A Preview Of Kenya’s State Visit

During Kenya’s state visit, the United States should work toward building a more resilient model of U.S.-Africa partnerships.

This week, the Joe Biden administration will strive to put its best foot forward in welcoming Kenyan President William Ruto to the United States for an official state visit. For policymakers in Washington, the mix of pageantry and substance will serve several purposes. First, it will provide an alternative narrative to the prevailing coverage of U.S.-Africa relations, which has been dominated by stories about military juntas turning their backs on America in favor of closer ties to Russia—perhaps best epitomized by a recent Economist article, titled “America in Africa: Joe Biden’s administration is struggling for influence in a continent where Russia and China are gaining ground.” This visit will be about the United States and Kenya growing closer and finding new avenues of mutually beneficial cooperation. When critics bring up the fact that President Biden has not visited the African continent during his first term in office, defenders can concede the point but note that the Ruto visit is the first formal state visit from an African leader since Ghana’s President John Kufour in 2008. 

Rolling out the red carpet is intended to signal respect not just for Kenyans, but for Africans more broadly—a counterpoint to the frequent complaints that the United States is either patronizing or neglectful in its Africa engagements. Ruto himself is eager to embrace this broader, pan-African framing. He has been a leading voice in speaking for the region on urgently needed reforms to international financial institutions and Africa’s climate change-related needs. Indeed, his enthusiasm for global platforms and regional leadership have helped to fill a vacuum left by the continent’s inwardly-focused giants, Nigeria and South Africa. 

But Ruto’s rapid ascent to de facto regional leadership has not been as warmly received domestically. Kenyans are struggling with rising taxesclimate disruptions, and the persistent scourge of corruption that undermines trust in government. The “Silicon Savannah” presentations can gloss over the reality that 80 percent of Kenyans work in the informal sector—and that this vast population of “hustlers” represent Ruto’s political base. Standing ovations for their leaders abroad do not translate into more jobs at home. On social media, criticism of Ruto—and of his administration’s close relationship with the United States—is often withering.

Another potential discordant note revolves around Kenya’s commitment to deploy police officers to help stabilize the desperate situation in Haiti. While the United States will be celebrating Kenya’s leadership, Kenyans themselves are less than united in their support for this exercise, which is understood as a response to a U.S. request. Should the Kenyan effort in Haiti go poorly, incurring heavy losses or leading to accusations of brutality, it may well be the U.S.-Kenya partnership that is blamed. The endeavor is high risk, and the likelihood of success slim.

Devoting time and energy to the U.S.-Kenyan relationship makes good sense. Kenya is an important security partner, increasingly active diplomatic actor in a fragile neighborhood, and, as the energetic U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, has noted, a compelling candidate for increased trade and investment from the U.S. private sector. The objective for the United States should be to maximize the pursuit of genuine shared interests with Kenya without personalizing the relationship. Ruto and his allies have deftly countered existing and potential political threats at home while vociferously criticizing judicial decisions that do not go their way. A potential Kenyan trajectory in which Ruto faces no serious challenges or checks while the broader population becomes increasingly disaffected is bad news for Kenya, bad for U.S. interests, and bad for democracy. Seemingly unflinching support in that scenario would simply reinforce the very narrative of support for dysfunctional democracies and neglect of African priorities that the United States seeks to counter.

This article was originally sourced from Council on Foreign Relations

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