Relations between the U.S. and Africa have gone through at least three major phases: the Cold War; the transitional period from 1990 to 1998; and the post-1998 period. The consensual academic position, to the extent that a common academic position can exist, is that U.S.-Africa relations between 1950 and 1990 revolved around Cold War politics, and that the U.S. valued its African relations only because Africa provided a locale for the United States and the Soviet Union to act out their global struggle. U.S. relations with Africa did not go beyond nurturing, promoting, and maintaining anti-communist ideas amongst African elites during the Cold War era. The U.S. became friends with any government or insurgency group that supported it in its fight against the Soviets. Ian Taylor captured the consensual view aptly when he noted that:
[M]aintenance of alliances with [African] elites deemed to be (or posturing themselves as) anti-communist triumphed other considerations . . . .” Whether an African leader was on our side was all that mattered, explaining continued U.S. support for the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko, Samuel Doe, Daniel Arap Moi, etc., even when it was palpably obvious that such autocrats were little more than criminals (Taylor, 2010, 25).
The period between 1990 and 1998 could be described as transitional, as the U.S. strove to articulate clear African policy objectives and strategies. Without a clear enemy to target, U.S. policymakers found it difficult to connect African issues with U.S. interests. The position was made more precarious when George H.W. Bush introduced the vague theme of a new international order to anchor U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. In the absence of clear policy goals, U.S.-Africa relations fluctuated between utter neglect and half-hearted efforts to promote democracy and economic reforms via USAID and international financial institutions. As one observer of U.S.-Africa relations put it, “the absence of core U.S. interests was an article of faith in the mid-1990s, which probably marked a low point in U.S.-Africa relations” (van de Walle, 2009). President Clinton began a rescue operation of sorts during his second term by drawing on the logic of Kantian liberal cosmopolitan ideas to connect U.S. interests with those of Africa.