The United States’ promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa provides us with a competitive advantage over our great-power rivals on the continent because it facilitates sustainable political and economic partnerships. Likewise, African countries’ embrace of democracy and human rights provides them with a competitive advantage to attract security and economic cooperation from the United States and our partners.
My team in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has heard me say this so many times that they jokingly refer to it as “The Dieker Doctrine.” No matter what one calls it, this big idea is the key to both implementing the President’s National Security Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition, and to respecting the United States’ hallowed tradition of advancing democracy and human rights in our foreign policy.
Put simply: Democracy and human rights are not only quintessential American values, but are fundamental to a strong and successful foreign policy.
There are, of course, naysayers who argue that our country’s attention to democracy and human rights puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia which are willing to engage in security and economic cooperation without consideration of these values. However, according to AfroBarometer’s 2016 survey of 36 African countries, 67 percent of respondents believe that democracy is always the preferred type of regime and only 11 percent think non-democratic ones can do better (1). In addition, research shows that most African leaders abide by their “term limits,” stepping aside in places such as Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of their constitutional mandates (2). The United States must reinforce these positive trends as works, such as The Democracy Advantage, demonstrate that democracies do better than autocracies in terms of security and economic development (3)
In contrast, Mark Esposito and Terrence Tse’s article entitled, “China’s growing footprint in Africa is potentially damaging” casts China’s economic engagement as detrimental to Africa’s competitiveness by being overly focused on resource extraction, lacking transparency and tech transfers, flouting regulations, and being fueled by Chinese workforces (4). Some point to China’s One Belt One Road policy as an example of the country manipulating African states through predatory loan practices at the expense of real development (5). Similarly, others criticize Russian economic engagement in Africa as being overly extractive and not creating sustainable growth for African states (6). These practices risk fueling citizen resentment and undercut long-term stability and economic growth.
Taking all of this into consideration, how is the United States doing in advancing democracy and human rights in Africa?
That is, of course, difficult to answer, but Freedom House’s 2019 “Freedom in the World” report notes that three of the world’s top five most-improved countries in terms of political rights and civil liberties are in Africa—namely Ethiopia, Angola, and The Gambia (7). It is particularly gratifying to see Ethiopia at the top of the list as my boss and I traveled there last summer to engage the new government in the U.S.-Ethiopia Human Rights, Democracy, and Governance Dialogue, and our bureau dedicated a significant portion of our programming budget in Africa to aid the country’s democratic opening. In fact, our bureau has worked with U.S. government partners, such as USAID, to advance democracy and human rights across the continent.
Does this mean that all African countries fully respect democracy and human rights?
Of course not. The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the most widely read report that we publish, highlights human rights challenges across Africa and the rest of the world (8).
By addressing these challenges, the U.S. government’s policies and programs to promote democracy and human rights have been a positive force for advancing both our own interests and those of our partners around the world.
About the Author: Mark S. Dieker serves as Director of the Office of African Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.