THE WANING OF AMERICA
Official’s low-key visit betrays shrinking US influence in today’s world
Senior American official visits South Africa to reaffirm that the two nations do not hate each other, but not all that much more.
There was a time – say back at the height of the Cold War, or even more likely, just after that contest had wrapped up with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the “re-Europeanisation” and democratisation of the Eastern European nations – when an extended visit by an American deputy secretary of state would have been pretty big business and rather big news. It would have had more than a tincture of an effort about it in the re-organising or shaping of the world.
But now, maybe, not so much any more.
Now, this is not simply from the druthers of the Trump administration in its ongoing, unceasing efforts to slay the twin dragons of globalisation and internationalism – although that certainly plays a part in it. Nowadays, a visit by a senior American official to a nation like South Africa becomes just one more momentary blip on international arrivals radar screens. Also a comment on the age, however, is that an equivalently ranking visitor from China or Russia would most likely be much more visible, and probably make more news too.
Keep in mind the backstory. Donald Trump, in his few, scattered remarks or references to Africa as a whole, or South and southern Africa, has been remarkably off-putting (at best) or positively insulting to the countries concerned. This reaches back to the beginning of his administration, with his initial, abortive ideas about a total ban of all Muslims attempting to enter the US, in apparent obeisance to his political support base, but without noticing that about a third of the nations on this continent had significant Muslim populations – even beyond those of the Maghreb nations.
In his other spurts of attention directed towards Africa, Trump has called the continent’s countries names that don’t belong in a family-rated newspaper. And, more recently, he has rather cavalierly assumed that because Fox News says it was so, it must be so, in reference to an acutely racialised narrative about South Africa’s vexed land settlement and a campaign to kill white farmers. Yes, it is true that we have become increasingly inured to ignoring the incessant Trumpian outbursts (unless you are one of those who cheer on his every rant), but foreigners cannot be quite so easily encouraged to totally ignore or be blasé about his flip mini-tirades.
Placing these concerns more broadly, conservative commentator Max Boot observed:
“Trump, by contrast, is an out-and-out isolationist and protectionist. He has launched trade wars with all of our major trade partners; praised dictators and castigated democratic allies; and has either pulled out or has promised to pull out of international agreements such as the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal. Although the United States remains in Nato, Trump has raised uncertainty about whether he would come to the defence of its members. His ‘America First’ mantra — a throwback to the 1930s — suggests that US foreign policy will no longer be based, as it has been since 1945, on support for security alliances and free trade.
“As corrosive as Trump’s policies is his personality. He is so erratic and ignorant that he makes dictators such as China’s Xi Jinping look good by comparison. Xi may be presiding over a Big Brother state, but at least he appears to be rational and knowledgeable. Trump’s tweets, by contrast, often sound deranged. His actions frequently make as little sense as his words. Typical is the way he flip-flopped on Syria, announcing a total withdrawal of US forces in December before now deciding to keep 1,000 troops.
“If you’re an ally of the United States, how can you entrust your security to a superpower that seems to have lost its marbles? If Americans could elect Trump, what kind of demagogue will we choose in the future? We are fast losing the global confidence needed to maintain our global power. A shocking Pew Research Center poll last year found that far more people around the world view the United States as a threat than China or Russia. That perception is a bigger blow to US primacy than any new weapons system that China or Russia could develop.”
Taking all of this background into consideration, the recent visit by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan inevitably became a rather more low-key affair than would likely have been the case in an earlier era. Sullivan is a very experienced figure who has had several previous high-ranking positions in prior Republican administrations and he is attuned to diplomatic protocol – an uncle had been the last US ambassador to Iran in the midst of that country’s great turmoil in the late 1970s.
Speaking with a small group of journalists during his visit to South Africa (he would continue his trip on to Angola thereafter), Sullivan explained the scope of the visit, saying:
“The purpose of my trip is to reaffirm the already deep and substantial relationship between the United States and South Africa. My focus has principally been on our commercial relationship, further developing US foreign direct investment in South Africa, strengthening our commercial ties. I’ve met with a wide range of individuals, groups, and yesterday was principally focused on non-government groups and individuals. Today I met with representatives from Dirco, [and] the Minister of Trade, so it’s been a very productive trip so far….”
There were no high-profile speeches at a major university or research institute or think tank, only one pre-recorded radio interview, and no high-profile visits with the most senior of government officials. Instead, there was an event with former American government-sponsored exchange grantees, a visit to an HIV/AIDs programme assisted by the US’ extensive Pepfar programme, and several face-to-face and videoconference meetings with South African officials. The readouts from those discussions are revealing for what they did not include – there were no announcements of new programmes or initiatives.
For its side, the American State Department said later that Sullivan had “led the US delegation to the US-South Africa Working Group on Africa and Global Issues. Deputy Secretary Sullivan and [DIRCO] Director General Mahoai discussed ways to deepen bilateral co-operation, as well as issues on the United Nations Security Council agenda. The Deputy Secretary emphasised the importance of advancing the bilateral trade relationship and expanding commercial ties between the United States and South Africa. They also discussed regional and global peace and security, including developments in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. The United States and South Africa pledged to continue pursuing their shared goals of peace and prosperity on the African continent and around the world”.
With a slightly different tone, the South Africans said Sullivan had met with the director-general of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation as part of a “structured bilateral mechanism that was held at the level of the Director-General/Deputy Secretary of State, which gives both the respective Heads of Delegation an opportunity to engage on African and global issues of mutual interest.
“The meeting shared perspectives and explored possibilities for co-operation, at the regional and multilateral levels, including matters related to peace and security, sustainable development, trade and investment, and wildlife trafficking, amongst others.
“Deputy Secretary Sullivan used the platform to provide a briefing on the Trump Administration’s recently announced Africa Strategy and in particular the Prosper Africa initiative, which is aimed at enhancing trade and investment ties for the benefit of both the United States and Africa.
“Bilateral relations between South Africa and the United States are cordial. The United States is an important partner for South Africa for trade, investment, tourism, technology transfer, education, and health cooperation. South Africa is a major beneficiary of development assistance from the United States, especially for health, through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar). Trade and investment relations take place under the auspices of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), under which South Africa gains duty-free access to the US market for value-added products.”
When Sullivan spoke with a small group of media, Daily Maverick had asked about the larger compass of US-South African ties, saying, “Looking at the range of US government’s interaction with South Africa over the last two years or thereabouts, at one point the president inserted himself into the ongoing land redistribution conversation, in a way which got many people’s backs up. Then there were the tariffs on steel and aluminium, for which South African did not manage to score an exemption… [and] tariffs on autos and auto parts may come into effect after the consultation period, which will be a big blow to South Africa.
“You don’t yet have an ambassador stationed here… the name that was nominated and was announced hasn’t even had a Senate confirmation hearing yet and it’s been two years, really, without a senior person. [Moreover] one of your colleagues [by telephone conferencing]… gave a very strong sense of the US government’s dissatisfaction, disappointment, and annoyance with South Africa’s position on Venezuela.
“Put those all together; how do you square all those parts, all those loose ends, with your specific policy agenda of improving relations and trade? What specific measures are you trying to achieve?
“When we spoke on that other conversation and I raised the question of Agoa [African Growth and Opportunity Act] renewal, it was, ‘Well, that’s down the road a bit…’ Then I asked about bilateral trade agreements, and, well, that was [also] ‘down the road a bit’. So what, then, is… the specific agenda, other than the more anodyne ‘improving trade relations’?”
Regarding steel and auto tariffs, discussing his video-conference with Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, Sullivan said:
“We discussed the steel and aluminium tariffs, and you’re right; there wasn’t a country-wide exemption, but there were a number of specific product exemptions, principally for aluminium products, but for steel as well… it was an iterative process for the US and South Africa addressing concerns that South Africans had with the 232 steel and aluminium tariffs, our taking action to try to address those concerns. They didn’t get a country-wide exemption, but they did get product-specific exemptions.”
On the potential for new automobile tariffs, Sullivan added, “we’ll see what happens, and if the president’s decision – and it’s his decision – is to impose tariffs, we will engage with the South Africans, as we did after the steel and aluminium tariffs, to discuss those implications”.
As far as Agoa was concerned, either as an extension or a replacement, post-2025, Sullivan noted it was “something that I’ve been talking about since my confirmation hearing. My support and response to questions from senators on Agoa, Power Africa, our announced Prosper Africa, and our Africa strategy, again, focused on trade and investment is something that this administration is committed to, and it’s particularly relevant to South Africa and the market here. And, I think, consistent with the South African government’s interest in promoting foreign direct investment in this country. It’s something I certainly want to encourage.”
Regarding Venezuela, he added that he had held two Dirco meetings where Venezuela had been discussed, noting, “…we have a deep and enduring relationship that is strong enough to have disagreements over an issue such as Venezuela” even though America was “disappointed with the decision that South Africa made as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, to vote against the Venezuela resolution.
“We discussed the specific facts of what the situation is in Venezuela, particularly the humanitarian situation: in Venezuela itself, the lack of food, water, and medicine; but equally as significant, the effect on the continent. 1.3 million refugees now in Colombia alone, fleeing Venezuela. The effect on Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Guyana. It’s a continent-wide humanitarian problem that we’re looking to address. So we agreed that we were going to continue to collaborate and discuss, going forward, our approaches to Venezuela.”
But, clearly, there was no agreement.
Other questions from that meeting included the qualifications of the individual nominated to become the Trump administration’s ambassador to South Africa, businesswoman Lana Marks, a topic of much speculation in South Africa regarding her upcoming assignment. Without going into her modest foreign policy experience, Sullivan pointed out that she clearly had the business chops to be able to offer insights for new South African entrepreneurs, as well as the obvious fact that as a personal friend of the president, she would have his ear whenever it was needed, like many other political appointees who become ambassadors.
Taken as a whole, Deputy Secretary Sullivan’s visit underscored the point that there remains some significant distance between the two nations over dealing with Iran, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe – even as there are important bilateral co-operative efforts such as Pepfar. Nonetheless, there are disagreements and disappointments between the two countries over trade and economic relationships, and this visit probably was unable to bring the two nations much closer together.
Ultimately, however, the most significant contributor to that gap may be how the two nations see their counterpart – or at least as seen through the eyes of the current leadership cadres.
For South Africans of a certain age, some have never quite shaken off their deep frustration that America, officially at least, came rather late to the party in opposing the apartheid regime. And now, the global posture, the demeanour, and the words of President Trump too often continue to rub South Africans the wrong way, as some may worry that at their core this betrays a streak of some just barely concealed racial thinking.
For the Trump administration, even beyond the US president’s fixation on South African land redistribution, there are South Africa’s warm public friendships with Iran and Venezuela, its overt support of Palestinians versus Israel, and a continuing kid gloves-support of Zimbabwe’s rulers.
But there is also the fact of South Africa’s growing, ever-warmer relationship with a China eager to extend its presence in, and impact on, Africa that disturbs some Americans. The latter, especially, casts a shadow – for official Americans – over what had once been seen as a natural partnership fit between two democracies. This stretched back to the early, heady days of the two nations’ bilateral commission and the Deputy President Thabo Mbeki-Vice President Al Gore bromance, and, of course, America’s boundless admiration of the late Nelson Mandela.
Taken together, official visits between the two nations are unlikely to change the trajectory of the two nations’ relationship all that much for the foreseeable future. Despite the rich participation of American business in South Africa’s economy and opportunities for more, and the many individual and exchange programme relationships, it may be necessary to accept that the two nations will be friendly enough to each other, but with concerns that are going to be difficult to smooth away. DM
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