On Jan. 27, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen ended her 10-day trip to three African democracies—Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa—to promote economic ties between the United States and the continent. During her visit, Yellen highlighted key examples of U.S. investment in Africa, such as a Ford assembly plant in South Africa, in a thinly-veiled effort to encourage African countries to choose America over China, especially as the latter makes large-scale investments across the continent through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Yellen’s trip to Africa was an excellent effort by the Biden administration to step up engagement with the world’s fastest-growing continent, especially as both the Obama and Trump administrations widely ignored Africa. But if the Biden administration truly wants to woo Africa with the promise of American investment, it will need more than just visits with top officials and a few photo-ops. America’s strategy to grow its economic ties with Africa is missing one key component: an effective public relations strategy.
When China announced the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, it promised billions in investment in infrastructure throughout much of Africa and Asia. Yet, beyond merely investing in roads and bridges, one oft-overlooked component of the BRI has been soft power. In 2017, four years after formation of the BRI, China shrewdly formed the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN)—an association of 182 media outlets across 86 countries, including major African media outlets like South Africa’s multi-platform content company Independent Media. Chinese companies have rapidly invested in the African media market, and Beijing has even financed Mandarin courses across Africa.
These soft power investments offer Beijing a very tangible benefit. Even as many debate whether the BRI is a mutually-beneficial win-win initiative, or a scheme to drag countries into so-called debt-trap diplomacy, researchers have found that African opinions of the Belt and Road Initiative remain broadly popular.
To African companies and investors, China’s soft power strategy creates a virtuous cycle—by extolling the benefits of Chinese investments, they fuel more investors and governments to seek out investments from Beijing, which in turn can reap potential rewards for African firms and governments, further increase African opinions of China, and hence attract even more investors.
Beyond bringing in more investments, this soft power strategy also serves as a form of protection against the growing backlash against China. Even as concerns over China’s increasingly assertive behavior grow in the West, China’s soft power efforts ensure that both citizens and governments across Africa remain broadly supportive of continuing Chinese investments. The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an excellent example of this point—although China receives flak from the West for its support of Russia, many African countries have declared “neutrality” and China’s clout in the continent only continues to grow. As long as Beijing has its soft power shield, the BRI’s reach in Africa will not cease.
Similarly, these soft power measures can have a powerful impact on the hearts and minds of people across the African continent. As China uses educational outreach, films, and more to promote its public image in Africa, more African nations may become more likely to elect governments that favor economic ties with Beijing over the West. This effect is only compounded by the destructive legacy of Western colonialism in Africa.
If America is serious about building economic ties in Africa, it not only needs to make investments—it needs to “sell” them too. Beyond sending U.S. leaders to visit Africa, America’s politicians should use their powerful bully pulpit to proactively discuss America’s investments across Africa on a regular basis.
United States Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen
United States Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen and South Africa’s Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana hold a joint press conference after a bilateral meeting at the National Treasury in Pretoria, South Africa, on Jan. 26, 2023.AFP via Getty Images
When U.S. foreign policy leaders like Secretary of State Antony Blinken or National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appear on networks like CBS, they should highlight the administration’s extensive outreach to Africa on a regular basis, not just prior to events like the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Further, these high-level foreign policy officials—alongside with American ambassadors across Africa—should appear on widely-viewed, pan-African news channels like CNN Africa to highlight the employment benefits and economic opportunities offered by the world’s largest economy. Doing so would be vital to win the hearts and minds of African governments, investors, and their citizens.
If today’s epicenter of global economic growth is in Asia, tomorrow’s is in Africa. For the sake of America’s long-term prosperity and security, U.S. politicians would be wise to win the hearts and minds of Africans, soon to make up one-fourth of humanity.
Sergio Imparato is a lecturer on government at Harvard University and author of The Sovereign President (Pisa University Press, 2015). He has previously published in The Hill, The Diplomat, and STAT.
Sarosh Nagar is a researcher in the department of economics at Harvard University. His research studies the role of economics of emerging technology development. He has previously been published in JAMA, The Hill, and The Diplomat. His Twitter is @saroshnagar.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.
Source: news week