

“America’s strength abroad comes from its strength at home,” Biden writes. 

Washington will build a community of shared belief in the rule of law as the basis of global peace and prosperity as a counter to Xi Jinping’s “community of shared destiny for mankind”.

The Biden administration will scale up investment, development assistance and markets to allies and partners, invest in a combat-credible military to deter aggression, and help allies and partners defend themselves, and “hold Beijing to account” for “human rights abuses”. 

Blissfully, the Biden- Harris strategy does not envision competition with China as a zero-sum game. While recognising that competition makes cooperation difficult, it prioritises increased global cooperation to confront shared challenges that impact people globally. 

“It is possible for the United States and the PRC to co-exist peacefully, and share in and contribute to human progress together,” says the strategy (p.24). 

Global economy 

As the second largest economic power, China is central to the progress of the global economy. Two powers are better than one!

America’s most consequential strategy after the Cold War recognises African governments, institutions and people as a major geopolitical force – a radical shift from the Afro-pessimism of “hopeless continent” to the spirit of “Africa rising”.

The strategy will adapt the US-Africa partnership to “reflect the important geopolitical role that African nations play globally” (p.43). 

It notes that the “dynamism, innovation and demographic growth” render the region “central to addressing complex global problems” (p.12). 

A booming population, more youthful, mobile, educated and connected than ever before, vital natural resources, the vibrant entrepreneurship and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are drivers of Africa’s growth and geopolitical influence. 

Africa has the largest regional voting group in the UN and its citizens at the helm of major international institutions.

While working closely with African countries and regional bodies (AU, RECS), sub-national governments, civil society, private sector and diaspora communities, America will also invest in Africa’s largest states such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. 

Although America will “engage African countries as equal partners”, it will adhere to the democracy-autocracy divide, press African partners about human rights, corruption and authoritarianism and give pride of place to countries that make progress towards more open and democratic governance. 

It will coordinate with other international partners and regional bodies to counter democratic backsliding by imposing costs for coups and pressing for progress on civilian transitions. 

America will support Africa-led efforts to resolve conflicts, address the root causes of terrorism, fight terrorism and invest in local and international peace-building and peacekeeping to prevent new conflicts. Washington will work with Africa to push back on the destabilising impact of the Russian-backed Wagner Group. 

At the security level, two African countries (Senegal and South Africa) together with Argentina, India, Indonesia and Ukraine were invited to participate in the 2022 G7 Summit. 

At the economic level, the ‘Proper Africa’, ‘Feed the Future’ and ‘Power Africa’ initiatives will be used to promote US-Africa trade, tackle the digital economy, food insecurity and clean energy. The big question is whether Africa will make the best of superpower competition and the new scramble for the continent to benefit its people.

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser (2007-2013) and currently the President & Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University (Kenya).

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