It is no question that our world is one of increasing complexity rooted in expanding linkages between people, nations, policy, security, and economics. On any given day, countless flights transport thousands across the globe, millions log on to the Internet, and trillions of dollars change hands. Next to technology, economics has been a primary driver of this trend, with the US long at the forefront as a leader in economic innovation and growth. This economic leadership has been among the most prominent features of US National Security, allowing our country to be agile and resilient in the face of hardship.
The global economic crisis, as it has unfolded over the last several years, has shaken up this traditional model of global economics. We are now seeing new economic powers from the developing world – led by China – rise to challenge the US’ traditional role as leader. Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in Africa, where China recently pledged US$20 billion over the next three years to support African development in exchange for natural resources. While this move may not be a direct strategic challenge to US security, China is unquestionably expanding its global influence via the African continent. The question is, why does the US refrain from competing in equal measure in the African economic theater?
Historically, the US has often allowed its principles to dictate its economic conduct in other nations, thought results of these efforts may be mixed. We provide primarily conditional aid to nations, money in exchange for concessions, whether it be increased governmental transparency, the implementation of rule of law, or improved human rights. It thus follows that the US shies away from providing funds to nations that are undemocratic, engaged in armed conflict, or are consistent violators of human rights. These principles run so deeply in American society that even parts of the private sector have occasionally gone out of the way to avoid engaging with such nations out of concern for politics and regulations, or that doing so may violate corporate social responsibility practices and impact bottom lines.
However, the US often plays by different rules in its strategic engagements. To facilitate its military operations in Afghanistan and, in part, to leverage the Pakistani government, the US contracts with the nations of Central Asia, most notably, Uzbekistan. The governments of Central Asia are among the most undemocratic in the world and boast some of the worst track records in human rights abuses and corruption. Yet, just as it engages with Pakistan, a known safe haven for anti-American sentiment and global terrorism, the US maintains focused diplomatic relations with the nations in Central Asia to achieve specific strategic goals in spite of this blatant disregard for the principles we hold so dear.
This dichotomy in US projections of influence speaks to a larger issue. US economic stability and growth is recognized as an integral piece in the security puzzle. At what point does it cross into the strategic space and our economic policies and practices mirror our strategic ones? And even more importantly, should they?
In regards to US investment and influence in the African continent, the US is playing a game of catch up with China and arguably missing out on an enormous economic opportunity along the way. The US could easily win at China’s game in Africa by handing out unconditioned “free” money, but it would require subjecting American principles and ideals to economic aims as we often do in our pursuit of strategic objectives. This is an enormous tradeoff, and one the US must carefully evaluate before making any decision on such an approach.
In this time where budgets are tight and uncertainty runs rampant throughout global markets, investors and nations are seeking any opportunity that might pay dividends or provide a safe haven in which to camp. Africa is that opportunity for China, and as the US expands its strategic engagement with African nations in combating terrorism, it is increasingly expected to respond in some manner to Chinese influence in the continent’s economic sphere. Regardless of how it proceeds in expanding its economic relations, and irrespective of whether it chooses to compete directly with China, the US must acknowledge the challenges and tradeoffs in securing new economic opportunities, including those in Africa. Decisions made in haste to counter short-term challenges can result in dangerous precedents with long-term impact.