North Africa Needs More American Attention, But Will It Get It?

For decades, North Africa has been a second tier of US policy interests in the Middle East, neither vital for the Israel-Palestine peace process, nor big players in the security challenges of the Gulf. From Morocco to Libya, the countries of North Africa (Egypt excepted) usually are an afterthought in American strategy. But with Russia and China becoming more active in the area, it is a critical moment for the US to clarify its policy interests, according to a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the US Institute of Peace. Such studies can help shape official policy, and this report provides a useful approach for the Biden administration.

The Maghreb in fact is a microcosm of the broader Middle East and Mediterranean agenda, from failures of governance, to economic stresses, to homegrown and imported extremism and finally to patterns of illegal migration. And it’s a rich platform from which to study Arab political systems, with its modernizing monarchy (Morocco), two oil-rich states (one chaotic – Libya – and one authoritarian – Algeria), and Tunisia, the only Arab Spring country to meet the threshold of “free” in global indexes of democratic practice.

The study acknowledges the competition for US policymakers’ attention, particularly as successive administrations have signaled their intention to lower US entanglements in the Middle East and focus instead on Asia. But the authors have carefully constructed a policy approach that builds on the worldview of the Biden administration and their expectations about this region becoming a new priority for Washington are not unrealistic; rather they propose working with allies and international institutions, not a US-led or US-only strategy.

Historically, North Africa has enjoyed considerable attention from the US, from the establishment of diplomatic relations with Morocco in 1786, to the 1801-1805 war against the Barbary coast pirates of today’s Libya, to its important role in World War II and to Cold War bases in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Yet in more recent decades, as US focus in the Arab world became concentrated in the Gulf region or on Arab-Israeli peace, North Africa has felt the decline of American attention and interest.

Aid levels are so modest that most Tunisians and Moroccans are barely aware of discreet programs promoting good governance and economic reforms. And while the Moroccans agreed to the Trump administration’s transactional deal – normalization with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara – the Moroccans now feel bruised, since the Biden White House has not embraced the Western Sahara bargain, which upended decades of American diplomacy to achieve a negotiated resolution to that conflict. Rather, the current administration is reviewing the file, neither reversing nor revalidating the Trump era agreement.

The new study’s authors, Sarah Yerkes and Thomas Hill, make the case for more sustained and significant US engagement, not just based on the history of past commitments, or on the enduring merits of promoting stability through improved governance, but on the more contemporary argument that Russia and China are eager to fill any vacuum created by US (or EU) neglect. In their view, Russia has already staked out a security strategy, with Libya as the linchpin, and China has used its Belt and Road Initiative to lure each of the countries of North Africa into economic agreements. China now is the largest trading partner of Algeria and Egypt.

Yerkes and Hill argue that China now is promoting regional economic integration, albeit in a self-interested way, to optimize its economic investments. For decades, US policymakers promoted economic integration to maximize the region’s leverage in trade with Europe, the US or other markets. Creating more efficient approaches to their agricultural exports, or connecting transportation and power grids would increase labor mobility and generate economic growth. The elites of the Maghreb supported integration but they have consistently failed to turn the rhetoric into reality. The painful truth is that the absence of trust and the very divergent political cultures have prevented the region from realizing its resource and human capital potential. It would be a sad measure of the West’s limited influence if China were to be more successful in promoting regional integration than the US and EU.

Avoiding the trap of overselling their policy preference, the study usefully focuses on working through multilateral institutions as the first order of business, and working bilaterally only when conditions require that approach. This plays to the Biden administration’s desire to lead with diplomacy and to use international cooperation and global institutions on many of the world’s problems. For North Africa’s daunting challenges, this could mean close coordination with the EU, or with UN agencies, African and Arab regional organizations and the important international non-governmental organizations that are active in implementing development, democracy and humanitarian programs.

Pooling financial resources and minimizing duplication of effort would be a smart strategy for civilian-led programs aimed at good governance, anti-corruption, youth unemployment and other chronic challenges. The US and EU can certainly improve the coordination of like-minded efforts, and it would be a positive demonstration of the Biden administration’s preferred modus operandi.

As for the security challenges, from managing borders to preventing illegal migration to countering radical extremist groups, including ISIS, the strategy of turning to international organizations is harder to implement. The Carnegie-USIP report recommends empowering the UN on regional conflicts, but that approach has not proven effective when the patrons of the parties involved in the conflict have irreconcilable goals.

On domestic extremism, bilateral capacity building and judicial reform programs have not been enough to turn the tide, as the French have learned in the Sahel countries. That said, Morocco and Algeria in particular have demonstrated more competence in dealing with homegrown extremism, albeit at the expense of civil liberties. Those two countries, ironically, could be the drivers of greater regional cooperation on many issues, but the legacy of political mistrust still impedes such progress, to the dismay of outside powers.

So ensuring that North Africa is not a source of instability is not just a task for the US and Europe. It is the responsibility of the states of North Africa, each of which is now working to improve governance at home and to enhance their geographic advantages as bridges between Europe and Africa. America may not be the most important player, but it can use its diplomatic clout to shape regional developments and perhaps prevent the revisionist powers, Russia and China, from staking their claims in ways that will impede the path toward greater political and economic reforms.


Ellen Laipson is director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She participated in working group meetings for the report referenced in this article, “A New Strategy for US Engagement in North Africa.