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Biden welcomes Kenya’s Ruto with talk of business deals and 1,000 candles

Leaders vow to help developing countries deal with big debts

From left: Kenyan first lady Rachel Ruto, Kenyan President William Ruto, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk back into the White House after an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday.
From left: Kenyan first lady Rachel Ruto, Kenyan President William Ruto, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk back into the White House after an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden on Thursday hailed Washington’s six-decade-old business and political alliance with Kenya as he looked to bolster a key ally seen as a buffer to Chinese and Russian influence in Africa.

During an elaborate welcome ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn that included the two leaders reviewing U.S. military troops, Biden hailed Kenyan President William Ruto’s cooperation on combating violent extremist groups like ISIS and al-Shabab, as well as for taking steps to curb the impacts of climate change. But, like during more informal meetings on Wednesday, the U.S. president made clear that deepening the countries’ business ties was perhaps the biggest focus of the state visit.

“Today, as we begin the next decade of our partnership, we’ve launched a new initiative to bring our countries, companies and communities closer,” Biden said. “Because the past is our proof that we are stronger, and the world is safer, when Kenya and the United States work together.”

The ceremony marked the start of the first state visit by an African leader in nearly two decades. The last time was during George W. Bush’s second term, when he hosted Ghana’s John Kufuor in September 2008.

U.S. officials see Kenya has an economic and political buffer against the increased footprint of China and Russia in eastern Africa. Biden is scheduled to fete Ruto and other Kenyan officials during a state dinner Thursday evening on the White House’s South Lawn, complete with more than 1,000 candles, views of the Washington Monument and a menu that includes a chilled green tomato soup, beef short ribs, lobster and banana ganache.

First lady Jill Biden delivers remarks alongside Carlos Elizondo, White House social secretary, at a state dinner preview event in the Cross Hall of the White House on Wednesday. More than 1,000 candles are slated to illuminate the South Lawn during a dinner featuring about 500 guests. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The two leaders discussed a range of issues during two days of meetings at the Executive Mansion, including a roundtable with business leaders on Wednesday. The U.S. president used that event to note the history of American-Kenyan relations, saying, “Nowhere is it more important than the realm of innovation. That’s why we have so many business leaders around this table.”

Biden said Wednesday he would fulfill a 2020 campaign promise to visit Africa — if he is reelected this year. “I plan to go in February after I am reelected,” he told reporters.

Here are three other takeaways from the Biden-Ruto meetings and their joint news conference.

‘Deal with the debt’

White House officials said this week that many of the new business deals between the two countries should be finalized in the coming months. Perhaps the most notable announcement, called “deliverables” in diplomatic circles, was Biden’s announcement of a new joint effort to help developing countries deal with mounting debt.

“You’ve got to deal with the debt before you deal with the growth,” Biden said near the end of the joint news conference.

Biden announced that the United States plans to send $21 billion to the International Monetary Fund’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust to support such countries. And he said an additional $250 million in U.S. monies will help the World Bank respond to global crises.

On the expected business deals, the two leaders hailed ongoing negotiations toward several joint economic and investment pacts, saying officials are on track to finalize those before the end of this year. What’s more, the leaders noted that major American companies such as Coca-Cola are making investments in Kenya.

The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation announced a number of grants and loans to Kenyan businesses, including companies that specialize in health care, electric vehicles, automobile financing, weather forecasting and other sectors.

‘Against the interests’

On a coming Kenyan-led mission to combat gang warfare in Haiti, Ruto faced perhaps the toughest question during the news conference. A Kenyan reporter pressed him on how he could justify deploying Kenyan police and security forces — and funding — to a faraway country when some schools back home remain closed.

Ruto contended that Kenya has a “responsibility” to help.

Biden was asked why he opted against sending American troops to try bringing stability to the Caribbean country. Biden replied that doing so would have fostered too much skepticism about Washington’s true intentions and such a deployment would have been “against the interests of Haiti and the United States.”

Instead, Biden reiterated that the U.S. will provide the Kenya-led security force with logistical and intelligence assistance, as well as unspecified “supplies.” Sending “thousands” of Western military forces would not solve the problems of Haiti, he said.

‘Enormous political value’

With China and Russia expanding their business and political dealings across Africa in recent years, U.S. officials see Kenya, and Ruto, as key to combating that Beijing-Moscow influence.

Biden administration officials have reportedly been mulling formally designating Kenya a “major non-NATO ally,” although the U.S. president did not announce such a move on Thursday. Still, there were many strategic reasons to give Ruto the full state visit treatment, analysts say.

In addition to his country’s buffer status to China and Russia, there’s “Ruto’s offer to lead a multinational peace operation to Haiti — a crisis Washington is deeply uncomfortable about but is reluctant to become involved in directly — which is undoubtedly a key reason for the warm welcome Ruto is receiving,” according to Matt Ward, a former United Nations official who now is an analyst for Oxford Analytica.

About the Haiti mission, Biden said, “Kenya’s willingness to lead on this really matters.”

Make no mistake, Ruto himself likely will gain added stature among world leaders after being welcomed with open arms at the White House, with his country’s flag lining lampposts on Pennsylvania Avenue and the podium from which they addressed reporters.

“It has enormous political value for Kenya and Ruto,” Ward added in a Thursday briefing paper. “More important may be the opportunity to attract new U.S. investments, which has been a key plank of Ruto’s economic policy and would bring welcome relief to the economy.”

Author’s note: FiscalNote is the parent company of CQ Roll Call and Oxford Analytica.

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