As Secretary of State Clinton begins her seven-nation African safari, the continent is enjoying a brief moment in the Washington sun. There was President Obama's much watched speech in Ghana last month. Last week saw a key Senate hearing on Sudan and Darfur. Over the next 11 days Clinton will cover some of the key issues facing Africa, including expanding trade and economic growth, and the stubborn, deadly crises in Somalia, Congo and Zimbabwe.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, has a 37-year diplomatic career spanning seven African nations. Africa might never be the topmost foreign policy priority of any American president, Shinn says. But he adds, "After four years of the Obama administration I believe that Africa will have been given more attention than has been the case with any previous American administration."
Here are excerpts of my interview with Shinn on the eve of Clinton's visit, which begins today in Kenya:
What’s the main message the Obama administration and Clinton are trying to send with this trip?
The main purpose is to underscore, following the President’s visit to Ghana earlier in July that the Obama administration is interested in strengthening relations with sub-Saharan Africa. A continuing subtext will be, as the President said before the Ghanaian Parliament, that Africa’s future is up to Africans. The administration is placing more responsibility on Africans themselves for resolving their problems and improving economic development. Having said that, I believe the Secretary’s visit will produce some “good cop” rhetoric to offset the “tough cop” remarks of the President.
Some activists have criticized the Obama administration for not making Africa a top priority, citing a lack of engagement on Somalia, Congo and other trouble spots. Are those criticisms founded? Will Clinton’s tour address those concerns?
First, we need a reality check. Africa has never been a top priority of any American administration. After four years of the Obama administration I believe that Africa will have been given more attention than has been the case with any previous American administration. But it will still not reach a top foreign policy priority. Europe, Asia and Latin America are all economically more important. Europe has close cultural and historical ties. Latin America is geographically closer. Even the Middle East and South Asia are strategically more important. It is necessary to keep Africa in perspective.
Africa is becoming more important. About 20 percent of America’s imported oil comes from the African continent. Is it any surprise that Secretary Clinton is visiting Nigeria and Angola, two major oil exporters to the United States? Some twelve percent of the American population has African origins and the father of the American President was, of course, a Kenyan. There may be an added focus on this connection between the United States and Africa.
I would argue that the Obama administration, which has only been in office for six months, has been exceedingly active in two of Africa’s major conflicts—Sudan and Somalia. I have not seen much activity on the Congo, but believe this will soon change. Finally, by definition activists criticize. If they didn’t, they would no longer be activists.
What’s the significance of Clinton’s meeting with Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed? Won’t it merely underline Sharif’s ties to the West, which his opponents already criticize?
The most vocal opponents of President Ahmed are the extremist al-Shabaab and a few allied organizations. The United States and most of the rest of the world has no interest in catering to their concerns. The United Nations, African Union, Arab League, Organization of Islamic Congress and virtually the entire international community support the Somali Transitional Federal Government led by President Ahmed. I don’t believe there is any apprehension about alienating his extremist opponents. You can expect that Secretary Clinton will strongly support President Ahmed.
Do you anticipate any major headlines coming out of the trip?
I have the impression that the Obama administration wants to change the approach to food security in Africa. Candidate Obama talked about a “green revolution” in Africa during the presidential campaign. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture will accompany the Secretary of State to Kenya. There could be a major initiative announced on food security and support for African agriculture.
On a bilateral level, there may be a resuscitation of the binational commission with South Africa. This existed during the presidency of Bill Clinton but disappeared under President Bush. I suspect either a binational commission or something similar will be revived....
What is one country that you think Clinton should visit, but isn’t?
There are actually three candidates, but First Lady Hillary Clinton visited two of them—Senegal and Tanzania—in 1997....That leaves one major omission in my view—Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa and a close ally of the United States. Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Ethiopia in 2007, this would be a good occasion to underscore the importance the United States attaches to Ethiopian civil society, human rights and a good electoral process in 2010. In addition, Secretary Clinton could express appreciation to Ethiopia for support on regional conflicts and countering extremism.
Photo credit: William Atkins/GWU. 2009