Over the final days of the campaign, CJR is running a series of pieces under the headline “Ask Obama This” and “Ask Romney This,” suggesting themes and questions that reporters and pundits can put to the presidential candidates. So far we’ve asked President Obama about his short term jobs plan and about housing, and Governor Romney about his plans for the Middle East. Howard French asked both candidates about a hidden aspect of China policy, and here, about Africa.

Four debates down, and the word “Africa” has been uttered just once, in passing.

What is most disturbing about an observation like this is how little it surprises. Not since the Kennedy Administration has the United States seen Africa—the continent of Africa, and not the odd country or momentary crisis—as the theater of any top-drawer foreign policy concerns.

And across Africa, a feeling of letdown at the Obama administration’s lack of engagement with the continent is palpable. Because of his background, expectations were higher for the incumbent president in this regard than they have been for perhaps any of his predecessors.

After a rousing early trip to Ghana in the summer of 2009, where he praised that fast-growing country’s maturing democracy and summoned African leaders to serve their populations better Obama has all but abandoned direct personal engagement with the sub-Saharan portion of the continent, squandering his great potential for strong personal connections with the continent and the soft power benefits that go with it.

This is more than a personal story, though. The reason why American leaders tend to ignore Africa is linked to a traditional belief, deeply seated in our foreign policy establishment’s mindset, that the United States has no vital interests in the continent. An important associated thought is that Africa can only and forever be a burden, with the US called upon to foot the bill when major crises erupt there.

Neither of these ideas could have withstood much scrutiny if an all-too-passive press had bothered to challenge the assumptions that underlie them. And with the African landscape changing rapidly, in deeply significant ways, such attitudes have never been more out of step with the times.

Africa currently boasts about one billion people. United Nations projections say that by the population of the continent will more than triple by the end of the century, to jump to about 3.9 billion. Such a steady and astounding increase creates enormous opportunities for the US, as well as enormous challenges.

With American policy attitudes stuck in a mindset of Africa, and particularly sub-Saharan Africa, as the ward of the rich world, we have lost sight of the options that Africa’s ongoing demographic, economic, and political changes present for us.

On the opportunity side, there are several ways to look at this. In recent years, six or seven of the world’s fastest growing economies have been in Africa and Africa has by some estimates become the fasting growing continent overall. Africa is also urbanizing faster than any other part of the world, and as that happens, the middle classes in Africa are sprouting rapidly. These are the consumers of the future, people who can potentially pick up the slack from the slow-growing, aging, and indebted countries of the rich and developed world.

Against this backdrop, African leaders and the people of the continent clearly perceive—and have come to resent—the sort of hold your nose, arms-length paternalism that guides so much of our scant focus on them.

And nowadays they have a powerful point of comparison. It has hardly been given notice in high-level policy circles until recently, but for about a decade, China has been plowing investment into the continent and showering it with attention. Not a year goes by when not one, but several top Chinese leaders tour Africa. And the most important message they send is that unlike the US and others in the West, China sees Africa as a place of extraordinary opportunity, as the continent of the future, and as the site of the next great phase of globalization.

Chinese opportunism is at work here, of course; one might even say cynicism. But what China has had in its favor for the last ten years or so is a virtual monopoly on the playing field. So much so that if nothing important changes, historians may look back in 20 or 30 years and ask the question: Who lost Africa?

The questions for the Obama and Romney campaigns, then, are: How will your administration break with Washington’s outdated Africa policies? How will the United States keep pace with China and other emerging economic powers, like India, Brazil and Turkey, which are all stepping up their engagements with Africa? What, specifically, can the US do to help develop markets in Africa, tap the huge, ongoing demographic shift there, and change the relationship between this country and the continent into one of much greater opportunity for all concerned?

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Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was the Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. At present, he is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation and is researching a book on China and Africa. French's most recent book is "Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life," with Qiu Xiaolong.