7. Memorandum From the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lake) to the Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on Soviet Affairs (Shulman)1


  • US Response to Soviet Moves in Africa

The problem to which Sadat referred in his talk with Ambassador Eilts is one which has been on all our minds since the Horn started heating up last year.2 It seems clear now that the long East-West “truce” in Africa came to an end with the disappearance of the Portuguese empire in 1975 and that the Soviet Union, whether prompted by new opportunities or other motives, is ready to pick up again a policy thread which it dropped after its misadventure in the Congo 15 years ago. It seems clear also that the US has not yet found a coherent approach to this problem. So your request is both provocative and timely.3

In my view a paper on this subject would examine relevant Soviet policy but would take as given that the USSR will be ready to send arms, advisers, and Cubans to places where these could help it build up its local influence. Local conflict, as in the Horn, provides one kind of Soviet opportunity. Liberation conflicts in Rhodesia and South Africa offer another sort, perhaps even more promising because even more difficult for the West to deal with. There are also regimes which will want Soviet arms and perhaps Soviet/Cuban forces to help keep themselves in power vis-a-vis domestic or foreign enemies or both. It will [Page 15] be a long time before the conditions disappear from Africa which provide these opportunities to Soviet policy.

In one way or another, therefore, the Soviet Union and the United States will be competing in Africa. There are several possible policy responses to these various kinds of challenges which we should look at systematically. Each has potential benefits and limits.

1) In our current policy, we try to remove the occasions for Soviet intervention. A basic policy, of course, is to promote political stability by means of economic and social progress. Our diplomatic efforts toward majority rule in Rhodesia and Namibia and our support for a negotiated resolution of the problems of the Horn are also examples of this approach. In southern Africa, we are committed to a process of change without associating ourselves with particular nationalist groups seeking power in the successor regimes.

2) We support OAU and other efforts to remove the causes of territorial conflicts among African states and to limit their scope if they do occur. Although the Soviets may be cool to the argument that African problems should be left to the Africans, this position is consistent with the African nations’ own commitment to mediate disputes and prevent major power intervention wherever possible. Real and consistent US support for this principle should have increasing effect with the African nations.

Unfortunately, the OAU track record to date has not been impressive and it is not clear how effective Western efforts to support and strengthen the OAU in mediating African disputes will be. But the effort should be pursued.

3) In determining future policy, we might explore the possibility, despite obvious inhibitions, of seeking closer economic and political ties with countries where Soviet influence is strong, such as Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, rather than maintaining cool relations and waiting for the Soviets to be thrown out because of their own blunders or inadequacies. This could reduce Soviet influence and at the same time indicate United States support for African non-alignment.

4) We could actively seek international agreements, including with the Soviets, on arms restraint in Africa, or in specific sub-regions of the continent, which would limit sudden buildups of military forces by one country or another. Since both Soviet and United States military assistance is concentrated in a few countries, usually rivals in the same region, such restraint agreements would be necessary to avoid escalating military assistance competition. We should urge the African states to adopt regional and perhaps continent-wide agreements on consumer restraint in arms transfers.

The diversity of African countries, their own suspicion of outside efforts to restrain military sales in the area, and the probable Soviet [Page 16] reluctance to commit themselves in advance to a policy of military non-supply for some prospective “revolutionary” regime suggest serious practical difficulties in following through on such a course. These difficulties are compounded by the Soviet Union’s relative inability to compete with the West in Africa in any area but arms transfers.

5) We could use a variety of diplomatic tools to seek to reduce Soviet and Cuban intervention in Africa or increase the political costs of such intervention. We could seek greater African and Latin American disapproval of their intervention. We could link our economic and diplomatic relations with the Soviets and Cubans to their actions in Africa, and seek agreement by other countries to do the same. By making even minor linkages we could demonstrate in a concrete way that Soviet activities in Africa do have an impact on our relations—and perhaps convince the Soviet Union to exercise sufficient restraint that SALT itself will not be jeopardized. We need to express publicly our disapproval of Soviet intervention in Africa, but not build up the stakes in those cases when we are unable militarily or otherwise to counter their activities.

Thus far, Latin American countries have shown little interest in Cuban and Soviet activities in Africa. African concerns have been muted so far by the Soviets’ choice of the “right” causes: southern African liberation and territorial integrity. Cuba has already made clear that its relations with us are lower priority than its activities in Africa. Our own leverage with the Soviet Union is fundamentally related to the importance we and they attach to detente and SALT and the degree to which we are willing to balance these against US and Soviet interests in Africa, and the impact Soviet/Cuban “success” has on the image of the US elsewhere, including within the US itself, and on our ability to pursue otherwise mutually advantageous relations with the Soviet Union. Our leverage on Soviet/Cuban policy in Africa might grow over the years (e.g., if economic relations become more important). In any case, we must always make clear to the Soviets that what they do in Africa cannot but have a significant impact on the atmosphere within which we conduct our overall relations and on our ability to pursue relations in other spheres, including arms control.

6) We could demonstrate support for African countries by providing (or assisting others to provide) arms to countries threatened by build-ups of Soviet military assistance and foreign troops on their borders—e.g., Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Zaire, etc.

There are, of course, risks and difficulties in this. We would have problems in providing arms to certain repressive regimes or to countries which may have stimulated their neighbors’ involvement with the Soviets by their own territorial claims or intervention in their neighbors’ internal affairs. We should look carefully before providing arms to sure [Page 17] losers, though there may be occasions on which there will be political benefits in appearing to be responsive even in such difficult cases. We should consider the costs of an open-ended competitive buildup of rival countries and of expectations and commitments we may not want to fulfill later. We also should avoid seeming to dispense arms prodigally, at odds with our overall policy of restraint. At the same time relatively small transfers could have a significant effect in some cases, at least to the extent of reassuring governments that look to us for help or signs of US interest. Such transfers would have only a relatively small impact on our overall transfer figures. Larger transfers, which would affect these figures more seriously, might, of course, be justified by a given situation.

7) We should be cautious in committing ourselves to causes and countries which are “wrong” in terms of their ability to command broad African support: countries striving to expand their territory, to stir up unrest in other countries, or groups and minorities seeking to divide or break up African countries. We should not allow ourselves to automatically support one side in an African dispute because the Soviets are supporting the other. We have provided economic assistance to liberation movements and the southern African Front Line States, even though they are receiving military support from the Soviet Union. Should the conflict in the region escalate, we may face more difficult decisions on whether to also provide military assistance to vulnerable African states such as Botswana.

There are, however, real limits to our ability to provide support for a country or movement which is also receiving Soviet aid. It would be particularly difficult to support Marxists, or groups determined to resolve problems militarily and hostile to negotiations.

8) We could encourage the formation of, or provide weapons to, local defensive alliances where the governments concerned are interested and the potential longer-term risks seem manageable. We should, however, carefully avoid building up paper cordons sanitaires which would tend to draw us into the difficulties of our protegés beyond a point we might wish and would create illusions of solidarity and strength which could not stand up to serious challenge. Such a policy could aggravate the problem of regional military assistance competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. It could also serve to harden divisions on a continent where reconciliation among rivals and shifts in regional “alliances” are frequent.

9) We could more actively encourage other countries, including our European allies, which are concerned about Soviet activities in Africa to respond themselves, rather than relying on United States involvement. This might include outside troops (e.g., Moroccans in Zaire, French in Chad) as well as supply of weapons. This might make [Page 18] it possible for the defense needs of an African state to be met, while minimizing major power confrontation by avoiding United States involvement. It would, however, require the US to provide more arms to such outside assisting states and to agree to their use in third countries.

10) There is the option of direct United States military action—either against Cuba or in an African country. After Vietnam, this is highly unlikely.

11) We could limit involvement in military conflicts and give major emphasis to our long-term advantages in relations with Africa: trade, aid, and investment to solve the basic economic problems that persist after military disputes have been resolved. The USSR has little else than weapons which, important as they are in certain situations, are a questionable basis for long-term influence, as the Soviets have learned more than once. We could use this more to our advantage in our relations with the African states and in seeking Soviet restraint—pointing out to the Africans the lack of Soviet effort in the economic field and our belief that constructive economic assistance is needed far more in Africa than destructive military assistance, challenging the Soviets to cooperate or compete with us more in the economic sphere.

All of these policies may not keep the Soviets in the near-term from intervening in African affairs or allow us to defeat their interventions promptly in every instance. This consideration leads us to what might be the last topic in the paper: the problem of defining US interests in Africa in such a way that we will be able to obtain Congressional and public support for actions we might want to take but, at the same time, will provide us the option of avoiding being forced into actions which may be futile or dangerous. I believe this problem should be an important part of any general discussion of our policy in Africa. It is clear there will continue to be Soviet actions in Africa which will be hard to deal with, either locally or by use of global leverage. Some of our allies and Middle Eastern friends would wish us to defeat every Soviet “challenge” at once. We will have to give thought to how we can make clear to them that we will carefully adapt our response to the specifics of each Soviet move and that patience is not to be confused with weakness.

If you wish, S/P would be glad to work with you, INR, EUR, PM, and AF on a paper along these lines.4

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Anthony Lake, 1977–1981, Box 3, 4.1–4.15.78. Secret. Drafted by DePorte and Spiegel and cleared by Kreisberg.
  2. In telegram 8087 from Cairo, March 13, the Embassy reported on Eilts’ March 11 meeting with Sadat on the subject of African problems and his fear of Soviet-instigated problems on the continent. Sadat asserted that “the Soviet surrogate threat through Libya and Ethiopia to Sub-Saharan Africa is very real.” In particular, he was worried that “we will see trouble in the Sudan from both the East and the West.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780112–0455)
  3. Not found.
  4. See Document 11 for the Presidential Review Memorandum that tasked the Policy Review Committee with producing such a paper. See Document 16 for the resulting paper.