Africa, World, Politics

Analysis: The puzzle of Trump’s Africa policy

By J Brooks Spector 16 January 2017

With the Trump administration about to start, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a turn at trying to fathom out the likely outlines of a Trump administration’s policy towards the African continent. It is not an easy one.

Well, okay, we shall just have to admit it – this week, Donald Trump will be sworn in as America’s 45th president, and whatever fears and trepidations there may be will inevitably have to change into an ongoing analysis of actual decisions, a weighing of the good, the bad and the ugly. And going forward, the decisions he and his administration make will have consequences. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Donald Trump let it out that he is rethinking America’s “one China” policy as well as the fact that economic sanctions against Russia could soon come under review or even reversal.

The American “one China” policy came into being in 1979 with the recognition of the People’s Republic of China as the sole bearer of Chinese national sovereignty, but with an understanding that the US-Taiwan relationship would continue as a non-diplomatic expression, similar to arrangements in place by a number of other nations, including South Africa’s own policy, post-apartheid. The economic sanctions against Russia, meanwhile, were part of a multinational response to the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula and then its aiding and abetting of an ongoing rebellion in the eastern reaches of Ukraine. (More recent punitive actions came into effect, spinning out from the hacking and disinformation campaigns believed to have been carried out by the Kremlin during the 2016 election.)

Foreign governments (and many people and organisations within America as well) are obviously still struggling to determine what the incoming president really hopes to achieve or propose in his foreign initiatives, once he takes office. But many such initiatives may not come as quickly – or as fully – as the Trump team is eager to see happen in its first days. Although it was largely addressed towards domestic policy questions, Robert Costa and Philip Rucker, writing in The Washington Post over the weekend, pointed to the systemic braking mechanisms that come into play with most new initiatives from incoming presidents.

And in fact, most foreign policy questions have domestic dimensions and varied constituencies as well that make things more complex still. As Costa and Rucker noted,

Running for president, Donald Trump promised an immediate revolution — to quickly rebuild America’s cities, overhaul the tax code and deport millions of illegal immigrants. Just this week, Trump vowed to get started right away on building a wall along the border with Mexico (“I don’t want to wait”) and repealing and replacing President Obama’s health-care law (“probably the same day, could be the same hour”).

But ahead of his swearing-in on Friday, the extraordinarily high expectations that Trump has set have been running into the logjam known as American democracy. Every new president confronts Washington’s sluggish culture, but Trump’s more grandiose and hardline ideas could face unprecedented challenges — logistical and even constitutional.

Trump imagines a presidency of vision and velocity, but his big-ticket goals cannot be achieved by presidential edict, no matter how loud Trump’s demands might be or how assured he is of the popularity of his proposals. They will require consensus on Capitol Hill that emerges from a deliberative process that requires time and the navigation of a labyrinth of constituencies and special interests…

Yet, for a man who has spent his career as his own boss — calling shots and inking transactions, running his world from the 26th floor of Trump Tower — the art of the deal may soon yield to the art of patience. ‘He’s never had a boss in his whole life. It will be a sobering reality to have 535 bosses [the membership of both houses of Congress] here — and more to the point, more than 200-million bosses scattered across the country,’ said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). ‘Patience becomes a virtue as one moves from the business world into the body politic.’ ”

Nevertheless, policy-makers here in Africa reasonably enough are deeply interested in learning about any Trump agenda for this continent. This is particularly true since there still has been virtually nothing specific in the public record from the president-elect or his team on American policy towards Africa. As a result, there still is little to gauge expectations on – in advance of any such public statements. Accordingly, one falls back on notions that most American efforts towards Africa have been largely bipartisan in nature, supported by Republicans and Democratic presidents and Congresses alike, at least since the twinned events of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Certainly, the argument that US support for increases in trade with Africa can be an engine for economic growth in the continent’s nations, and that such economic growth becomes a key element of political stability that itself contributes to the growth of democratic practice, has been a key element of US policy towards Africa for years. Emblematic of this view has come to be seen in the repeated passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, most recently in 2016 for a further 10 years’ duration.

Similarly, counterterrorism (even if not the idea of “nation-building”) has been a constant of American attention in Africa since the first entrance into Somalia with the collapse of that country’s government – and the rise of religiously motivated insurrectionists and their outward reach into neighbouring states. Moreover, this emphasis has gradually included more attention across the nations of the Sahel and in Uganda, against the Lord’s Resistance Army, even if there has been reluctance to get too involved in the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

Additionally, there has been broad, bipartisan consensus on humanitarian efforts, in particular the campaign against HIV/AIDS via the major investment in the PEPFAR programme, as well as other efforts. More recently, although specifically a Democratic president’s initiative, there has been wide support for a public-private initiative like Power Africa.

But there is obviously a new sheriff in town with the imminent changeover from Obama to Trump administrations, even given this record of largely bipartisan Africa policy, and in spite of the kinds of obstacles noted in The Post article. The Economist, describing a just-concluded meeting of Obama and Trump heavyweight advisors, as well as representatives of the abortive Clinton presidency, noted that contrary to both Obama and Clinton stalwarts (or even with GOP veterans from earlier presidencies),

Trump aides, by contrast, are impatient with talk of fragility and complexity. Though they worry about terrorism and rogue states with nukes, they also see a world in a thrillingly plastic state. It is anyone’s guess where Mr Trump’s foreign policies will end up – he shunned details on the campaign trail and has appointed figures with clashing views to some top jobs.

But supporters of Team Trump express confidence that curbing the menace of Iran, for instance, requires more pressure and sanctions, not concessions to strengthen pragmatists within the regime. They scoff at the idea that the natural environment is fragile enough to need a climate-change pact – and indeed hail cheap American oil and gas as a source of global leverage.

As for nationalism and populism, they are not a menace: they are how Mr Trump won. Stephen Bannon, Mr Trump’s chief strategist, has told visitors to Trump Tower, with relish, that he thinks an anti-establishment revolt will sweep the far right to power in France and topple Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. Mr Bannon would like America to unwind sanctions against Russia, imposed after the annexation of Crimea, in order to secure Russian help in constraining Iran, Islamic terrorism and even China.”

Yet again, there is not much guidance to be found here to interpret what next for the African continent, save for the promise (or threat) of something rather different than pretty much everything since 1990.

Attempting to infer what will fill in those blanks, South African analyst Greg Mills took these promises of change to argue that Africans – and South Africans in particular – should see grounds for optimism in this movement. Or, as Mills wrote the other day:

Over the past eight years US-Africa policy has largely been a continuation of (Bill) Clinton (in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and Bush II (the Pepfar Aids spending, and the Millennium Challenge money for major projects in ‘reformist’ countries). There has been more fluff (the African Leaders’ summit) and the Young African Leaders Initiative (which has brought 2,000 young Africans to the US on short visits) and some new money (through Power Africa), but at the same time growing American indifference to African challenges of democratisation and governance…. Despite a continuation of operational US military engagement through Africom, overall, Obama’s US-Africa policy has been minimalist, and to a fault. Tough diplomacy has been notable by its absence.”

Looking ahead, Mills argued:

A Trump-led shake-up of US foreign policy towards Africa could be a good thing. But Africa will have to work hard to gain positive attention beyond just a source of problems to be solved, including the threat of terrorism to the prospect of failing regions (and not just states), hyper-stressed as they are likely to be by demographic and climate change.”

But, aside from an argument for more efforts on law, justice and democracy programmes, and a recognition of the power of Africa’s youthful population in connection with the possibilities of economic growth, not too many specifics even there. And the nation-building-ish aspects of such proposed policies would seem to contradict at least some of Trump’s broader foreign policy ideas, and in contrast to those transactional, near-mercantilist international economic policy views that are key for him.

The New York Times turned to comments by J Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council for guidance on a likely outline for the Trump Africa agenda. According to The Times,

J. Peter Pham, who has been mentioned for the job of assistant secretary of state for African affairs in a Trump administration, said he does not expect Mr Trump to do a complete U-turn in relations with Africa. Mr Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Atlantic Council, said he expects Mr Trump will emphasise fighting extremism on the continent, while also looking to enhance opportunities for American businesses.”

Pham, pointing to those larger continuities, noted that Bush II increases in foreign assistance to Africa were largely continued by the Obama administration. However, this aid, around $8-billion, is dwarfed by American aid elsewhere on the globe, directed at security hotspots.

However, drawing on a roster of questions apparently circulating in the State Department that are connected with the imminent transfer of authority, The Times argues the incoming Trump administration is bringing with it some significant scepticism “about the value of foreign aid, and even about American security interests, on the world’s second-largest continent”.

The paper went on to say, “A four-page list of Africa-related questions from the transition staff has been making the rounds at the State Department and Pentagon, alarming longtime Africa specialists who say the framing and the tone of the questions suggest an American retreat from development and humanitarian goals, while at the same time trying to push forward business opportunities across the continent.”

This list asks about the competitiveness of US business in Africa (compared to the Chinese); whether humanitarian assistance is looted and whether such funds would be better spent within the US instead; whether it is worth it for the US to continue to aid in the fight against Boko Haram and if al-Qaeda operatives originating from Africa are now resident in the US; what is the point of the long fight against Joseph Kony’s LRA if the band continues to exist but hasn’t threatened US interests, and why the US, after fighting al-Shabaab for 10 years, has not yet succeeded in crushing that movement? 

Other questions included in this process have been asking for an evaluation of the overall benefits of AGOA to America and Africa, given the fact that “Most of AGOA imports are petroleum products, with the benefits going to national oil companies, [thus] why do we support that massive benefit to corrupt regimes?”

The questionnaire also posed the issue of how to combat the next Ebola outbreak from reaching American shores, paralleling in some ways the president-elect’s own concerns about the disease, one of the rare cases when he actually discussed Africa during the campaign.

The Times also noted that “other questions, foreign policy experts say, return to a theme of a continent that has squandered American money and effort. The questions challenge, for instance, a hallmark of Mr Bush’s Africa policy — the Pepfar programme, which has provided billions to fight AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa. The Times went on to say, “Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, complimented the programmne, calling Pepfar ‘one of the most extraordinarily successful programmes in Africa’ during his Senate nomination hearing.” But the questionnaire wondered if “PEPFAR (was) worth the massive investment when there are so many security concerns in Africa? Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement programme?”

Naturally, any new, incoming administration would want to frame some questions like this in order to trigger new thinking and possible lateral approaches. However, Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa programme at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, a Washington think tank, has also pointed out that “the framing of some of their questions suggests a narrower definition of US interests in Africa, and a more transactional and short-term approach to policy and engagement with African countries.” And these approaches, Muyangwa added, might foreshadow “a dramatic turn in how the United States will engage with the continent”.

Meanwhile, for his part, Pham told The Times, “he expects Mr Trump will emphasise fighting extremism on the continent, while also looking to enhance opportunities for American businesses.” Pham anticipates the Trump administration will support AGOA, given its job creation success in the US, noting some 120,000 jobs have come out of a trade measure overwhelmingly supported by Democrats and Republicans both, so far.

Attempting to divine the longer continuities appropriate for the new administration, Pham wrote recently, “Africa’s story is increasingly one of economic dynamism that is driven, in part, by political reform and improvements in governance. But, there are also very real security, humanitarian, and developmental challenges that remain to be confronted. The United States has a stake in helping to tackle these challenges, not least because it is in its own national interest to do so.”

Pham added, however, the “United States needs to modernise its relations with a changing Africa to best engage a new range of actors and circumstances. The change of US administration in January offers a unique opportunity to recalibrate US strategy toward a rapidly transforming continent.”

In a broader discussion asking the question, “why Trump should make Africa a foreign policy priority”, Pham argued that there are reasons to identify policy areas where “genuine bipartisan consensus can be found around measures consonant with the new administration’s articulated policy vision to provide it with some early leadership successes.” And for Pham, Africa is just such a tempting target for such successes.

Underpinning his argument is the fact that Africa remains a major source of crucial commodities for the global economy and the continued supply of such items is critical to global economic growth. Moreover, even as a considerable number of African states are growing rapidly, “because of this economic dynamism as well as the very real security, humanitarian and developmental challenges that are still found there, the foreign policy approach based on American interests and the shared interests of her allies in stability and prosperity that Trump has called for cannot but include a significant African dimension”.

Second, he argues, a new administration can gain traction internationally, especially since the Africa constituency has, as noted earlier, significant bipartisan support, regardless of who is in the White House, as witnessed by the enormous margins of support in Congress for the latest extension of AGOA.

There is, thus, a roster of important bipartisan goals accordingly to be addressed in Africa, regardless of other partisan tensions in the American political dynamic. As Pham argues, given the continuing threats posed by “militant Islamist groups, some with links to al-Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), continues to threaten not only the countries immediately affected, but also the interests and security of the United States and its allies in Europe”.

And putting an end to just such activities was a key goal articulated by Trump’s campaign. To carry this out, Pham argues for the end to the US defence budget sequester restrictions to free up the requisite resources, a position candidate Trump had called for as well.

Meanwhile, a business agenda would move beyond support for the job-creation capabilities of AGOA and greater demand for US products. There are geo-political dimensions too.

Since 2009, China has surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. Moreover, given constraints imposed by current fiscal realities — to say nothing of the political demand by the American electorate to rebuild the country’s own crumbling infrastructure at home, a point highlighted by the president-elect’s campaign — it must be understood that advancing US economic interests in Africa will, and must be, driven primarily by the private sector.”

But, having said that, there is scope for ways from government to make the competitive environment for American business more conducive, including initiatives to negotiate bilateral or multilateral trade agreements to supplant or overtake the provisions of AGOA – including strong investment and intellectual property protections.

Given these reasons, there needs to be an effort to secure the early appointment and confirmation of the US’ top diplomats dealing with Africa, including the assistant secretary in the State Department and USAID’s top official for Africa. This is important given the weight of African nations in any number of international diplomatic forums, the continuing issues of counterterrorism in parts of the continent, the crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, as well as the security challenges of China, including its own new base in Djibouti.

As far as foreign assistance is concerned, Pham adds, “the arrival of a new administration, especially one that is decidedly very much not business-as-usual, affords a unique opportunity to seriously rethink the US approach to both humanitarian assistance and international development”.

For their part, the US Embassy in South Africa’s spokesman, Cynthia Harvey, tried to offer an optimistic view, even as the forecast remains cloudy with a high probability of fog in the near future. As Harvey said, “We cannot speculate on what President-elect Trump’s foreign policy priorities will be in this region or around the world. In the weeks ahead, he will communicate more about his agenda.

That said, we are optimistic that President-elect Trump and his administration will view South Africa as the long-term strategic partner and friend to the United States that is has been for many years. Across Republican and Democratic administrations, we have viewed South Africa as a key international player and partner we have worked with in response to health and environmental crises, to promote trade, security, improve infrastructure, promote human rights, and integrate markets across the continent.

We are also optimistic that American leaders, citizens, and institutions, will all continue to participate in the democratic process and advance causes that have been important to Americans and South Africans for many years.”

We shall all be waiting for the first signs that offer some clarity on what ways and how the Trump administration will make its mark on US-Africa policy – and, of course, how all its other initiatives affect any interest it shows towards this continent. DM

Photo: J. Peter Pham has been mentioned for the job of assistant secretary of state for African affairs in a Trump administration. (Photo: Atlantic Council)

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However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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