In the months since he was elected and in the weeks since he has occupied the White House, President Trump has upended diplomatic relationships around the world from Mexico to Australia. Yet he has said practically nothing about Africa. That is a problem. At a time when the continent is poised to take off politically and economically, Trump’s silence on Africa is deafening. It threatens to undermine decades of bipartisan support for American engagement and sideline the United States as China reaps the benefits of increased cooperation with Africa. It also holds dangers for the success of American foreign policy in general.
The U.S.-Africa relationship has blossomed over the last two decades. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was a remarkable bipartisan effort that helped save millions of Africans from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has become a signature initiative to boost African economic development through allowing eligible African countries to export to the U.S. market on preferential terms. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, initiated by President George W. Bush, has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in partnership compacts with African governments that show specific commitments to improvements in governance, democracy, and human rights. The United States has become a “go-to” partner in supporting African Union peace support operations in places such as Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Central African Republic. Power Africa, the brainchild of President Obama, has been hailed as a visionary initiative to address the electricity gap on the continent through public-private partnerships. The U.S. became the first non-African country to establish a diplomatic mission dedicated to engaging with the African Union in 2007.
In August 2014, President Obama hosted an historic meeting of African heads of state and government in Washington, D.C. that was very well received by his African counterparts. He followed that up with a visit to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — a first for a sitting U.S. president — in which he gave a speech about good governance in the AU’s Nelson Mandela Hall that will have an enduring resonance for a generation of young Africans like President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech in Berlin had for a generation of young Europeans.
President Trump is jeopardizing this important relationship not only by his silence on Africa but by his statements and actions in other areas. For example, at the latest African Union summit on January 30, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said in prepared remarks to the assembled African heads of state and government, “The very country to whom our people were taken as slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.” Clearly the former slave-trading country to which she referred was the United States, while the countries affected by the refugee and travel ban to which she alluded were Libya, Somalia, and Sudan — which are member states of the African Union. While one can take issue with the pointed tone of the chair’s remarks, the statement was nevertheless factually accurate.
To be fair, President Trump may have made some limited outreach with African leaders. Though the White House has not confirmed it, President Trump is reported by various African media outlets to have had telephone conversations with South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, and Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, on February 13 to discuss bilateral issues such as economic cooperation and counterterrorism, respectively. Nevertheless, for a broader African audience, President Trump’s repeated emphasis of “America First” during his inaugural speech leaves many to wonder what will be the basis for U.S.-African cooperation in in the Trump era.
For example, President Trump’s desire to renegotiate trade deals leaves the future of AGOA in doubt (though it is more accurately understood as an international development initiative rather than a trade agreement). The focus of his foreign policy on defeating the Islamic State and rebuilding the U.S. military, while ignoring issues of common concern like climate change or food security, leaves many Africans to wonder what type of partnership they can expect from his administration on these issues of vital importance to them. Finally, the President’s foreign-policy team to date lacks any real expertise in Africa. He has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of state for African affairs (though it is still very early in his tenure to have made such a selection) and his choice to be the senior director for African affairs on the National Security Council Staff has been denied a top security clearance, effectively barring him from holding such a sensitive position.
Meanwhile, China has positioned itself to be a steadfast partner for Africa in a time of geopolitical uncertainty and questionable American commitment to the continent. In 2009, China replaced the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and has maintained that position ever since. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has hosted regular meetings between African ministers and their Chinese counterparts since 2000, including the FOCAC heads of state and government summit in Johannesburg in December 2015 where Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in new Chinese investments in Africa. Africans are enjoying the benefits of Chinese-built roads, railways, airports, and even the headquarters of the African Union itself, which was a prominent $200 million gift from the government of China to the people of Africa in the heart of the continent’s diplomatic capital.
The implications of this ambiguity in America’s Africa policy are vast and obvious. It may prove difficult, for example, to marshal the political will and material resources to strengthen African health systems to fight the next pandemic disease, as the United States did with its African partners during the Ebola crisis of 2014 and thereafter. President Trump’s stated preference for bilateral trade agreements will make it difficult for American companies to benefit from the increasing integration of African markets as the continent moves to create the Continental Africa Free Trade Area (CAFTA) in the coming years. Even though the Trump administration has prioritized the destruction of the Islamic State, the vital trust that is essential for maintaining critical counterterrorism partnerships across Africa is already being eroded by a strident policy of “America First” that leaves no place for African concerns in joint matters of peace and security.
There are also important consequences for other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. The African Union has 55 member states, every one of which (except for Western Sahara) has a sovereign vote in every multilateral institution to which they belong. Because there are always three rotating African states on the U.N. Security Council, one-fifth of the votes needed to pass any UNSC resolution are African. They do not have veto power like the five permanent members. However, the increasing tendency of the so-called A-3 to vote in concert means that pushing an affirmative agenda through the Security Council heavily depends on garnering African support. The same is true in the U.N. General Assembly, where African states comprise almost 30 percent of the membership, more than any other regional group. From the U.N. Human Rights Council to the World Trade Organization, African states are an important voting bloc that the U.S. dismisses at its peril, particularly as AU member states are becoming more sophisticated in coordinating their diplomatic positions in forums outside of the AU.
Further, as the Trump administration is striking an increasingly provocative stance with China on matters as diverse as bilateral trade and regional security in the South China Sea, it is a strategic mistake to ignore a region like Africa that is being aggressively wooed by China and that can provide crucial political support to the Chinese in multilateral forums where U.S. and Chinese interests may diverge.
A similar dynamic is at play in the Middle East. The only non-African foreign-policy issue on which the African Union has ever taken a position is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is enormous sympathy for the Palestinian cause among AU member states. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been a guest of honor at the last several AU summits, while the African Union refuses to accept diplomatic representation from the state of Israel at its headquarters in Addis Ababa. As the Trump administration shows increasing support for the Netanyahu government while the latter moves farther away from supporting a two-state solution, there will be implications for its relationship with Africa. The AU will almost certainly show greater support for Palestinians, both at the AU and elsewhere. In the absence of deft American diplomacy, its members will see the United States as opposed to a just and equitable settlement of a conflict that has particular resonance for Africans who bitterly recall their own struggles for independence.
Cuba is another area where there could be friction between Trump’s foreign policy and Africa’s priorities. During President Obama’s historic visit to the African Union in July 2015, AU Commission Chairperson Dlamini Zuma hailed the U.S. normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which was historically an important partner of the continent during its struggle for independence. Should President Trump reverse course on Cuba, it will certainly be seen in Africa as yet further evidence of a new form of American hostility to Africa’s closest partners that will decrease Africa’s willingness to support matters of interest to the United States.
It may well be the case that the Trump administration has not intended to send such negative signals about America’s intentions with regard to the continent. Nevertheless, its early foreign-policy moves are not being received well in Africa, and the potential implications will reverberate to other seemingly disconnected areas of America’s interests around the world. If the Trump administration sees this as problematic and is serious about reversing this negative course of events, there are several things that it should do immediately.
First, the White House should issue a statement as soon as possible expressing its intent to continue to support all bilateral and regional initiatives that the United States has in Africa, to include AGOA, Power Africa, and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, among others. This would help quell worries both in Africa as well as among Africanists in the United States that the Trump administration wants to withdraw from the continent.
Second, the Trump administration should prioritize the nomination of a new assistant secretary of state for Africa and the appointment of a new senior director for Africa, both of whom should be people with deep Africa expertise and strong ties with many African leaders.
Third, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should invite the newly elected chairperson of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad, to visit Washington at the earliest opportunity to discuss U.S.-Africa relations. It would be an important diplomatic signal of the importance that the new team in Foggy Bottom gives to Africa.
Fourth, the Trump Administration should explore some new initiatives for U.S. business engagement in Africa to show continued American support for Africa’s economic rise. For example, he could launch a new program called “Build Africa” to facilitate the engagement and financing of American infrastructure projects in Africa. This would have the triple benefit of showing U.S. commitment to Africa, providing business opportunities for American firms abroad, and countering Chinese influence with African member states.
Finally, President Trump should commit to hosting another U.S.-Africa leaders summit at some point during his tenure. The 2014 summit hosted by President Obama was a huge success, and it left most African heads of state and government hopeful that the next administration would repeat it. The failure of President Trump to host another such summit, even as the Chinese continue to support FOCAC, will harm American influence in Africa. Conversely, the commitment of President Trump to host the summit again could help maintain America’s reputation as a reliable partner for Africa.
President Trump and his team have made a number of unforced errors in their early days of conducting America’s business in the world, from the folly of questioning and then supporting the “One China” policy to the spectacle of a hostile phone call with the prime minister of Australia, one of our closest and most reliable allies. They are in danger of making another one with regard to Africa. It need not be that way. There is still time to put America’s relationship with the continent on the right footing for the next four years if the administration takes some basic and simple steps.
If it does not, it will pay the price of a loss of influence on the continent of Africa and with African diplomatic missions in important multilateral forums around the world. Should that happen, both Republicans and Democrats alike would be left to wonder how America lost out to China and others at precisely the moment that Africa was on the rise.