Will The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Hurt Relations?

Will The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Hurt Relations?

This is the fourth of a four-part series exploring U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Aug. 4-6 in Washington, D.C.  Part four asks whether the summit is a risky undertaking for the White House. Part three showed how energy is a big issue at the summit; Part two looked at side events associated with the summit; and Part one illustrated the issues and events surrounding the summit.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Aug. 4-6 will focus on trade and investment by bringing nearly 50 heads of state together with a couple of hundred American corporate leaders in the largest gathering of African leadership in the U.S. at one time.

Indeed, the Summit offers a significant opportunity to enhance U.S.-Africa relationships – something the Administration has been moving towards during the President’s second term and announced the Summit during a visit to Africa last summer.

According to the Brookings Institute, the summit “provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to open a new chapter in U.S-Africa relations, moving from interaction on the bilateral level to a continent-wide engagement.”

“The upcoming summit provides access to nearly all of the leaders of Africa, especially small and infrequently visited nations, and bilateral meetings help to instill confidence and credibility in United States. This is a diplomatic and symbolic opportunity that should not be missed,” writes Amadou Sy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute Africa Growth Initiative.

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But as the Summit has been approaching, there has been a flurry of Op-Ed articles – both from critics and supporters – raising concerns and giving advice as to how the President can make the Summit really work.

“They started out, frankly, in a not so great way because they basically were saying to heads of state ‘save the date,’ a save the date notice like you and I would get for somebody’s birthday party,” former Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffett told AFKInsider.

“I think that was a bad start, but I think they’ve recovered from that,” said Moffett, who is currently a Senior Adviser at the national law firm Mayer Brown and has over 20 years of experience representing African countries, companies and non-government organizations.

In a June 9 Op-Ed in U.S. News and World Report,Steven Hayes, President and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa noted that the Summit “is not without significant risks and challenges, for this summit will be like none the African leaders have ever experienced.”

“We talk about risk for the President, I guess the connotation is of political risk and he doesn’t really have any political risk,” former Congressman Moffett told AFKInsider. “Let’s suppose it was really a disaster, what would be the political fallout, would it affect the Senate races that we have to win; the Senate seats that we on the democratic side have to hold – I doubt it.”

Bar Set High

Leading up to the Summit there has been some comparison of the White House event with the three well established Africa summits hosted each by China, the European Union and Japan.

Of course comparing to the other summits – which have had plenty of time to work out the kinks – is unfair at this point with the enormous undertaking of putting on a “first” Summit.

“That’s right, they’ve been doing it for so long and no (one) has ever brought this many heads of state to the U.S. for any purpose and it’s not easy,” Moffett told AFKInsider.

Recently, the Brookings Institute’s Africa Growth Initiative reviewed the components of three longstanding Africa summits in China, the European Union and Japan. In a June report, Brookings pointed out some of the key differences in White House’s first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

According to Brookings, Japan’s Tokyo International Conference for African Development started in 1993 and has met every five years since. China’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the E.U.-Africa summit both started in 2000, with China’s meeting every three years while the E.U.-Africa summit has met three times.

The comparisons have raised issues that some Administration critics feel could de-rail the Summit.

No One-on-One Meetings

Critics are already questioning the success of the Summit based on the absence of one-on-one meetings with President Obama.

“I don’t think that he’s planning on doing one-on-one White House meetings with them, no, but the anticipation is that he’s going to spend most of the day with them and the evening before, so there will be a lot of time for him to have interactions with them,” a State Department official told AFKInsider.

“I wish that he would have some one-on-ones, which is very out of protocol frankly and it irritates some presidents,” Hayes told AFKInsider.

Nearly every African head of state met the Chinese leadership one-on-one during their last summit. Japan followed suite, giving each of the invited African leaders a 15-minute meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister over a three-day period in June 2013.

“But this is the United States, and they will come and they will access and that’s why I said it was a ‘high risk Summit’ because this is really not normal protocol and we’re not terribly protocol-conscious country either. I’m not saying that as a criticism, it’s just the nature of the U.S.,” Hayes told AFKInsider.

“So, we’ll see. I hope there are not repercussions from it, it’s important to succeed and I think we’re going to find out.”

“There’s very little bilateral stuff here and the Administration, I think rightly, has to take the position that they couldn’t do a lot of one-on-ones,” Moffett told AFKInsider, noting that move will keep anyone from going home disappointed.

In fact, the president could find himself in the company of all types of leaders—the good, the bad and the ugly – from the U.S. government’s perspective.

“These leaders know, and a lot of other people know, the U.S. is way behind in several areas regarding Africa. And so they don’t expect the kind of reception that you might get elsewhere, where countries are much more savvy about Africa,” says Moffett.

The Brookings Institute suggests the President should at least meet bilaterally “with the leaders of with the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities.”

Un-Invited Backlash?

The U.S. has invited 48 out of the 54 countries in Africa, but has excluded the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Sudan and Zimbabwe from the party because they are not in good standing with the African Union or the United States.