John Rash
See more of the story

Rwanda’s re-emergence from the horrors of genocide is reflected in a big build-out of its already bustling capital, Kigali. On a 2011 International Reporting Project trip, I asked Rwandan journalist Fred Mwasa about the nature of, and nation behind, the road construction.

“America comes with democracy. The Chinese come with roads,” Mwasa said.

The role of China in Africa — the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue — extends beyond Rwanda and certainly beyond roads. But roads serve as a symbol of China’s rising involvement in Africa. This week, for instance, former dean and Humphrey School of Public Affairs Prof. J. Brian Atwood traveled a new road connecting the commercial capital of Abidjan and the political capital of Yamoussoukro in Ivory Coast.

Atwood, a member of a National Democratic Institute delegation preparing for elections in 2015, said via e-mail from Abidjan that the road, built with Chinese money and labor, is a missed opportunity for Ivorians.

“The Chinese gain influence and the gratitude of the political leadership, but they contribute little to the development of the democratic state,” Atwood wrote.

Africa’s democratization has long been a U.S. foreign-policy objective. In general, it’s been successful. So successful, in fact, that it actually paves the way for Chinese road construction and other infrastructure investments, according to Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Juma views African development dynamics as an issue of sequencing. Partly spurred by the United States, many African nations now hold competitive, democratic elections. However imperfect by international standards, they’ve kept sub-Saharan countries from the convulsions seen in North African nations swept up in the Arab uprising. Egypt, for instance, didn’t have a commensurate emerging democracy.

This democratization has in turn led leaders to be more responsive to voters, Juma said, pointing to the paradox of political freedoms inspired or influenced by the West relying on China to deliver upon promises.

One factor in China’s ability to deliver, if not dominate, the continent’s construction boom is that the nation spent the last half-century building its own infrastructure. This coincided with a deconstruction project — the fall of the Berlin Wall — that refocused Western attention on Eastern Europe. This retreat, as Juma termed it, created an opening for China in Africa. And there are more mercantile dynamics, including a convergence of African extraction industries and Chinese manufacturing reliant on raw materials.

As important, China takes a fundamentally different approach than the West by depoliticizing development, Juma said, adding that the United States has been financing health care, education and democratization efforts while the Chinese have focused on infrastructure.

Some of China’s approach is widely viewed as serving narrower interests not just in raw materials and agriculture, but in the diplomacy regarding Taiwan. And, Atwood added, China’s approach doesn’t discriminate between democracies and repressive regimes.

Regardless, China’s infrastructure investments can actually help project U.S. foreign-policy objectives. “Ideas need infrastructure to move,” Juma said, referencing not just telecommunications projects but basic transportation of people on roads and rails and planes.

While China and the United States have chosen separate strategies to influence events, to date they are not locked into a zero-sum game. True, they’re competitive. But also complimentary: China’s investment can create economic growth that can help stabilize democracies. In turn, adopting U.S. approaches can mean more mutually beneficial growth.

“We are not really in a negative competition with China,” Atwood said. “Many like their no-strings-attached aid program, but they also know that our approach to development cooperation is better for them in the long run.”

That was witnessed by Mark Green, U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from 2007 to 2009. Speaking in an interview after an Oct. 25 speech to the Economic Club of Minnesota, Green said that the U.S. private sector benefits as African nations emulate U.S. public-sector practices. American companies, Green said, can compete with any in the world, but they need to operate in an environment of transparency, open bidding and a binding rule of law.

But because American influence is more dependent on so-called soft power, it’s important that the hardball politics played in Washington don’t limit what can be accomplished in African capitals.

“Sometimes African countries look at us as less than reliable partners,” said Green, who was a Republican U.S. representative from Wisconsin before becoming ambassador. “When an American company is competing in a country and its competitor has bundled assistance and support, and ours comes from an agency that isn’t authorized beyond next year, they ask, ‘How do we know you are going to be here two years from now?’ ”

Green is right about the need for more stability. And it would help if politics could at least pause, if not outright stop, at the water’s edge.

Yet despite Washington’s current dysfunction, enduring U.S. values, as well as the potency of America’s global cultural influence, should result in the United States continuing to build bridges, even if many of the roads are paved by China.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “ Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to