In our time the United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. It is also a nation founded on a commitment to human rights, as articulated in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence of 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration continues with a human rights-oriented argument on the origin and purpose of government: “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” And it offers a human rights-oriented criterion for a just rebellion: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
In its focus on securing human rights, the Declaration of Independence clearly and unequivocally answers the question recently asked by The National Interest (as reported on in Providence by Ben Peterson): What should be the purpose of American power? Were America less powerful, it might have contented itself honorably with giving expression to its foundational commitment to human rights in a vibrant domestic public life, limiting its international influence to its example. But, given the means at its disposal, America must also honor the impulse at its origin as the heartbeat of its foreign affairs.
An American foreign policy reduced to the pursuit of the national interest alone is not worthy of the founding commitment of the United States. The further reduction of the national interest to little more than national security serves neither America’s national interest nor its national security, fully considered. For America today to truly be America, it must be the world’s leading proponent of human rights at home and abroad. It is when it answers this great national vocation (first glimpsed by the nation’s founders) that America most fully gives expression to what, in seed, it has been from the very start.
Recently, Alan Dowd argued in the pages of Providence that the great global tide of democratization that started in the 1980s is now ebbing—and so also support from American citizens for international democracy promotion by their government. Mr. Dowd argued that the promotion of democracy has been a laudable element of American foreign policy since World War II and that the defense and further development of an international order hospitable to democracies is necessary if the USA is to be safe and prosperous in the long run.
While I agree with Mr. Dowd that the international promotion of democracy is indeed necessary for the security and prosperity of the USA and its citizens, I believe that American foreign policy possesses an even more compelling motivation in America’s founding vocation: to secure human rights.
Given this national vocation, after Obama America must turn to Africa. It is in bolstering the social infrastructure of human rights (constitutional democracies, market economies, vibrant civic institutions) in Africa that America can make its greatest global contribution—and the contribution most resonant with its founding commitment—in the 21st century.
Calling for a turn to Africa in American foreign policy is not to deny the urgency with which the United States must help contain violent Islamic apocalypticism, negotiate peaceable coexistence with other great powers, or secure a just governance of the global commons. It is not to diminish the importance of America’s efforts to promote democracy where it is absent or adolescent elsewhere than in Africa. It is neither a call for an exorbitant investment of the national treasure (while most Americans imagine that the US spends something like 26% of the federal budget on foreign aid the actual expenditure is less than 1%) nor a call for a significant increase in foreign aid expenditure.
Given how relatively little the USA is currently investing in its relations with Africa, a turn to Africa can have significant effect with a relatively small increased investment. As I have previously written in these pages, America’s engagement with Africa has been lackluster under President Obama, partly because of a disappointingly thin diplomatic presence. As Nicolas van de Walle writes in Foreign Affairs, “over one quarter of the positions in the United States’ embassies in Africa remain unfilled or filled by people who would normally be considered too junior, and even more positions remain this way in riskier posts.”
A turn to Africa will require a serious American diplomatic presence consisting of foreign missions fully staffed by highly motivated, appropriately educated, and adequately experienced diplomats and guided by clear and ambitious policies addressing Africa’s biggest questions and key challenges. It will require a serious effort to help nudge public opinion in Africa towards a more vigorous commitment to human rights and the social infrastructure necessary for human rights to be honored—by means of a modest increase in investment in African artists, scholars, and journalists who share such a commitment. And it will require a serious adjustment of international trade architecture to accommodate what we are learning about the conditions necessary for the development of the economic elements of that infrastructure.
While a turn to Africa in American foreign policy will not require a great increase in the portion of the federal budget invested in America’s relations with African nations, it will require courage, clarity, and conviction from America’s next president: a level of courage, clarity, and conviction with regard to America’s commitment to human rights on a par with that of America’s founders. It remains to be seen if any current candidate for the presidency has such courage or conviction.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.