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Why Biden’s Africa summit is a make-or-break moment

The White House is doing a delicate dance in its first summit for African leaders in nearly a decade. Here’s why the meeting is a big deal.


The Biden administration is playing pitchman this week as it hosts a summit for several leaders from African nations

This year’s summit comes eight years after then-President Barack Obama hosted the first such summit at the White House.

The world has changed just a tad since then. 

And in that time, the United States has essentially twiddled its thumbs while nations we consider our geopolitical adversaries — namely, China and Russia — have made inroads in Africa. 

Today there’s a competition among global powers to woo African leaders, with a full understanding that their future is largely reliant on Africa. I’m being quite literal: The materials used to make batteries in everything from cutting-edge cars, to phones, to computers most often come from African mines (specifically in Congo). 

But some believe the U.S. is already at a severe disadvantage in the race ally with Africa. China has spent the past decade building out President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” in Africa, loaning hundreds of billions of dollars for nations to build infrastructure projects that will improve China’s trade prospects and diplomatic influence. And Russia is acutely aware that its war with Ukraine has devastated the global supply chain and, disproportionately, harmed African countries. That’s why Russian leadership visited the continent in July to spin the crisis as the West’s fault, and portrayed themselves as saviors to African nations by offering grain to countries in need.

I should note: Russia has a pretty extensive military and paramilitary history in Africa, too. Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, for example, who was just released in a prisoner swap for WNBA star Brittney Griner, was once a prolific weapons dealer who helped prop up brutal African warlords. And Russians make up the bulk of the brutal “Wagner Group,” mercenaries allegedly backed by a Russian tycoon known as “Putin’s Chef” who are helping totalitarian leaders in Africa wreak havoc.

Still, many African nations have been reluctant to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, showing there are still ties that bind. 

The Biden administration is doing a delicate dance as it jockeys for influence, though. U.S. officials have been open about not wanting to sound too paternalistic or self-serving in its dealings with African leaders, and framing African support as an “us vs. them” alliance against Russia and China runs that risk. That explains why Biden spoke Wednesday of building partnerships “not to create political obligation or foster dependence, but to spur shared success.” 

And in a Monday press briefing, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that explaining to African leaders which countries aren’t loyal allies isn’t a priority at this summit. 

"This is going to be about what we can offer," he said. "It’s going to be a positive proposition about the United States’ partnership with Africa. It’s not going to be about other countries."

The Biden administration on Monday announced a $55 billion investment in African nations over the next three years. And Biden is expected to announce this week his support for adding the African Union, a group of dozens of countries, to the G-20, the international body that deliberates over the world’s most pressing issues. 

The U.S. is taking a different tact with Africa than usual. The country may have arrived to this point begrudgingly, but it has the potential to help level the playing field on the world stage.