THE INTERVIEW

US National Security Council’s Africa man, Cyril Sartor, on investment, funding and ties with SA and the continent

By J Brooks Spector 3 June 2019

Cyril Sartor, US Deputy Assistant Director for Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

American National Security Council Africa Senior Adviser Cyril Sartor spoke with Daily Maverick about his hopes for a closer relationship between South Africa and America. He was part of the US delegation for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration.

The United States sent a sizeable delegation to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent inauguration. While there was no vice president or cabinet member in it, it did include the head of the federal government agency that manages the financial backstopping for large-scale US international trade and investment projects, along with a number of others.

Presumably, this was meant to signal the US is now back on the hunt for big trade and investment deals, although it seems this is now a world where Chinese efforts are the ones getting most of the media (and governmental) attention these days.

While he was not as highly visible as some in the delegation, Cyril Sartor was a very important part of the group. Named a little more than a year-and-a-half ago to the position of senior director for Africa at the National Security Council (NSC), Sartor holds what may be the government job of a lifetime for an Africa hand. In his position, Sartor is the White House’s point person on thinking about the continent and the US’s role in it, that is, at least until midnight or later in the evening tweet emanates from a presidential handheld electronic device.

Being the senior director at the NSC for a geographical area such as Africa or Latin America usually means that person is the one who must wrestle all the competing agendas — and ideas — of the many federal agencies with interests or responsibilities for programs in that region. They are at the centre when it comes to analysing what might affect final decisions about what to do with an issue, or what might be hoped for in the way of outcomes, whenever a decision memorandum reaches the president and his most senior advisers. It also means staying ahead of developments in the region concerned such that an administration is not just a reactive one.

Often, agency agendas can collide, and then people in these lower level, but crucial, positions must contend with possible end runs around the formal organisational structure by very powerful or articulate (or just plain bossy but bureaucratically adept) officials who make their appeals directly to the president to do what they want.

In a tightly managed NSC system like the one designed by President Eisenhower back in the 1950s, conforming with his military management experience, that system worked well, even if the policies did not always do so, especially when the end results were clouded by the deep ideological predispositions of the national security adviser. In other cases, an ad hoc body coalesces, as with President John Kennedy’s Excom during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

There, the national security adviser ended up as just one of many contenders to guide the president’s hand. Other actors such as a network television reporter based at the UN ended up being a key part of the ongoing process. Moreover, the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, took the lead role in thrashing out the presidential plan of action, rather than any of the other senior foreign policy officials.

In an administration such as Donald Trump’s — especially with regard to Africa, and given the president’s general disregard for the continent and his evident love for winging it rather than more rigorous, formal policy development — someone in Sartor’s position can have great flexibility in defining policies. However, he must keep an eye out for something coming out of the blue, because it suddenly struck the president’s fancy or because someone had that last word with him, or because Fox News carried a bizarre story that triggers his next tweet.

In Cyril Sartor’s circumstances, he has come to this position with a long background as an Africa analyst in the intelligence community, following post-graduate study at Boston University in Africa studies and some time in South Africa at the US Consulate in Durban, back in the early 1990s. When Sartor was appointed (ultimately the president’s third choice after two earlier nominations failed to pass muster in their final vetting process), there was an initial sense that his appointment represented a kind of bureaucratic victory for Langley.

However, someone like Matthew Paige, a former Africa analyst in the State Department’s own Bureau for Intelligence and Research (a kind of in-house think tank tasked with understanding issues before the front page story about them), told the media, “He (Sartor) has a razor-sharp intellect, has a deep understanding of Africa issues, but does not suffer fools gladly. While he lacks programmatic experience and a wide network of contacts outside government, he will no doubt understand how to articulate to more senior officials why Africa issues should matter to the United States.” That would be a very useful outcome indeed.

During Sartor’s recent visit to South Africa, we sat down with him while he was in South Africa, in order to gain insights about how he saw his job, and how he wished to describe the nature of the Trump administration’s policies towards the continent, besides those disparaging tweets.

Looking for the broad sweep of policy, Sartor has probably made a better case for some sense of larger purpose and policies in the Trump administration than anybody else has done, so far, at least. A key issue for Sartor is increasing the trade and investment in Africa that will redound to the benefit of both sides, and, in the process, to promote the economic resilience of African states in turbulent global economic waters. Moreover, American national security, as it is affected by developments in Africa, is dependent on effective counter-terrorism efforts and from conditions such as health crises such as Ebola and HIV/Aids.

As for Sartor, he argued (ignoring the wilder rhetorical flourishes typical of Trumpian performance schtick) that the administration’s actual orientation toward Africa actually conveys a significant sense of continuity, rather than a major divergence from prior administrations. For example, programs like PEPFAR ( the HIV/Aids treatment program begun by the George W Bush administration) or YALI ( the Obama-era program reaching young African professionals for short-term education/internship partnerships) are continuing.

Sartor further argued that the present administrative team is now pushing harder on efforts to help African nations improve the climate for attracting foreign investment — and for American companies to be in that mix. Important programs in that milieu would include continued support for the Millennium Challenge Corporation account (tying aid and investment together with improved government transparency) and Power Prosper Africa (supporting investments in energy generation and transmission to African families), even if these efforts do not get the bright light of publicity shining on them in the way Chinese efforts do.

Further on Pepfar, Sartor added, the real choice — the real debate in Washington — is not the binary one of keeping it or ending it. Rather, it is in the weighing of whether that great big share of its funding should continue coming to South Africa, or, should a more significant share be targeted towards countries less capable than South Africa of coping with the disease themselves. And, of course, AGOA continues apace. Simultaneously, Sartor argued, more generally on US foreign aid, the task at hand, now, is to shift a greater emphasis on greater trade and not aid.

Sartor also sought to draw a distinction between American trade and investment and China’s Belt and Road initiative. Yes, China has made major state-driven investments. But a distinction, he argued, was that the US business model was more transparent than was the Chinese one, making it that much more preferable for countries and foreign partners — and not just limited to the US.

One key element in all of this comes from helping African nations gain greater technical skills in setting tariff policies and in analysing foreign loan terms and conditions. This can help African nations avoid falling into those baleful debt traps where nations must run faster and faster just to stay even (at best) with growing foreign debt payments. This, of course, applies to the circumstances of all foreign loans.

For Sartor, too, as a logical extension of his own longtime concern about the security circumstances in the Sahel, he argued that a key emphasis for the US in Africa must continue to be supportive of improving the capabilities of the Sahel nations to cope with their own internal security. In particular, he expressed concerns about supporting the Group of Five — G5 nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — that continue to battle insurgents and other non-state terror-style groups — and working in association with the UN and other nations. In support of this effort, the US has spent about $1-billion in the region since 2012. “But we do not see them turning the corner in Mali yet,” said Sartor.

As far as the African Growth and Opportunity Act is concerned — the US unilateral law that opens the vast US market to thousands of different tariff-free imports from Africa — it expires in 2025. Contrary to some comment, it is not true there is no American interest in renewing some version of it in future. However, Sartor chose to focus on the growth possibilities of the new all-Africa free trade area — the AfCFTA. Sartor argued such a weighty trade bloc could be in an excellent space to negotiate a big free trade agreement with the US.

Drawing the threads of his views together, Sartor expressed personal disappointment that the US-South African connection is not stronger than it is, after the promise that emerged from Americans’ support for South Africans’ struggle against apartheid. This two-country tie should be one of the strongest and most robust on the continent, and there is room for this tie as well as South Africa’s Brics ties. As a result, Sartor says he finds it frustrating that in the post-liberation struggle period, the two nations have drifted so far apart in a number of areas. Currently, for example, the South Africans have been supporting the US position about only 18% of the time in UN votes.

It would be instructive, perhaps, for Sartor and his colleagues to examine the “why” of the gradual decline into irrelevance of the old vice/deputy presidential-level bilateral commission, once Al Gore had moved on from the vice presidency and Thabo Mbeki had moved up a notch. Eventually, of course, the George W Bush administration moved its attention away from places such as Africa and instead focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the so-called “War on Terror” — at the expense of nearly everything else.

It seems to us one element of hope of addressing this imbalance of attention may lie with a new, businesslike Ramaphosa administration and its newly appointed International Relations and Co-operation Minister, Naledi Pandor. And, of course, relations might also be helped if the US actually had an ambassador on the scene.

But any such chance for this will likely require the US to make some serious approaches — and some commitments — towards richer bilateral and multilateral co-operation with South Africa, and with the continent as a whole. Given the president’s combative style and the current picking of fights with almost everyone over trade, tariffs and multilateral co-operation generally, this still seems a steep hill to climb for the Trump administration in its remaining time until the 2020 election. DM

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