Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election is set to usher in a new era of US policy — domestically and internationally. After the haphazard, disruptive and unconventional approach adopted by Donald Trump, during which the US abandoned its traditional role in global affairs, a return to orthodoxy is expected under the incoming administration.

Now, as the US seeks to recalibrate its international relations and restore its global alliances, it is important for African policymakers, businesses and civil society to understand the full impact of this leadership change on their domestic political, economic and policy landscapes.

It is already clear that a Biden administration will operate in a radically different way to its predecessor. These shifting policy contours will be reflected in many ways — from “diplomacy to democratic engagement, through support for the international architecture, debt relief and the warming climate”, according to Nicholas Norbrook of The Africa Report.

At face value, a more global, constructive and engaged US appears to be positive for the continent. But what exactly will this entail? In the short term, global financial markets will be enthused by the prospect of a major fiscal stimulus, which alongside accommodative monetary policy could act as a tailwind for risk assets — including African currencies and bonds.

Markets are already rising on the prospect of a stable policy environment and a pragmatic legislative agenda given the likely split in power between the House of Representatives and Senate, which could limit extreme policy agendas in either direction. With positive news of a Covid-19 vaccine, this has led to market buoyancy and a reduction in external borrowing costs for African sovereigns. In a context in which the cost of funding has risen to unsustainable levels, this is welcome relief, though not a silver bullet to fix the continent’s debt problems.

Damaged status

Africa’s perception of the US will improve significantly under Biden. Trump made his sentiments towards the continent clear with a series of derogatory remarks; in contrast, a more respectful, conciliatory and dignified approach under Biden will almost certainly boost the US’s strategic objectives. Though Trump shared personal chemistry with the likes of presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt, this was hardly reciprocated by Kenyan and Egyptian nationals and Africans at large. Indeed, Trump, who never visited the continent, remains deeply unpopular among Africans, largely due to his overt racism and discriminatory visa and migration laws, which disproportionately affected Africans.

Beyond this, Trump’s subversion of democratic institutions severely eroded the moral authority of the US in global governance matters. A Biden presidency is expected to re-emphasise commitment to democratic values and good governance, which may go some way to restoring the US’s damaged status on the continent.

Whereas the Trump administration repudiated multilateralism wholeheartedly, pulling out of important global agreements and institutions such as the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organisation (WHO), Biden is likely to reverse these decisions and pursue a more conventional diplomatic approach. Improved stability, certainty and co-operation in the international order will boost Africa’s prospects, especially given the extent of its economic challenges, which will almost certainly require external assistance.

The positive spin-offs will be most evident in the approaches to Covid-19 and climate change — critical global emergencies that require co-ordinated, evidence-based solutions and the effective mobilisation of resources. Leadership that prioritises science and facts over political expediency will undoubtedly be beneficial to Africa given the far-reaching effects of both of these crises on the continent.

Protectionist impulses

In terms of trade and investment, trade relations with China are likely to be less hostile, a positive for global growth and demand.

The threat posed to the extension of the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2025 will furthermore subside as protectionist impulses wane. It is likely to be reconfigured into something more substantive upon expiration. The prospects for the African Continental Free Trade Area will also be boosted, especially if the recent trend of the US brokering bilateral trade deals with countries such as Kenya is replaced in favour of a continental collective bargaining approach. The election of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO) — vetoed by the Trump administration — is now set to gain clear passage, which will be another fillip for the continent.

US foreign policy is less likely to be shaped through the “America First” doctrine. Biden’s Africa policy will assume a more holistic focus, though this agenda will remain driven by competition with China and expanding US commercial activity on the continent through the private sector — especially in high-growth areas such as energy, infrastructure and renewables.

The Biden administration will be aware that Africa has emerged as a theatre of strategic geopolitical competition, and is likely to redouble efforts to position the US as the preferred Western partner of choice. Whereas Trump railed against the global liberal order, Biden’s administration will probably adopt a more strategic approach to enhancing Washington’s global influence, especially via institutions shaped in the US’s image, notably the IMF and World Bank.

Curiously, the US has been relatively silent throughout the ongoing Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) and Paris Club negotiations. This position could shift in the coming months as Biden’s administration wrestles with the urgent challenge of getting private investors on board with debt forgiveness.

On foreign policy, the style of engagement will differ, according to Menzi Ndhlovu of Signal Risk. He cites the example of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in which the US withdrew aid to force Ethiopia into agreeing to a compromise with Egypt and Sudan. The strategy has yet to pay off given Ethiopia’s bullishness; moreover, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will employ the same bullying tactics.

On security, a hawkish approach will be maintained, especially if Susan Rice is appointed secretary of state. However, a softer stance on migration is likely. Travel bans and visa restrictions instituted by the Trump administration will almost certainly be reversed, while a Biden administration may, in fact, try to capture some of the skilled “brain drain” that is leaking from Africa.

Despite the prospect of sweeping changes, Biden would do well not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, some of the promising initiatives adopted by the Trump administration failed to fully materialise due to a lack of strategic focus and intent. Prosper Africa, the Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development and the relaunch of the US Exim Bank were all sound, bipartisan initiatives that could yet have a material and positive effect on Africa. These should be built on, rather than abandoned.

US Africa policy has historically tended to have strong consensus across the aisle, suggesting there is a solid base to work from.

The election result has provided an opportunity for a fresh chapter in US-Africa relations. However, for a genuine win-win partnership to be achieved these efforts will need to go beyond the politics of symbolism and sentiment to deliver material benefits in terms of trade, investment, security and governance.

• Gopaldas is a director at Signal Risk and a fellow at The Gordon Institute of Business Science.

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