Soon-to-retire senator reflects on years of engagement with Africa
For Johnny Isakson, a position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wasn’t a lifelong dream.
Instead, as he describes it in a recent tribute video honoring his steadfast commitment to international affairs, it was an assignment that came about by chance but would change the course of his work:
Mr. Isakson, who stepped down from the Senate this month for health reasons, accepted the role as ranking Republican on the subcommittee on African affairs in 2009, when the party’s leadership couldn’t find anyone else to fill it. He’d never been to Africa; the next week he was visiting the continent.
“I fell in love with Africa. It’s beautiful. The people are wonderful. They’re genuinely good people, and it’s fun to be a catalyst like America has been for good things to happen that you can show off the trust of the world,” he says in the video.
The tribute was shown to about a thousand people at a dinner in Washington Nov. 20, where the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition awarded Mr. Isakson its lifetime achievement award.
The senator was a steadfast supporter of deeper engagement with the continent, betting that American investments in humanitarian aid and measures to improve trade would pay long-term dividends for shared prosperity and security.
Africa is home to 54 countries and more than a billion people, presenting massive future markets for American goods and services. It’s also a strategically important region from a security and trade perspective. Mr. Isakson often framed capacity-building U.S. engagement on the continent as being different from that of its “competitor,” China, which he characterized as building infrastructure mainly for purposes of extraction, without asking questions about governance.
He believes that Africa, with its combined markets, could be the largest trading partner for the U.S. this century “if we do it right.”
Highlights of his work on Africa include initiating and renewing funding for the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. He also championed trade and governance initiatives like the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Millennium Challenge Corp., pushing for the modernization in 2018 of both programs, which were enacted under former President George W. Bush.
That same year, he advocated for the reauthorization of the Global Food Security Act, a law he introduced to ensure that American farmers continue to play a role in feeding the world. It was signed into law by former President Obama.
And Mr. Isakson introduced a law that in 2011 enacted better security and protection for Peace Corps volunteers serving worldwide after he heard the story of Kate Puzey, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after reporting a local teacher for allegedly molesting students.
These and other achievements spanned multiple administrations and included working across the aisle, fitting for a senator who called for a renewed culture of bipartisanship during his farewell address at the Senate.
For a full list of Mr. Isakson’s foreign policy-related accomplishments compiled by his office,