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We are one week away from the first ever US-Africa Summit. As some fifty heads of state prepare to descend on Washington DC on Aug 4, the only certainties are that the hotels will be packed and downtown traffic will be a snarl. But what to expect from the Summit itself?
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What I hope to see:
Substance on peace & security cooperation. Hard national security issues will always rise to the top of foreign policy, so it’s essential that the Summit address our mutual concerns about instability (in places like DRC, CAR, Mali), terrorism (Sahel, Kenya, Somalia), and other transnational threats (Ebola, narcotics trafficking). Since the U.S. can’t fight these alone, we need to be more creative in figuring out what we should be doing together with African partners. This must go beyond more of the same.
Real progress on energy & infrastructure investment. Nearly every African leader has prioritized private investment. By no coincidence, the administration’s signature initiative for the second term is Power Africa. So far, so good. But the Summit should provide a signal of intentions to accelerate and expand the electricity effort and to revitalize efforts to mobilize American business.
African leaders gain a sense that America is finally taking them seriously. Beyond specific deliverables, summits are mainly opportunities to set a tone for future relations. With buoyant economies and huge new interest from the BRICs and other players, African leaders are feeling confident about themselves yet also anxious about the degree of attention from the world’s sole remaining superpower. This comes just at the time that Africa is more important than ever before to the United States. I hope Summit participants will depart Washington with a renewed sense of respect and significance from the United States.
What I hope I won’t see:
A Distracted President. There’s been some complaining about the lack of bilateral meetings. (Fifteen-minute speed-dating is arguably even less than zero meetings.) But I really hope that events in Gaza, Ukraine, or who-knows-where don’t reduce President Obama’s attentions or even force him to back out of any Summit events.
Too much about “African youth”. Yes, Africa has a demographic youth bulge and, yes, unemployment and marginalization of young people is an important issue and, yes, the administration has a nice Young African Leaders Initiative. But none of this is worthy of very scarce POTUS-capital. It’s unthinkable that President Obama would highlight youth in a summit with Asian or Latin American presidents. African heads of state know this too.
Extravagant luxury shopping. I hope the visitors will also show some discretion and not do anything embarrassing like we’ve sometimes seen at summits in the past, such as indefensible displays of champagne, shopping, and luxury hotel bills. Vast entourages traipsing through Jimmy Choo, Gucci, and Tiffany’s in Friendship Heights would send all the wrong messages back home.