Bongo's historically close ties to France and the United States date back to his pro-Western stance during the Cold War, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union the West grew less tolerant of authoritarian rulers. Bongo has been forced to endure international criticism for alleged irregularities in the 1993 and 1998 elections, and his government has faced harsh criticism in the French press for corruption. As oil production has declined in recent years, the link with France has weakened. Consequently, Bongo has attempted to broaden diplomatic relations with other states that may help Gabon reach its development potential in the petroleum, timber, and telecom sectors. A visit from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Bongo's visit along with other African heads of state to Washington in September 2002 are signs of U.S. interest in tapping African sources of oil. Canada, Ireland, and South Africa have also shown interest in building stronger relations with Bongo's government.
Shortfalls in earnings have placed Gabon in danger of default on its nearly us$4 billion debt. Such a default would likely lead to International Monetary Fund (IMF)-mandated austerity measures. A rescheduling of debt with the IMF is unavoidable, challenging Bongo to implement tough IMF policies and to spend more of the national budget on social welfare while managing strikes and other popular protests that result from IMF-imposed cut backs in patronage.
The spread of conflict in Central Africa has drawn Bongo into regional politics. As the son-in-law of Dennis Sassou-Nguesso and a close friend of Pascal Lissouba, Bongo was called upon to mediate between these leaders to end their bloody contest over rule in the Congo Republic. He earned accolades from the OAU for his efforts. A friend of deposed Central African Republic (CAR) President Félix Patasse, Bongo rejected the outcome of the February coup in CAR, and hosted the coordinators of the peace initiative for the CAR in February 2003. His support for the Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo (MLC) rebels in Congo-Kinshasa is well-known, and as the godfather of Jean-Pierre Bemba, MLC leader, he allegedly has supplied arms to the MLC to overthrow the Kabila government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Bongo's former friendship with deceased Zairean dictator, Mobutu Sese-Seko, and his current friendship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame have deepened the divide between Gabon and DRC. In 1998, Bongo hosted a Francophone summit that called on African states to deny fly-over and landing rights to planes ferrying arms and supplies to the Angolan rebels. Under auspices of the African Union, Bongo sent troops to Burundi in March 2003 to monitor the ceasefire.