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Biden courts Kenya for regional politics, and Haiti intervention

Biden courts Kenya for regional politics, and Haiti intervention

The president hosted Kenyan leader William Ruto this week in a bid to solidify relations. We take a deeper dive.

Analysis | Africa

On May 23, Kenyan President William Ruto and his delegation dined with President Biden at the White House in the first state dinner hosted by an American president of an African head of state since Ghanaian President John Kufuor visited George Bush for a state dinner in September 2008.

Although these events are typically symbolic gestures meant to signify the close diplomatic connection between the United States and an ally, Ruto’s visit bears greater significance than that which traditionally accompanies these dinners.

The visit coincided with Kenya gearing up to send a police force to Haiti in an attempt to quell long-standing violence in the Caribbean country. Although the United States has stated that it has no interest in leading an international police or military mission to end the violence there, it has long sought another country to lead a security intervention in its place.

With approval from the UN Security Council and with American financial and political support, Kenya agreed to lead the mission. The state dinner served as an expression of U.S. support for Kenya’s imminent security mission to Haiti.

This point was explicitly emphasized by President Biden during a press conference with President Ruto at the White House on May 23. In response to a question about Washington’s perspective on the crisis in Haiti and Kenya’s decision to lead a security mission, Biden said, “we concluded that for the United States to deploy forces in the hemisphere just raises all kinds of questions … about what we’re trying to do. … So we set out to find a partner or partners who would lead that effort that we would participate in, not with American forces but with supplies and making sure they have what they need. And so I’m very grateful for President Ruto’s leadership here for a multinational effort.”

To support the mission, Biden said, “we’re going to supply logistics, intelligence, and equipment…Kenya is stepping up with police and other countries plan to do so as well. The United States is going to support the collective effort here.” On America’s financial support for the Multinational Security Support (MSS) Mission in Haiti, Biden said “we’re working with Congress to provide $300 million to the MSS and an additional $60 million for equipment and assistance.”

When pressed by a Kenyan journalist on his decision to send Kenyan troops to Haiti rather than deploying them to respond to domestic security threats, President Ruto argued that Kenya has long taken action in neighboring African countries to promote peace and security by sending in forces, such as sending troops to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help fight against non-state armed groups.

Ruto then formed a parallel between these African security missions and the one planned for Haiti — a country 7,500 miles away — saying, “Haiti should not be an exception. Sending 1,000 security men to Haiti speaks to the same belief and commitment to peace and security.”

The MSS Mission has already faced plenty of criticism and skepticism that it will be able to provide adequate security amid the overwhelming gang violence and political turmoil plaguing Haiti right now. It also follows a tradition of failed outside interventions by the U.S. and the UN. The difficulty of this task has complicated the deployment of Kenyan police, and continues to delay their arrival. Scheduled to touch down in Haiti on the same day as Ruto’s visit to the White House, the Kenyan police deployment has been delayed, with no firm date for their arrival yet announced.

Beyond an expression of support for Kenya’s planned police intervention in Haiti, the state visit also served as an opportunity for President Biden to indicate his administration’s attention to African affairs and his continued interest in the continent. This comes as his administration has faced criticism for failing to deliver on promises to invest in Africa’s prosperity, instead prioritizing U.S. diplomatic energy and resources on other issues, such as great power competition with China, the Russia-Ukraine War, and the Israel-Gaza War.

Despite hosting the U.S.-Africa summit at the Convention Center in Washington in December 2022 — during which African leaders joined American officials to discuss ways in which the United States can work with African governments and institutions to meet Africa’s interests and needs — the Biden administration has indeed done little to respond concretely to Africa’s challenges and deepen its ties with the continent.

Biden has failed to keep his promise to visit Africa during his first term in office and was slow to provide diplomatic support to seek an end to the Sudanese Civil War. African governments have also accused the United States of carelessly lecturing them on the importance of democracy and the appropriate responses to local security threats. And the United States has struggled to maintain diplomatic and security ties with African governments, having recently had its military expelled from Niger and Chad by each country’s government.

Among the countries of East Africa, Kenya has been among the most stable in recent years. This has provided reassurance to the United States that Kenya — rather than its more traditional East African partner, Ethiopia — can be trusted with increased diplomatic and military cooperation.

On the largely symbolic front, the Biden administration named Kenya as a “major non-Nato ally” of the United States. This falls short of a formal military or security treaty between the two governments, but does enhance defense ties between the two militaries by giving Kenya access to American military loans and the purchase of American military technology.

The United States and Kenya also announced the U.S.-Kenya Climate and Clean Energy Industrial Partnership. This looks to increase American investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure in Kenya. In conjunction with this effort, major American government agencies announced their intention to invest in Kenya’s infrastructure and development. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced in September 2023 a $60 million grant to support a four-year program to improve transportation in Kenya, emphasizing climate-friendly public transportation projects.

Meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) also announced $15 million for new projects focused on poverty reduction and food security in Kenya.

In a speech delivered at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on May 23, Ruto — who holds a PhD in plant ecology from the University of Nairobi — emphasized his desire to see greater American investment in green infrastructure and climate-friendly technology across Africa.

Ruto said: “With our massive, untapped renewable energy potential, the world’s youngest and fastest-growing workforce, and abundant natural assets, our continent has the fundamentals to be a major player in the three critical areas needed to avert climate catastrophe.”

As the United States looks to respond to Russia’s and China’s growing engagement with the continent, it should do so by working with African states in the climate, development, and humanitarian spheres.

This will provide the nuanced and deeply interconnected relationships that might help the U.S. meet security needs while promoting the stability and prosperity of Africa, as the continent seeks to provide jobs and resources for a booming population whose median age is just 19.

U.S. President Joe Biden toasts with Kenyan President William Ruto during an official State Dinner in honor of President Ruto at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 23, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

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