Africa, Meet Secretary of State John Kerry

This week, President Obama is expected to announce his nomination of Senator John Kerry as the country’s next Secretary of State.   Long considered on the short list for the job, the Massachusetts lawmaker’s nomination became all but inevitable after embattled UN Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration last week.

For Kerry, the nomination to Secretary of State is an appointment that culminates a career of service most recently as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Kerry has been a key supporter of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy often emphasizing its strengths.  But its the weak points in the administration’s record, notably in US relations with Africa, where Kerry’s diplomacy may prove to be the most needed.

During President Obama’s first term, the US has sought to address growth and conflict in Africa and has struggled to find policy answers to both.  From the major economic growth on the continent to the destabilization of “safe states” like Mali and Nigeria, the United States has found itself in a new, complex chapter of Africa’s history.

This fall, when the UN Security Council resolution on rebel group M23’s use of child soldiers and rape as a weapon in the Congo, Ambassador Rice argued to temper language, claiming the strong wording of the resolution would jeopardize negotiations in the region.  Critics claimed the move was the latest display of the US prioritizing its bond with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and ignoring Rwanda’s complicity in M23’s aggression.

In a recent Senate report, Kerry made the case for stricter human rights standards in conditions for US economic assistance.  As Secretary of State, Kerry’s emphasis on consistency in policy would send the right message to the leaders and people of sub Saharan Africa and within the US foreign service.

As important as its response to Africa’s conflicts will be the US’ response to Africa’s growth.  With a forecasted growth rate of 6 percent per year, Africa is the world’s second fastest region behind Asia.  Of the world’s ten fastest growing economies, seven of them are African countries.  With its growing consumer markets, growing labor force and natural resources, Africa has seen a boom in foreign investment and economists predict the continent will have a $2.6 trillion combined GDP by 2020.

While Africa’s economic growth has weathered the financial crisis, the US has not rebounded at a comparable pace.  The lingering effects of the crisis have hindered American investment on the continent, causing the US to fall far behind Africa’s largest investors, China and India.  Still some US businesses have committed to significant investments.  Earlier this year, Hilton announced its plans to expand its hotel chain with locations in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana.  While private US businesses face more domestic regulation on their investments, the US needs for its policymakers to seek to strengthen its economic policies in Africa. 

As a supporter of extending the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Kerry was part of the effort to provide 200,000 African workers with jobs.  As Secretary of State, Kerry’s main challenge will be seeing beyond Foggy Bottom’s penchant for viewing Africa through a humanitarian lens to seeing it as a major economic partner.  

Addressing Africa’s growth as well as its conflicts could be a chance for the US to turn the page in its dealing on the continent.  While he may not be the nominee that some progressives hoped for, Kerry could be the quiet diplomat that US relations with Africa needs.