Biden seeks to bolster relationship with Kenya during president's state visit

The visit is expected to focus on security, climate, technology, health, and economic and people-to-people ties.
William Ruto
Rachel Ruto
Jill Biden
Posted at 11:01 AM, May 22, 2024

For the first time in more than 15 years, an African leader will visit the White House for a state visit. President Biden will welcome Kenya’s President William Ruto to the White House this week, marking 60 years of relations between the two nations.

The Biden administration has sought to deepen relationships across the African continent and sees Kenya as a significant partner in that goal.

“We sought out a state visit not only to recognize the strategic importance of our partnership with Kenya but also to forge new paths ahead as we tackle common global priorities,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday.

The visit by Ruto is expected to highlight Kenya as one of America’s closest allies on the continent, and according to the administration, focus on security, climate, technology, health, and economic and people-to-people ties.

“The president’s message to President Ruto is we are doing a lot together; let’s do even more to solve global challenges. We are aligned on a lot of things so let’s partner to solve those issues,” a senior administration official said to Scripps News.

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The visit comes as Kenya has taken a greater role internationally, preparing to lead an international security mission in Haiti amid gang violence and unrest in the country. The U.S. has offered around $300 million in financial support for the peacekeeping mission. The deployment is “imminent,” according to the official, and is expected to be a part of the conversation between leaders.

But experts focused on the region note the situation is extremely tenuous and could place Kenyan officials in a difficult spot.

“There are a lot of concerns that this could go very badly,” said Michelle Gavin, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa during the Obama administration and now serves as a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S.-Kenya relationship could really suffer here if this turns out to be a debacle.”

Other deliverables are expected out of the visit, including on security, according to the US official. The U.S. and Kenya cooperate in counter-terrorism efforts, particularly against al-Shabab, a Somalia-based, Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization.

However, the visit also highlights less-stable ties with Africa, including the recently announced U.S. withdrawal of troops from Niger and other nations, such as Chad and Libya sidelining U.S. relations for Russia.

Ruto has said the visit, for him, will be focused on "trade and investment."

It’s an area also underscored by the U.S. official to Scripps News, saying we could expect to see a joint vision statement on debt-related issues following the bilateral between the leaders.

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“Kenya and the United States are looking to generate paths forward for countries struggling to service their debt while also developing their own economies and making necessary investments in their future. Countries like Kenya shouldn’t have to choose between the two,” the official said.

In the backdrop of the visit are ongoing trade discussions, with negotiations having taken place over the last year. A joint statement following the latest round reaffirmed an aim of concluding an agreement by the end of the year on a Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership. Free trade negotiations started under the Trump administration were not continued under President Biden.

The visit also brings a focus on private-sector economic ties, particularly in the technology space, the official noted, as well as supply chain resilience and cyber-related issues.

Ahead of the official visit, Presidents Biden and Ruto will meet at the White House with 10 business leaders from the countries to discuss technology and innovation partnerships, according to a White House official. The official notes Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” houses more than 200 start-ups. The roundtable is expected to underscore ties between it and Silicon Valley and “... set the stage for the next chapter of the U.S.-Kenya strategic technology partnership.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Ruto will also take part in a conversation at a forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce later in the week, to discuss efforts to increase investment in digital inclusion, according to the administration.

Action on climate is also expected, the official said, as both officials prioritize a climate and green energy transition, while on the health front, the official said the U.S. is increasingly working to support the manufacturing and testing capabilities of Kenya.

“We are partnering with Kenya to be part of solutions,” the official said.

The countries reached agreements to develop plans aimed at eliminating HIV as a public health threat in Kenya. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Kenya and the Kenya Medical Research Institute will also be supported in their research efforts, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya

People-to-people ties will also be focused on "two democracies partnering,” the official said. The United States Agency for International Development announced a new framework for educational partnerships in STEM-related fields, including $32 million for Kenya’s system this week.

This visit also marks the first state visit of a country not part of the G20 under the Biden administration. President Biden has hosted the leaders of Japan, South Korea, France, Australia and India.

President Biden hosted the U.S.-Africa leaders summit and released a strategy toward Africa in 2022 that “reframes the region’s importance to U.S. national security interest,” acknowledging its role in global priorities, as China and Russia have sought to deepen influence on the continent. However, questions have loomed about whether President Biden would visit Africa during his presidency.

President Biden had pledged to travel to Africa in 2023 following the African Leaders summit he hosted. But he, instead, subbed in senior-level cabinet officials and participated in only a single phone call with an African leader, Ruto, on Haiti.