Analysis: U. S., Liberia’s Contemporary Relations and its Socio-economic Development Impact

By: Josephus Moses Gray


In a typical Liberian adage, it is stated that it is on old mat that one plaits new mats meaning in the governance system wherein one leader takes over from another, it is expedient to observe the works of the previous leader in order to carve yours as successor in the task of leadership regarding nation-building. Based on this, you would then be using the past as a mirror to acquaint yourself (new comer) with how things were. From that setting, this article assesses relations between U.S. and Liberia’s   contemporary relations and partnership, the U.S. foreign aid assistance and engagement in Liberia. The article also considers the optimism and pessimism of U.S. and Liberia’s new level of strategic partnership. The article further studied the political and economic impacts regarding U.S. engagement with Liberian government, state and people, and profoundly discussed U.S. interaction with previous Liberian governments including former presidents Daniel B. Warner, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Charles D.B. Kings, Edward J. Barclay, William V.S. Tubman, William R. Tolbert, Samuel K. Doe and Charles Taylor.

This article also meticulously compared each regime’s foreign relations and intricacies in the context of national development, socio-economic growth and the political impacts on the Liberian society, providing a vivid picture of Liberia and U.S. friendship and the long-standing bilateral relationship. The article is based on authenticated scholastic writings and publications such as relevant books, official statements, press releases and policy statements. Considering the nature of articles, the selections and use of such materials was done with great care and credibility.

The U.S.-Liberia relationship dates back nearly 200 years and is stronger than ever as both countries continue working together on several fronts. The United States recognized the Republic of Liberia on September 23, 1862, when the American Minister to England Charles F. Adams was empowered to conclude a treaty of commerce and navigation with the Republic of Liberia 15 years after its establishment as a sovereign nation, and the two nations shared very close diplomatic ties (Foreign Ministry, 2009).

The treaty was signed by Adams and the President of Liberia on October 25, 1862. Both countries belong to a number of the same international organizations, including the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade organization. The Liberian state originated in 1822 when the American Colonization Society founded a settlement for freedmen and recaptured slaves. In 1847 the settlement constituted itself as a republic and subsequently was recognized by several European states (Foreign Ministry, 2009). Britain was the first to recognize Liberia’s independence.

According to New York Times (1962) edition, former President Abraham Lincoln in his message to the present Congress stated:  that if there was any good reason why the independence of Haiti and Liberia should not be recognized by the United States, he was not aware of it. President Lincoln noted that: On the contrary, there are many very good reasons why it should be recognized, and hence we are very glad that the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has brought in a bill for the appointment of diplomatic representatives to these republics.

The Diplomatic relations and the American Legation at Monrovia were established on February 23, 1864 during the administration of Abraham Lincoln and Daniel B. Warner, when Abraham Hanson an English-born American pastor and diploma,  American Commissioner and Consul General presented his credentials to the Liberian government, while the American Legation in  Monrovia was elevated to Embassy status on May 6, 1949, when Edward Dudley, the first black American to lead a U.S. Mission abroad with the rank of Ambassador presented his credentials to the Liberian government (State Department, 2016).

A 1980 coup ended the rule of the party that controlled the country from its independence in 1847. From 1989 to 2003, the country saw continued misrule, rebellion, and civil war. Presidential elections held in 2005 and 2011 were declared free and fair by international observers. The latest national elections were held on October 10, 2017. The free and fair elections resulted in the election of President George Weah. Liberia is gradually recovering from the impact of the Ebola epidemic. Following the Ebola crisis, the United States continues to partner with government donors, international organizations especially the World Health Organization, and civil society to strengthen health systems in Liberia government (State Department, 2016).

The first foreign aid assistance Liberia received from the U.S. government through Congress approval was US$100,000. The U.S. has emphasized that it is prioritizing investments to restore and expand health services to address declines in maternal and child health, declines in immunization rates, and increases in malaria. Liberia, under the leadership of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has emerged from over a decade of war to be a key champion of democracy, peace, and development. The U.S. is Liberia’s leading partner, having invested over $1 billion in bilateral assistance since 2003 (Whitehouse, 2011).

In her remarks, Secretary Paulson (2007) said: I applaud these reform efforts and we will work with the international community to find ways to eliminate Liberia’s debt burden, which will allow Liberia to normalize its relations with the multilateral donor community, gain greater access to desperately needed development assistance, and put its finances on a more sound footing. We call on other countries to make similar commitments.

“I had the honor of meeting with Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf this week to discuss her strong efforts to rebuild Liberia after its devastating civil war. Since her election in January 2006, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s government has focused on Liberia’s reconstruction while demonstrating its commitment to economic and political reforms (Paulson, Treasury Department, 2007). According to the Treasury Department, Secretary Paulson on February 14, 2007 requested Congress to authorize the use of up to $35 million in debt reduction funds provided for in legislation now under consideration by Congress to help fund the costs of forgiving Liberia’s debt to the international financial institutions.

According to Treasury Department (2007), the request, was based on the Bush’s administration policy to forgive $391 million in claims on Liberia under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) framework, and requested funding in the fiscal year 2008 budget to cover the start of that process, set aside $15 million to contribute to forgiving Liberia’s debt to the African Development Bank and redirect more than $150 million in funds held by the IMF as a contribution to forgiving Liberia’s debt to the IMF, in consultation with Congress. Besides, the U.S. government has also provided more than $500 million of development assistance to Liberia over the past three years from 2005 to 2007, accounting for more than half of total bilateral development assistance received by Liberia during that time while in the fiscal year 2007 and 2008budgets, the U. S. government requested more than $200 million for Liberia.

Prior to the election of madam Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s debt equals $3.7 billion, but the full amount including the more than $1.5 billion of that debt that was in arrears to the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, and the African Development Bank) was waived. However, vast majority of the arrears was eliminated using internal resources at these institutions (Treasury Department, 2007).

In accordance with the Enhanced HIPC Initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, the completion point brought the debt cancellation of an estimated $2.7 billion in debt from the Paris Club, the IMF, World Bank, African Development Bank and other creditors (Treasury Department, 2010). The Treasury Department added that the U.S. also canceled 100 percent of its remaining claims after the meeting of the Paris Club of international creditors, bringing the total amount of U.S. debt relief for Liberia under HIPC to more than $400 million.

The remarkable relations between Liberia and U.S. further resulted in the U.S. government in 2007 to provide $185 million as part of Liberian debt relief financing at the IMF.  In its report published on November 13, 2007, the Treasury Department disclosed that the U.S. also provided $15 million to the African Development Bank for Liberian debt relief financing, and additional $391 million in claims on Liberia under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) framework.

Additionally, U.S. provided funding for Liberia’s required approximately $2.5 million contribution to clearance of its arrears at the African Development Bank (AfDB) which brought the total U.S. contribution to clearing Liberia’s arrears at the AfDB to about $17.5 million. Since 2008, Treasury technical advisors have worked closely with Liberia’s Ministry of Finance to implement a Code of Ethics, strengthen internal controls to deter and detect corruption, and improve tax collection procedures.

All these financial assistance occurred during President George Bush administration to assist President Johnson-Sirleaf government. USAID (2017) report discloses that Liberia has persistently received foreign aid assistance amounting to US$3,701,080 billion for the period 2004-2017.

According to the Treasury Department (2010) report, on June 29, 2010 the Secretary of Treasury, Mr. Paulson congratulated Liberia under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for successfully establishing a track record of good performance under programs designed to achieve economic growth and poverty reduction resulting in debt relief from the international community. Reaching “completion point” under the Enhanced Heavily-Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) recognizes Liberia’s performance under its International Monetary Fund (IMF) program and its excellent progress on adopting and implementing economic reforms in the face of a challenging economic environment both domestically and internationally (Treasury Department, 2010).

“Today’s decision marks a major achievement in Liberia’s progress towards economic sustainability and the international community’s recognition of that progress. This is a great milestone for Liberia”(Treasury Department, 2010). The Under Secretary for International Affairs, Lael Brainard announced the relief of Liberia’s debt burden is crucial to Liberia’s recovery after years of violence and civil war and to allow Liberia to move forward in rebuilding its economy and in light of its achievement under the Enhanced HIPC Initiative.

The United States is committed to working with Liberians to rebuild and recover from the devastating impact of the Ebola epidemic on their livelihoods, health, and families and that the U.S. is ensuring that the new capabilities drawn from the response efforts, including laboratory systems, surveillance, and health care workers trained in infection prevention and control, remain and bolster the Liberian capacity to implement the Global Health Security Agenda to prevent, detect, and respond to future threats (Whitehouse, 2011).

Washington has noted that the   Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has made major efforts to identify eligible U.S. investors willing to invest in Liberia in the aftermath of the devastating civil war. The agency provided long-term loans and risk insurance to realize those investments and has been able to build a portfolio of loans that now includes a school, a small and medium enterprise loan company, and housing (U.S.  Embassy, 2018). In 2013, Liberia was selected as one of the initial six focus countries under President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative. Under our partnership with the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, Liberia’s Rural and Renewable Energy Agency, and the World Bank, our goal is to increase energy service to as many as 800,000 Liberian households and businesses (Whitehouse, 2011).

Whitehouse (2011) report has revealed that since 2005, the U.S. government has invested over $519 million toward the development of the Justice Sector and Liberia national police including the Armed Forces of Liberia and security sector assistance to Liberia. According to the States Department (1998) country report, the U.S. had a long history of intervening in Liberia’s internal affairs, occasionally sending naval vessels to help the Americo-Liberians, who comprised the ruling minority, put down five insurrections by indigenous tribes. President William Howard Taft devoted a considerable portion of his First Annual Message to Congress (December 7, 1909) to the Liberian question, noting the close historical ties between the two countries that gave an opening for a wider intervention (Whitehouse, 1995).

In his First Annual Message to Congress on December 7, 1909, President William Howard Taft said:  “It will be remembered that the interest of the United States in the Republic of Liberia springs from the historical fact of the foundation of the Republic by the colonization of American citizens of the African race. In an early treaty with Liberia, there is a provision under which the United States may be called upon for advice or assistance. The U.S. foreign aid assistance to Liberia include the 1912 international loan of $ 1.7 million, against which Liberia had to agree to four Western powers- America, Britain, France and Germany to control  Liberian government revenues for 14 years, until 1926.

The U.S. also assisted Liberia on other fronts by establishing and supporting of the border police to stabilize the border with Sierra Leone and checked French ambitions to annex more Liberian territory (sources). In support of the U.S., Liberia declared war on Germany and expelled its resident German merchants, who constituted the country’s largest investors and trading partners – Liberia suffered economically as a result territory (Treasury Department, 2007). While in 1926, during the administration of Charles D.B. King, Liberian government-approved Firestone Rubber Company concession agreement.

U.S. assistance is focused on consolidating democratic progress; improving capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance institutions; promoting broad-based, market-driven economic growth; improving access to high-quality education and health services; and professionalizing Liberia’s military and civilian security forces, while helping Liberia build capacity to plan, implement, and sustain its own development efforts in each sector(State Department, 2016). According to the State Department (2018) publication, Liberia is eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The country’s revenues come primarily from rubber and iron ore exports, and revenues from its maritime registry program.

The report further explained that Liberia’s U.S.-owned and -operated shipping and corporate registry is the world’s second-largest. U.S. exports to Liberia include agricultural products (with rice as the leading category), vehicles, machinery, optic and medical instruments, and textiles. The main imports from Liberia to the United States are rubber and allied products; other imports include wood, art and antiques, palm oil, and diamonds. The United States and Liberia have signed a trade and investment framework agreement.  “A smart man changes his approach as circumstance changes; a wise person alters his means as times evolve.” quoted an ancient Chinese pundit (Jinping,2017. The new theories and practices of Liberia foreign relations need to create a diplomatic space for the inclusion of eight important essentials to enhance the new demands of international order reference to international relations, foreign policy and diplomacy.

Particularly, the contemporary Liberian foreign policy needs to be shifted to consider the aspects of other areas: reinforce the quality and effective interactions with friendly countries and international players by open wider to the international sphere; give equal importance to domestic and external demands, and take active part in global governance.   Secondly, institute targeted measures to reach specific international institutions, organizations and states for the wellbeing of the Liberian nation. It is also important for the government to reduce the capacity and weed out inferior capacity, strengthen vocational training aspects in placed to improve the quality and structure of the inferior capacity since all the citizens do not have the needed capacity for an academic work.

Research has shown that poverty can be reduced through education by making available high school education to all and take steps to narrow the gaps in educational resources between rural and urban areas. The policy should promote new innovation to drive development, and narrow the development gap between the rural and urban geographical areas. To achieve this, factors of production need to be considered to balance the consumption demands on the economy. Besides the rule of law, order measures needs to be put into place to systematic deal with the waves of crimes by addressing the root causes and harmful effects.

The nation’s poverty reduction strategies should make sure that there is a social cushion to meet basic needs of the population, identify and focus on the critical needs. Social services for senior citizens, handicapped, sightless, take measures to control risks and protect the lives and properties of the population. Since Liberia’s independence, it has gone through several major turbulences in its development drive from the perspectives of political, economic, social and environment, including time and management. For years, the nation fell behind when nations began to rise, instead the state disintegrate, when the nation failed to seize the opportunity to reject war and keep progress in place. As a result, Liberia is an entire an impoverished, backward and torn apart by years of senseless but devastated war.

Edwin Barclay served as foreign minister and secretary of state of Liberia in the government of Charles D.B. King from 1920 until 1930. He became President of Liberia in 1930 when President King and Vice President Allen Yancy resigned because of a scandal (Fernado-po). He was elected in his own right for the first time in 1931. Under his administration, Barclay’s foreign policy was geared towards opening up the Liberian economy to foreign investors (MOFA, 2010).

Great times make great people. President Edward Barclay was a devoted Christian and statesman who ascended from the historic struggles of the Liberian-nation. President Barclay’s noble charisma remains fresh in the recollections of many who followed his style of leadership.  His charisma theories and practices will always serve as a driving path of stimulation towards the nation’s foreign relations. In the face of domestic and international political antipathy, Barclay was calm with a firm faith in the profound understanding of the importance of convictions and principles he formulated Liberia’s foreign policy based on national interests. The successes of Liberian foreign policy and international relations today would have been impossible without Barclay’s ideals, which in a contemporary Liberia serve as a guiding principle of national interests as the basis of nation’s foreign policy.

In conformity with his principles that empty talk harms a leadership and by extension the states while hard work and good policy pay and make a state flourish, his administration overcomes extended formidable difficulties and explored innovated paths by knocking on the doors of friendly nations for foreign assistance. President Barclay’s art of leadership is noted for pioneering Liberia’s foreign relations, which is today being carried out, although great adjustments have been effected since the world changes every day, and modern technology  particularly have been advanced swiftly.

Acting like a woman with a bound foot, President Tubman presented himself to the global powers as their own and played to their whims and commands; his experiment helped him to break into the hegemony of the global actors. Under his leadership and outside assistance, reform to the nation’s foreign relations immediate took effect, consolidating his art of hegemony leadership by integrating western orientation experimentation into his style, eliminated some of  Barclay’s foreign policy strategies and blaze new trails to enrich capitalism framed on his open door dogma.

Perhaps in his inclusive thinking of development fashions of the modern world, President Tubman made a series of major decisions of strategic importance to the long-term development of the country, based on forecast into the trends of global happening since the situations across the world were changing rapidly. During his 27-year of presidential career, he intimidated and humiliated his political adversaries and journalists. But yet, he was darling of the West, he exhibited the indomitable courage to fully involved in the formation of germane international organizations, including the United Nations, Organization of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the independence of dozen of sovereign states both in Africa and out of the continent.

The dynamic of Tubman’s foreign relations helped to reposition the country in the international sphere. President Tubman’s strong sense of historical responsibility particularly the nation’s principles for a peaceful coexistence of all states and respect to humankind necessitated Liberia’s role in peace-keeping operation across the world and provided sanctuary to African political activists chased out of their countries, some of these political activists became elected presidents of their countries.

Guannu  (1995) revealed that President William R. Tolbert tried to broaden Liberia’s foreign Policy by establishing ties with the East and maintain its ties with the West.  To this end, he established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China,  Cuba,  and several other  Eastern Bloc countries, thus adopting more  nonaligned posture.  Tolbert  severed Liberia’s ties with Israel during the Yoin  Kippur  war  in October 1973 and spoke  in favor of recognizing national  rights   of the Palestinian People.  However, Tolbert supported the United States on the Vietnam  war,  as his  predecessor, William Tubman. Tolbert was chairman of the Organization of African Unity from July 1979 until he was killed in April 1980.

In the span of 180 years, the relationship of the United States to Liberia has gone from one of parental nurturing to one of self-interested assistance to one of increasing disengagement. There have been numerous views on whether the U.S. should have become more involved in the Liberian civil war, and how much assistance the U.S. should be providing to Liberia now. Others explained that the U.S. should have intervened at the beginning of the war and, having not done so, should now at least be providing greater assistance to help promote a democratic system and stop the human rights abuses.

Nowadays the U.S. provides some assistance to Liberia, not in direct aid to the Liberian government but rather in the form of humanitarian services (health care, education, social services) through the United Nations and non-governmental organizations for the Liberian people, who are beginning the long struggle to rebuild their lives and their war-ravaged country. But the amount of U.S. aid has fallen drastically since it peaked in the 1980s. The Peace Corps program has been dramatically reduced in Liberia.

Former President Samuel K. Doe regime played with Libya, before aligning decisively with the US.  This position was rewarded with massive foreign assistance from the administration of President Ronald Reagan and a state visit to the White House in 1982. Additionally, until 1985, Liberia was the largest per capita recipient of U.S. government foreign aid assistance, receiving more assistance from the US in 1981-1985 than over the entire previous century – though by the time rebels Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson moved to overthrow Doe at the twilight of the Cold War, this support had evaporated(Brooks Marmon, 2005).

Doe quickly became an important ‘Cold War ally’, and Liberia served to protect important U.S’s. facilities and investments and to prevent the spread of so-called Soviet influences. In the first five years of Doe’s rule, the U.S. poured $500 million into Liberia through direct and indirect assistance. During World War II, the U.S. built a base near Monrovia for refueling and maintaining U.S. military aircraft active in North Africa and Europe. At the height of the war, in 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped in Liberia on his North African tour to visit U.S. troops. Liberia viewed his visit as a symbol of the strong relationship between the United States and Liberia, and as a confirmation that the U.S. would be a source of support and aid to Liberia (Global Connection, 2002).

During the Doe administration, U.S. in fact, supported Liberia with foreign aid – because it had a specific interest in doing so. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, the U.S. viewed Liberia as an ideal post from which to fight the spread of communism through Africa Global connection (2002). The U.S. signed a mutual defense pact with Liberia and built communications facilities in Liberia to handle diplomatic and intelligence traffic to and from Africa, to monitor broadcasts in the region, and to relay a Voice of America signal throughout the continent. According to Global connection (2002), under President Kennedy, the U.S. also established Peace Corps and economic and military assistance programs. From 1962 to 1980, Liberia received $280 million in aid from the U.S., the greatest level of U.S. aid to any African country on a per capita basis at the time.

The Liberian-nation’s reputation throughout Charles Taylor’s insurgent was viewed in the international realm by global players and international actors as a failed state. During the eras, the nation’s reputation in the international sphere was tainted internationally. This affected the country’s ability to build coalitions and alliances to achieve international political objectives, to influence perceptions and purchase decisions, and to attract foreign investments. While those who were in possession of the nation’s traveling documents, especially passports, were subjected to all sorts of malicious treatments at various ports of entry.

Meanwhile, there are going debates regarding which of the two countries Liberia or U.S. which stand to benefit greatly from the relations? For others, the U.S.-Liberia partnership benefits both states, while others argue that Liberia is the great beneficiary. For some the U. S. is in the best the position to benefit greatly, as far as international relations is concerned. I have no doubt, this answer depends which side one supports. Authored by Josephus Moses Gray, Assistant professor of International Relations, University of Liberia Graduate Program of International Studies. Mobile: 9231)880330299

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