Contrary to the widespread assumption that Donald Trump’s presidency will spell disaster to the developing world, including Africa, Aubrey Hruby argues that it may well be a blessing in disguise and that US-Africa relations may acquire an even greater importance under Trump than before.
Donald Trump’s unpredictable approach to foreign policy has rattled Washington’s political establishment and allies alike. From the White House’s Euro-scepticism to a poorly rolled-out immigration order, the president has so far taken an improvisational approach to foreign policy.
“For the first time in 70 years,” remarks Walter Russell Mead, the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, New York, “the American people have elected a President who disparages the policies, ideas, and institutions at the heart of postwar US foreign policy.”
In the case of Africa, that might not be a bad thing. As the administration continues to shape its policies and appoint key officials, Africa policy may be one of the few beacons of hope in the near future.
There’s cause for optimism because of the historical bipartisan nature of US-Africa policy and the skills and expertise of the administration’s recent diplomatic appointees. For those who care about the future of US-Africa relations, it is too early to preemptively dismiss and disengage from the Trump administration.
Every American president over the past 30 years has launched a major programme for Africa. From Clinton’s trade-focused African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to Bush’s health-focused President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Obama’s Power Africa, the White House’s Africa policy has focused less on strategic narratives and more on flagship initiatives.
There is no reason to think that the Trump administration will be any different. Although there is talk of dramatically reducing international development efforts under the Trump administration, this White House will no doubt create some kind of programme to call its own. The new administration, for example, could build on the US’s globally recognised expertise in finance by establishing a roundtable on financial inclusion to support the evolution of the financial ecosystem in African markets, from venture capital to risk intermediation.
In contrast to the fevered partisanship of healthcare and immigration over the past few years, US-Africa policy is unique in its bipartisanship. Throughout the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, there has been remarkable continuity in both Congress and the White House on the US’s agenda in Africa.
Congress not only passed the AGOA under President Clinton, but renewed it under both the Bush and Obama administrations. The 2015 renewal of AGOA was sponsored by nearly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and passed nearly unanimously in the Senate.
Similarly, initiatives like the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and, more recently, Power Africa, have enjoyed support from across the political spectrum.
At a time when many Congressional and presidential approval ratings are at a near all-time low, continued bipartisan Africa policy may bolster Americans’ confidence in institutions. Faced with a vocal and hostile Democratic minority in Congress, President Trump may use Africa as a linchpin in his nascent foreign policy.
In the early days of the administration, a series of Africa-related questions from Trump’s transition team left many Africa experts questioning whether or not current programmes would be continued.
Experienced, respected officials
But the appointment of Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State and Trump’s recent conversations with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa show that African countries still have a place in US global engagement.
As the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson has decades of experience navigating the complex politics of emerging markets. He, more than any other Secretary of State, has substantial first-hand knowledge of what it takes to do business in African markets. (See story on pp. 28-29.)
Additionally, those being considered for the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa role, including Dr J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council, are noted Africa experts with distinguished careers in security, diplomacy and the private sector.
Instead of handwringing and disengaging, those who have an interest in robust US-Africa ties should get to work immediately.
Moreover, Walter Kansteiner, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and current director for Africa at ExxonMobil, is a close advisor to Secretary Tillerson and is being considered for senior roles at the State Department.
With these experienced, highly respected officials in key diplomatic positions, the State Department will likely develop robust relationships with African nations, whether or not President Trump takes a personal interest in the region.
Security lens on Africa
As Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster takes the reins at the National Security Council, it is unknown how strong a role the National Security Council (NSC) will play vis-à-vis the State Department in shaping the administration’s Africa policy.
Regardless, with so many generals in the administration, a security lens will be applied to the continent, with African operations playing a greater role in the fight against violent extremists.
In the face of this uncertainty at the NSC, the companies, civil society groups and thought-leaders who care about deepening US engagement have a unique opportunity to leverage the historical bipartisan support of US-Africa relations. They can work with the State Department and Congress to shape the approach to the region while enjoying the flexibility of operating in a policy area in which the president has largely delegated authority to others.
Instead of handwringing and disengaging, those who have an interest in robust US-Africa diplomatic and commercial ties should get to work immediately on developing new, innovative policies and programmes to present to Trump administration officials as they get appointed.
There is no reason to sit on the sidelines out of an assumption of benign neglect or settle for the status quo. For those of us working on strengthening USAfrica relations, we can come together to help shape a strategic framework toward the continent, guided by American business expansion into emerging markets, broad security cooperation and bi- and multilateral collaboration.
Read the rest of New African’s Trump-Africa coverage here.
Aubrey Hruby is co-founder of the Africa Expert Network. coauthor of “The Next Africa” (Macmillan, 2015), and a Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council.