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Biden names Kenya a major non-NATO ally during state visit

President Biden greets Kenya's President William Ruto at the South Portico of the White House on May 22. The two leaders met with a group of tech CEOs the day before the official state visit.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
President Biden greets Kenya's President William Ruto at the South Portico of the White House on May 22. The two leaders met with a group of tech CEOs the day before the official state visit.

Updated May 23, 2024 at 15:22 PM ET

President Biden welcomed Kenya’s President William Ruto for a state visit on Thursday, a trip aimed at showing his administration wants to deepen U.S. ties with the African continent.

As part of a long list of new agreements with Kenya, Biden announced he plans to designate the country as a major non-NATO ally, which comes with some defense trade benefits.

Kenya will be the first sub-Saharan African nation to receive the designation, which recognizes the country’s contributions to counterterrorism work, and its work leading a multinational force in Haiti.

The Biden administration is backing Kenya's work in Haiti with funding, equipment and intelligence — but the United States is not contributing forces. "We're in a situation where we want to do all we can without us looking like America once again is stepping over and deciding, 'This is what must be done,'" Biden told reporters.

Debt relief was a focus of the talks

It’s been a long time since an African leader had the honor of a state visit. Former President George W. Bush rolled out the red carpet for Ghana in 2008 and Kenya in 2003. Former President Barack Obama had a summit with a state-like dinner for 50 leaders in 2014.

President Biden, Kenyan President William Ruto, and their spouses walk back to the White House after a formal arrival ceremony on the South Lawn on May 23.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images / Getty Images North America
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Getty Images North America
President Biden, Kenyan President William Ruto, and their spouses walk back to the White House after a formal arrival ceremony on the South Lawn on May 23.

“This is the first state visit by an African head of state in nearly 20 years. It is long overdue,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.

Biden met with technology business leaders from Kenya and the United States on Wednesday, recognizing the country’s growth in the tech sector. The leaders also discussed climate change during their meetings.

"it is important for us to appreciate that many countries in Africa, including Kenya, are struggling with an overwhelming convergence of multiple shocks, including extreme climate events, debt distress, and the disruptive upheavals in Europe and the Middle East, whose cumulative impact is to divert national resources from investment in people and economic growth into managing climate induced crisis and servicing sovereign debt," Ruto said.

The leaders agreed on new funding and a new approach to mobilizing debt relief. "Too many nations are forced to make a choice between development and debt between investing in their people and paying back their creditors," Biden said.

Biden had promised to visit Africa. But he hasn't been there yet

China, Russia and other nations have been actively investing in the continent, and Biden has sought to try to reestablish U.S. influence, starting with a summit in 2022.

Since then, Vice President Harris, first lady Jill Biden and seven of Biden’s cabinet members have since visited Africa, but Biden himself has not, despite promising to do so. He told reporters on Wednesday that he would travel there in February – a goal that obviously will hinge on whether he wins reelection.

First lady Jill Biden arrives at a press preview of the state dinner for Kenya on May 22.
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images / AFP
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AFP
First lady Jill Biden arrives at a press preview of the state dinner for Kenya on May 22.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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