The next American president should shape the United States’ Africa policy in response to three questions: How can America help constrain Islamicist violence in the African Sahel? What can America do to help counter state collapse in the roughly 34% of Africa where there is no effective state control? How can American foreign policy best encourage economic growth in the rising parts of Africa (taking into account China’s growing presence in Africa)?

“If the medical injunction of ‘do no harm’ is the measuring stick,” writes Nicolas van de Walle in Foreign Affairs, “Obama’s record in Africa can be characterized as a success… But if judged by a more ambitious standard, Obama’s policy towards Africa has been something of a disappointment.” The Obama administration’s lackluster engagement with Africa is the result, according to Mr. Van de Walle, of at least four factors: budgetary constraints as a result of the recession, America’s thin diplomatic and intelligence presence in Africa, African affairs’ small effect on American interests, and the African continent’s sheer size and complexity.

The last of these factors is the most significant. Mr. Van de Walle suggests that, to do better, the next American administration should not try and fit its Africa policy into a single framework but should, instead, shape its policy in terms of three distinct frameworks- separately addressing the Sahel (where Islamicist jihadism is growing), the Great Lakes region (where state collapse is a troubling reality), and the rest of Africa (where economic growth is beginning to show its positive effects). Thus, the salience of the three questions above.

As an Africa-born political philosopher writing in a journal that explores the relation between Christianity and American foreign policy, I seek to question the normative presuppositions underlying those three questions. Should America help constrain Islamicist violence in Africa? Should America help counter state collapse in Africa? Should American foreign policy try to encourage economic growth in Africa? And with regard to each question: why?

Questioning the normative presuppositions of American foreign policy is a labor of moral archaeology, exploring the relationship of the laws and practices on the surface in our particular time to the deepest principles that order human life in general. Following a suggestion by Michael Cromartie at the launch of Providence, I want to suggest that such an archaeology should dig into the “middle axioms” that form the layers between those deep principles and current policies. To help me recognize those middle axioms, I will follow an earlier suggestion by the legal scholar John Witte, who wrote that “human rights are the… middle axioms of our discourse.”

As Samuel Moyn argues in Christian Human Rights, “human rights” as we know them today are the result of an effort by Christian political thinkers like Jacques Maritain to craft a moral framework for global governance in response to the international anarchy and violence of the 20th century’s world wars. Maritain called this moral framework “personalist,” partly because it is committed to the “supreme ethical significance” of the human person.

With the exception of the inevitable occasional distraction, my contributions to Providence in the year ahead will consist of personalist excavations digging into the work of the 20th century’s great Christian human rights theorists to see how that work can help us make sense of 21st century American foreign policy, in particular with regard to Africa. As I dig, I will keep my eyes open for insights that will help us consider the challenges posed by Islamicist violence and state collapse and the opportunities being opened up by economic growth. And insofar as I am able, I will try to discover what might be the various possible next American presidents’ Africa policies, how those policies respond to the questions posed in my first paragraph above, and how those responses might be evaluated in terms of the insights my diggings uncover.

Wish me well as my spade cuts into the dirt.

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies

Photo Credit: Obama waving to the crowd during the departure ceremony at Accra airport in Ghana, July 11, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)