On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first Africa visit — though he did not actually go anywhere.
Blinken virtually attended six events and met with top leaders in continental heavyweights Kenya and Nigeria.
Protecting global human rights through good governance is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, and Blinken hit that point hard in his opening event Tuesday, with alumni of the U.S. government's Young African Leadership Initiative.
But the casual nature of the virtual exchange — which he called "Ten Questions with Tony" — did not stop young Africans from asking the U.S.'s new top diplomat some tough questions about everything from climate change to Chinese influence to growing extremism on the continent.
Blinken said it all comes down to this: "We're very much committed to working with partners to advance peace and security in Africa. In the short term, sometimes that looks like security partnerships, conflict mitigation support and diplomatic advocacy on human rights. Ultimately, I think the most important thing that we can do is to help countries, where possible, strengthen their democratic institutions, strengthen the ability to deliver progress for people, economic growth, and that's the real foundation that we need to put in place."
The virtual nature of the visit meant that Blinken traversed huge distances from his D.C. office. After meeting virtually with the YALI alumni, he then zipped over to Nigeria, where he met with the president and foreign minister. And then, 90 minutes later, he was clear across the continent, to meet with Kenya's president and foreign minister. He also spoke with officials in both countries about their efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Blinken did not shy away from discussing the virtual elephant in the virtual room: China — the U.S.'s largest adversary, which is making serious inroads in Africa.
"Countries in Africa will and should engage with a broad array of partners, whether it's China or France, Turkey or Brazil, the United States or many others," he said. "And my hope is that African countries and African communities just approach those relationships with your eyes wide open.
"China is a global competitor and competition is a good thing as long as it's basically fair and the playing field is level. But as we look at it, we have different approaches to governance, we have different approaches to business, we have different approaches to security, and the fundamentals sometimes of our partnerships are quite different," he added.
With this visit, Blinken could outpace his predecessor in terms of engagement on the world's fastest-growing continent. Under previous U.S. President Donald Trump, two secretaries of state visited Africa, once each.
Blinken's staff says this visit will not be his last, and that he hopes to make an actual trip, once it is safe to travel again. In the meantime, he said, he will listen to the voices from the world's youngest population.
"The most important thing we have is to hear and to listen to new voices, young voices, fresh perspectives, new ideas," he said. "No one has a monopoly on ideas, never mind good ideas. And as you're bringing these ideas to the marketplace of ideas, it's going to make for a much more powerful and abundant market, and I think that's the way we get progress."
Africa, Blinken said, the U.S. is listening to you.
Source: Voice of America