If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidency in November, the Middle East and North Africa will likely fall in importance, occupying “a distant fourth” place behind Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and Latin America, according to one campaign advisor.
However, North Africa—particularly western North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia—is the perfect venue for Biden to make real on his commitment to reinvigorating U.S. support for the community of democracies and to engage in bottom-up as well as top-down diplomacy. There, he can prioritize relationships with countries that share U.S. values over the world’s autocracies, such as Tunisia, the only democracy in the Arab world; and support groups and individuals working for democratic reform in Morocco, a country with a vibrant civil society and a longtime friend of the United States; and Algeria, a country in the midst of massive political and economic reform. Each country would offer a Biden administration a low-cost opportunity to reassert U.S. leadership, pivot towards a more values-based foreign policy, and advance key U.S. strategic interests, among them countering the rise of adversaries such as Russia and China.
President Donald Trump has largely ignored North Africa, as has the Biden campaign. But Biden has experience with the region, having served as vice president during the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010–2011. He has seen firsthand how domestic events in North Africa can have far-reaching implications for the broader Middle East and North Africa region and beyond—particularly for America’s European allies. And while Biden was more skeptical at the time than Barack Obama of the ability of the United States to influence events on the ground during the Arab Spring, his commitment to strengthening U.S. democracy and rolling back the rising tide of authoritarianism globally makes him well-positioned to work with civil society actors and democracy supporters to help them advance their goals. This can come by reestablishing American moral authority in the democracy space or by ensuring that U.S. funding for the region prioritizes efforts to improve the lives of people.
The U.S. approach to North Africa is grounded in the region’s geostrategic importance, connected to the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe. During the Cold War, America’s broader struggle with the Soviet Union defined U.S. engagement with North Africa. Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States was primarily concerned with the Global War on Terror in the Middle East and beyond. And after the Arab Spring, Washington was pushed toward greater support for democratic reform in the region, although that support was short-lived, with the exception of Tunisia. Today, U.S. interests are largely focused on maintaining stability to stem irregular migration into Europe, countering violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Al-Qa‘eda, and limiting China’s and Russia’s involvement in the region, which has increased over the past year.
But there is no single U.S. strategy in North Africa. In Algeria, U.S. engagement is quite limited due to the Algerian government’s opposition to partnering with the West. While there is a growing trade relationship, particularly in the hydrocarbons sector, the United States has remained silent during the Hirak protests. Tunisia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. economic and security assistance in the Middle East and North Africa and U.S. support for Tunisia’s democratic transition has remained relatively consistent over the past decade. Morocco, like Tunisia, has the status of a major non-NATO ally and much U.S. assistance to the kingdom is focused on economic development, particularly through two Millennium Challenge Compacts for $750 million and $450 million, respectively.
Almost a decade after the 2011 uprisings, a Biden administration should prioritize internal dynamics in North Africa and pursue a policy based on the interests of local actors. Though the United States has lost its moral authority on democratic ideals in the region due to the Trump administration’s attacks on democracy at home, a Biden administration has opportunities to support governments and civil societies in North Africa. This would be consistent with longstanding U.S. values and ideals and help improve the lives of North Africans.
The economic realities of the Covid-19 pandemic mean that the next U.S. administration will likely be more focused on domestic priorities and have less to spend on foreign aid. However, Biden and his team could carry out several measures at little cost but with a big potential payoff for North Africa and U.S. interests.
First, they could increase diplomatic outreach to North Africa at little to no cost, and in particular dramatically raise the profile of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Biden has promised to hold a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office. This summit could take place in Tunisia, which will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its democratic revolution in 2021.
A Biden administration could also support regional integration and collaboration within North Africa. The International Monetary Fund reported in 2019 that the share of intraregional trade was less than 5 percent of the Maghreb countries’ total trade, constituting an untapped source of growth. The lack of collaboration is largely due to the Algeria-Morocco dispute over Western Sahara. However, avenues for more regional economic cooperation might still be possible.
As part of his commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the globe, Biden could also condition diplomatic engagement and economic aid on more transparent democratic practices, the just and equitable management of state resources, and breaking the rule of corrupt elites. By simultaneously increasing assistance to those countries that support democratic practices and decreasing assistance to those that do not, such a policy would not result in a net increase in U.S. foreign assistance dollars.
Finally, a Biden administration should adopt a stance of humility and listen rather than prescribe when engaging with the region. The Trump administration has ignored the voices of people on the ground and failed to adequately support local organizations and individuals who are working for positive change. However, the pursuit of such an approach is, ultimately, counterproductive.