John Rash
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Norwegians were among Minnesota's first diasporas. So it's fitting that Norway House in Minneapolis was the gathering place for more recent émigrés to meet Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

The African "diaspora community in Minnesota is significant in part because of the way the state of Minnesota treats them," Phee said in an interview that encompassed Nordic nations, the Global South, the West, the Mideast, and Midwestern hospitality.

"I heard a Somali immigrant say today that they've gone beyond being welcomed to Minnesota to belonging to Minnesota," said Phee, adding "that's really admirable, and the people of Minnesota should be really proud of that."

Speaking in advance of a Global Minnesota event the evening of June 24, Phee said that overall, the North Star State's impact on the Global South, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, is significant, citing the state's Fortune 500 companies as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises engaged there.

Most profoundly, Phee said, is "the grand Minnesota tradition of civic pride, generosity and hospitality" spanning Nordic immigration, Hmong resettlement after the Vietnam War, to today's African arrivals.

The State Department has prioritized diaspora diplomacy, in part, Phee said, because "the traditional diplomacy, where you spoke primarily government to government, has been revolutionized by the role of citizens." They have their "own role that's distinct from a government role" and will "have a perspective and insight and relationships that I don't have as the U.S. government, particularly as it gets harder to travel around because of insecurity. So they can share their understanding of what's going on, on the ground."

"On the ground" varies from country to country, of course. But unfortunately, in some African nations — particularly in the cross-continental "coup belt" that spans from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east — there's been what Phee deemed a "regressive trend" toward repressive rule, which the envoy diplomatically pointed out is "not limited to Africa" but is a "global phenomenon."

Referring to former President Barack Obama's famous phrase that "Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions," Phee said authoritarianism is exacerbated at times by what's often called the "resource curse" of natural riches but poor governance, in which "local leaders or external partners exploit the resources, and they don't go into the development of the country, but they go to corruption and patronage."

Additionally, climate change is a climate crisis in much of the continent. And terrorism is particularly pernicious in several African nations.

"One lesson I've learned in my career is even though you arguably have the best military in the world and it's very effective in moving terrorists off the battlefield, if you don't have inclusive governance that delivers services you're never going to have a durable security solution; without a political track it's very hard to defeat — particularly terrorist insurgencies," Phee said. Summing up the multifactorial challenges, she added that "all of these stresses, I think, have contributed to the collapse of what were admittedly weak or nominal democracies."

Additionally, Africa's resources are the source of rising geopolitical tension, especially since China has become a key continental player. Russia has long had interest and investment in several countries, too. And it's leveraged some of those relationships to blunt some governments from rallying around the West regarding its invasion of Ukraine. South Africa's post-apartheid leaders, for instance, reverted to the relationship established with the then Soviet Union to diminish the diplomatic efforts to isolate the Kremlin, which Phee said especially disappointed European leaders.

So Phee believes it's important to emphasize that the lower supply and higher prices of grain, as well as Africa's other Ukraine-related challenges, "are manmade problems, mostly made in Moscow in the form of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and that we would encourage them to make rational choices, to be partners with us in upholding a system that we try to support."

To that end, American envoys enveloping Africans with multiple government initiatives also need to be mindful that competition with countries like China should not "be like a soccer match," said Phee. "I don't think Africa should be an object." The Biden administration, she said, is trying to "reframe our partnership" to one in which "historically we have done things for Africa" to one in which "we're doing things with Africa."

But enlightened envoys also need to acknowledge the diplomatic darkness from another regional war with global implications: Gaza.

The tight ties between Jerusalem and Washington can complicate relationships with other capitals that perceive a double standard on America's calls for a rules-based international order that they think is heeded in Eastern Europe but not in the Mideast.

Phee didn't flinch in considering the diplomatic difficulties. "Unfortunately," she said, "I think that war will be consequential for generations — the impact of that war and the U.S. position."

While noting the enormity of the enmity evident in Gaza, Phee said that the war in Sudan "is worse" and that the decades-long warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo has not convulsed campuses or the country the way the Israel-Hamas war has. "I find that discourse unbalanced, without taking away the legitimacy about [Gaza]," Phee said.

"At our best," she continued, the U.S. "is seen as a beacon of human rights and a voice for international law and international norms. And our image is being affected by that war. And that [image] has been a source of strength."

That matters everywhere U.S. diplomats try to project and protect American interests and values — especially in Africa, which Phee called "the future."

After all, Africa will have a quarter of the world's population by about 2050. Noting the continent's incredible resources and indelible creativity, particularly of its young people, Phee said that "the African people are its greatest resource."

America, concluded Phee, "would be shortsighted if we didn't right-size our relationship with Africa," where "we do things with them for the betterment of our society and for the betterment of their society.

"And, ultimately, the globe."