Obama’s snub of his Kenyan fatherland in his current trip to Africa exemplifies how overall U.S. policy toward the continent is failing.
FORTUNE — President Obama, on his second official visit to Africa, is again choosing to skip his Kenyan fatherland. Officials in the Obama Administration say the avoidance is due to the recent election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in post-election violence following the last presidential contest in 2007. The president is instead traveling to South Africa, Senegal, and Tanzania, Kenya’s next-door neighbor and perennial rival.
While Obama is in his backyard, President Uhuru will be on a three-week trip abroad to meet with business and government leaders in Russia, Japan, and, most importantly, China. Despite the insistence of Kenyatta aides that his trip was planned long before Obama decided not to visit Kenya, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have changed his plans if Kenya’s favorite son decided to come to town.
Historically, Kenya has been a strong U.S. ally. According to a 2012 BBC global opinion poll, 79% of Kenyans view the U.S. positively, making citizens of the nation some of the most pro-American in Africa. The deterioration of relations between the governments of the U.S. and Kenya is unfortunate, but it is not an isolated example in Africa and epitomizes the failure of American’s engagement strategy throughout the continent.
The primary purpose of Obama’s visit is to promote U.S. business interests on the continent, and he’ll have a 500-member delegation of American business leaders accompanying him to emphasize this message. But the point is diluted by the U.S. government’s unwavering need to scold African governments and admonish them for not measuring up to American standards. Meanwhile, China has quietly and strategically strengthened its ties through state-sponsored capitalism and tight lips toward how their African counterparts govern.
China already plays a prominent role in Kenya as government-financed Chinese firms build public infrastructure throughout the country, including the Mombasa-Nairobi railway and a new international airport terminal in Nairobi — both financed through long-term export credits funded by the China Development Bank. Although Kenya has few energy resources, China is building the ports, roads, rails, and bridges to more efficiently export the oil and precious minerals they extract from Kenya’s landlocked neighbors in Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, while also earning enormous political capital with the Kenyan government.
Lucrative commercial opportunities aside, the U.S. will rightfully strive to be an inspiration to African governments by encouraging them to embrace more robust democratic ideals, aggressively fight corruption, and invest more in social development. But this goal can be accomplished without the U.S.’ usual “name-and-shame” approach to diplomacy that African leaders have become accustomed to, and have increasingly ignored now that a partnership with non-judgmental China presents a viable alternative.
Although China enjoys a substantial lead among the political elites, its reputation among the people is souring. In Zambia, there were riots at copper mines, and last year in Nairobi, small kiosk operators held demonstrations over the alleged infiltration into their trading space by Chinese competitors. Much of the criticism is from the bottom up, due to the lack of local workers employed on Chinese projects, poor worker safety practices, and a lack of adherence to environmental standards.
The stakes for the U.S. are high in Kenya. Nairobi is home to a number of prominent American corporations including GE GE , IBM IBM , Microsoft MSFT , Intel INTC , Cisco CSCO , Coca-Cola KO , Google GOOG , and Citibank C . To protect and promote its own interests, the Obama Administration should look for productive areas where they can work with African leaders, rather than just criticizing them.
America can regain some of its lost economic edge in Kenya, and around the continent, without sacrificing its ideals as a beacon of freedom and prosperity, by employing a new model of economic diplomacy; a model based on the premise that American-style capitalism can encourage broader wealth creation and accelerate social progress. Such an approach would be in stark contrast to the Chinese strategy of plying politicians with various “incentives” leading to projects that end up benefitting the few to the detriment of the many.
The Obama Administration’s current strategy — a scant nine-page document unveiled last year — was widely criticized for its woeful lack of detail and imagination. In its place, the U.S. government needs a comprehensive plan that incentivizes the American private sector to invest in the region. American private investment can create jobs, develop local talent, and help local entrepreneurs.
President Obama’s visit will no doubt emphasize the opportunities for American companies in Africa, but the Cheerleader-in-Chief will have little to show for his efforts without a more thoughtful, practical, and ambitious effort to go along with the pom-poms.
David Rice is a professor at New York University and University of Nairobi as well as the Africa Advisor to the Milken Institute and Director of the Development Dividend Project.