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The 2012 US Presidential Election and US Africa Policy

Now that the contest for the Republican Party presidential nomination is effectively over, the implications of the upcoming US presidential race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for US Africa policy become clearer.

At the broadest level, there is not likely to be a big divergence on Africa policy between Obama and Romney. US foreign policy interests in Africa’s economic development have been closely tied to broader US strategic objectives such as access to secure energy supplies and combating the spread of terrorism. Former President George W. Bush’s support for the PEPFAR programme, an emergency AIDS relief initiative, was indicative of US recognition of the interrelatedness of security, governance, global health and economic development in meeting US Africa policy objectives. This convergence of US interests is not likely to change dramatically, irrespective of who wins the White House in 2012.

However, over the longer term, as the United States shifts increasingly away from relying upon non-North American sources of oil and gas, the US need for oil from Nigeria, Angola and newer sources in East and West Africa should diminish. In a Washington political environment in which the need to reduce the US federal budget deficit is becoming an ever more powerful political imperative, shifting US energy sourcing could lead to a downgrading of the importance of the US security relationship with nations like Nigeria and Angola.

Yet US concerns about the spreading influence of Al-Qaeda and their allies across the Sahara and Sahel regions will remain significant. President Obama’s growing commitment to addressing the problem of Joseph Kony may indicate a desire to engage more with Africa on a basis significantly different from China’s business-first or business-only strategy. If Obama is re-elected, this suggests more of a US emphasis on governance and domestic security as a US development objective for Africa.

In recent months President Obama has also indicated an intention to raise the priority of promoting US exports as part of US foreign policy, even if his anti-Wall Street rhetoric does not promise an easy cooperative relationship with US business in improving export promotion.

As Africa enters a period in which growth rates are likely to exceed most other regions of the world, promoting US exports to Africa and investments in growing African business needs to be a top priority for the next US administration. Walmart’s decision to use South Africa as base from which to expand across the SADC region is indicative of the potential for US-African cooperation to create jobs and returns for investors on both sides of the Atlantic.

President Obama needs to embrace both the rhetoric and the substance of policies targeted at facilitating trade with and investments in Africa. For Governor Romney’s part, his record of business experience suggests that if elected president his policies would track naturally in that direction.

Professor Geoff Pigman is an academic associate in the Institute for Global Dialogue's International Diplomacy programme and a senior faculty on political economy at Bennington College, Vermont, USA.

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