Guilt Trip

Why President Obama's tour of Africa is already a disappointment.

On Wednesday, June 26, President Barack Obama embarks on his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office in 2009. Significant though it is, this long-awaited visit will fall short of the expectations of many Africans. Over the last four and a half years, Africans have grown increasingly critical of Obama's limited interest in the continent -- an interest that seems confined to security -- and many feel that the U.S. president has taken their goodwill for granted. The excitement that accompanied his historic 2008 election has given way to widespread cynicism on the continent. Unfortunately, this trip is unlikely to change the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa.

When Obama returns to Washington, he will have increased the amount of time he's spent as president in Africa nearly tenfold -- from 21 to about 200 hours. He will also have gone from having visited only one country -- Ghana -- to having visited four (he's scheduled to make appearances in Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa). For the Obama administration, these are important milestones and a sign of his renewed commitment.

But for a president who has failed to seize Africa's many economic opportunities, the additional time spent there is still pathetic and embarrassing -- especially when compared with China's deep engagement in the region. Over the last five years, China's top leaders -- including the president, vice president, premier, vice premier, cabinet ministers, and top Communist Party officials -- have visited around 30 African countries. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited 17 African nations in a single 10-month stretch between July 2006 and February 2007. And China's current president, Xi Jinping, has already visited three African countries since taking office on March 14, 2013.  

Even by recent U.S. presidential standards, Obama's travel to the region has been minimal. At this point in George W. Bush's presidency, he had taken a five-country tour of sub-Saharan Africa and spent more than 100 hours on the continent. He then made another six-day trip to Africa near the end of his second term.

Another major criticism of Obama's Africa trip concerns the makeup of his itinerary. The president will be passing over three of the continent's regional anchors: Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. In fact, some had thought Obama would attend the African Union heads-of-state summit in Addis Ababa last month to celebrate the organization's 50th anniversary. This would have been more significant than visiting any group of countries and especially poignant given Obama's African heritage. Instead, he sent his secretary of state, which African leaders could have perceived as a sign of disrespect.

Obama has indicated that he will use his trip to highlight U.S. development programs in Africa. But since the president has established no significant new Africa-related programs, he will inevitably be highlighting the work of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama has also indicated he will highlight U.S. engagement on food security, terrorism, youth leadership, and energy. Unfortunately, any new initiatives in these areas are likely to be relatively small in scale and guided by the outdated view of Africa as a "hopeless" continent looking for handouts.

Obama's visit to Africa will also focus in part on promoting U.S. trade and private investment in the region. However, U.S. engagement in these areas has been limited to date, focused primarily on programs that target individual countries or on smaller, ill-defined initiatives such as the Commerce Department's "Doing Business in Africa" campaign or USAID's muddled efforts to create trade hubs in Africa. Such programs also do not sufficiently promote regional integration, which is critical to Africa's economic growth and transformation. American private-sector investment -- paired with public-sector support -- particularly in infrastructure, could go a long way in supporting Africa's growth and industrialization, and to being mutually beneficial for trade and investment. Obama has an opportunity with this trip to announce and follow through on initiatives in this area. If he does so, he will leave behind an important legacy on the continent.

For instance, a comprehensive African infrastructure and energy development initiative that increases funding as well as engagement by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) would show that Obama is serious about development. Such an initiative could also work on expanding and scaling the work of the U.S. Export-Import Bank -- specifically its Short-Term Africa Initiative (STAI) -- with the goal of finding ways to increase financing for African infrastructure-related transactions. It's worth noting that this would be mutually beneficial, since the U.S. Export-Import Bank actually makes money from this type of lending.

OPIC, MCC, and the Export-Import Bank have done more work and dedicated more funds to Africa projects in recent years than ever before, but the United States still doesn't measure up when compared with Africa's other global partners. To put things into perspective, Ghanaians have great memories of Obama's visit to their country in his first term, but they are even more excited about the Bui Dam that the Chinese are building to increase Ghana's power supply. This investment will have a positive impact on Ghanaians' quality of life, strengthen their productivity, and make the country's private sector more competitive. The Bui Dam is a real, substantive project. When Chinese leaders visit Africa, they come with very specific development initiatives and return home with hundreds of bilateral agreements, many of which involve investment by Chinese companies.

Obama will almost certainly return home empty-handed. So, what will he accomplish beyond symbolism? Probably not much. The president's advisors will spin the trip as proof that Obama hasn't ignored Africa and that the region is an important U.S. partner. And while the latter bit might be true, most Africans don't see it that way.



Naval Gazing

India wants to "look east," but does it have the ships -- and strategic focus -- to be a military player in Asia?

On June 23, during a visit to New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in which he explained the role that India plays in Asia. He mentioned Pakistan six times, climate change eight times, and Afghanistan 12 times. China, Southeast Asia, and East Asia only merited one mention, while the "Look East" Policy -- India's effort to expand its economic and military relationships with East Asian and Southeast Asian nations -- received only two mentions, both in the same sentence. Kerry's speech probably disappointed New Delhi: India no longer wants the world to see it as an inwardly focused nation mired in its own backyard.

Indeed, over the last month, India's Navy made goodwill visits to Vietnam and Malaysia; a mid-June trip to the Philippines included "courtesy calls, receptions" and shipboard tours, according to the Inquirer, a Filipino newspaper. In May, for the first time ever, an acting Indian defense minister made an official visit to Australia; the two sides agreed to start annual naval exercises. After a late-May visit to Thailand and Japan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that he is "hopeful" of the Look East Policy's future success.

The rest of the region, however, should not share Singh's optimism: India's ability to become a major Asian power is constrained by conventional and insurgent threats, resource and organizational limitations, and a chaotic domestic political scene.

Yes, India is modernizing its armed forces. In February, India announced it will spend over $37 billion on its military, a 14 percent increase from last year; for the last three years, it has been the world's largest arms importer. But India's military remains distracted by counterinsurgency operations in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir and in the country's restive northeast, as well as by a fractious relationship with Pakistan. And India still lacks the ability to secure its borders. One of the embarrassing takeaways of a border crisis in early May, in which roughly 30 Chinese troops pitched tents 12 miles inside Indian territory, was that India lags far behind China in its ability to move forces into the contested area.

Indian strategists place their greatest hopes for influencing Asia's security dynamic on naval power. India's annual naval spending grew from $181 million in 1988 to $6.78 billion in 2012; the navy is now a professional and capable force that, in combination with the United States and other allies, could potentially balance China in the South China Sea.

But some Indian strategists and political elites worry about excessively close cooperation with the United States. India's Look East Policy has already created friction with a China worried about being contained. New Delhi is wary of further provoking its neighbor to the north, one of Asia's dominant military powers and one of India's largest trading partners. Both countries have stated that they want bilateral trade to reach $100 billion by 2015, up from $68 billion today; this is particularly important at a time when India's economy is growing at its slowest rate in a decade. And without partners like the United States, the Indian Navy is unable to sustainably project power -- doing so alone would require at least several years of modernization, expansion, and investment in logistics, support, and surface and submarine vessels. Courtesy visits to Manila are not the same thing as deployable military power in the South China Sea.

Indian domestic politics present another hurdle. India's defense bureaucracy is slow and inefficient, and an ambitious strategy such as this would require sustained oversight and prodding by powerful politicians. Yet India's most influential elected officials seem focused on the instability of the ruling government and, above all, the 2014 general elections. There is no incentive for Indian politicians to focus on defense policy or alliance strategy. Politicians win votes by distributing patronage, building local alliances with regional political parties, and making appeals to class, caste, language, and religion. As former Chief of Naval Staff Arun Prakash said in May, "Since defense and security have not, so far, become electoral issues," Indian politicians are "happy to leave defense and security matters" to the bureaucracy, which lacks the power to make changes to defense policy.  

Until India gets its own house in order, Singh's hope that his country's diplomacy "will contribute to peace, prosperity and stability" in the region will continue to ring hollow. In his Sunday speech, Kerry also said that "India is a key part of the U.S. rebalance in Asia." That it is -- and it's not ready to go into Asia alone.