Washington, DC — The recent statement from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on the visit of the President of Angola could mark a significant development in messaging on the bilateral relationship between Angola and the United States.
On Sunday, Jean-Pierre said that the visit will not only provide an opportunity for the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and the President of Angola, João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, to “mark 30-years of diplomatic relations.” It will provide a mechanism for the two governments to strengthen “bilateral cooperation on trade, investment, climate and energy.”
Back in May, President Biden issued a separate statement commemorating the 30-year anniversary of diplomatic relations with Angola. It emphasized the “shared values that bind our partnership” and a “shared vision for the world.”
According to President Biden, Angola and the United States not only share a vision for a world “that is more peaceful, secure, and democratic for all.” The Governments of Angola and the United States share a commitment to promoting “greater peace and stability in the region” and strengthening democratic institutions, rooting out corruption, and forming an inclusive political process.
In Sunday’s statement, Jean-Pierre made no reference to shared values related to democracy, freedom, human rights, nor labor.
Instead, Jean-Pierre emphasized that the visit will provide the leaders with an opportunity to advance the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI) project in the Lobito Corridor.
Among other things, the Lobito Corridor Project will help to connect the mineral rich interior states of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia with global markets through the Lobito Port, Angola.
The lack of reference to democracy, freedom, and corruption is most likely an intentional communicative move by the White House.
In the run-up to the visit, there has been concern that the record of the government of Angola on democracy and freedom could lead to significant criticism.
The content of the statement will help to mitigate against that risk by shifting the focus of the messaging on shared values toward security, stability, and prosperity.
Note, the differences in the content of these statements need to be interpreted in the light of recent developments in US-Africa relations.
Under the Biden Administration, the U.S. government has suffered a series of strategic setbacks across the continent of Africa. Examples include the civil war in Sudan, coups across the Sahel, expansion of the BRICS to Egypt and Ethiopia, breakdown in relations with South Africa, and suspension of Israel’s observer status in the African Union.
In the face of such obstacles, the White House appears to have altered its strategic approach to African affairs.
Over the last six months, the White House has become much more pragmatic in its approach to the continent. There has been far less focus on fostering openness and open societies or delivering democratic dividends.
In relative terms, the weight of the crucible has shifted to delivering security dividends, especially with respect to strategic competition with China, Iran, and Russia.
This was manifest in the response to the recent coup in Niger. That event manifested a risk to one of the major American military bases on the continent. Rather than provoke the coup plotters, the Biden Administration opted for a pragmatic approach that teetered on accommodation. In the words of the Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, Judd Devermont, the White House decided to engage “in ways consistent with our laws so that we can continue to make sure that the region is safe.”
Of course, Niger could be considered a special case. Authoritarian regimes can be as much of an asset as a liability when it comes to “access in time of need” and reducing the vulnerability of overseas bases “to attack from hostile states and nonstate actors.” It is context sensitive. It all comes down to the matter of strategic alignment of the host country with American national security and foreign policy interests. Djibouti serves as a case in point.
While this reprioritization carries domestic political implications for next year’s elections, subject matter experts point out that the shift toward delivering security dividends does not necessarily mean the abandonment of delivering democracy dividends. This is because peace and security are often viewed as “preconditions” for democracy.
Following the Summit for Democracy, this point was made by the Head of the Global Issues Programme, Polish Institute of International Affairs, Szymon Zaręba: “History shows that peace almost always precedes democracy, and that states do not develop into true democracies as long as their citizens live in fear of violence. Existential security leads to support for democratic political organization, but insecurity can push people to embrace a nondemocratic path.”
The White House may try to use this line of argument to counter any criticism of the record of the Government of Angola on matters such as civil liberties and political rights during the White House visit by Lourenço.
Michael Walsh is a Visiting Researcher of the Africa Studies Program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.