Putting the US first, at Africa’s expense
In November 2016, the United States (US) concluded one of the most divisive presidential elections in its history. It is also hard to identify any public policy issues around which there have been strong and stable bipartisan cooperation in recent years. However, US relations with Africa have, in large part, enjoyed just such cooperation.
Since the 1990s Congress and presidents from both parties have developed and funded measures to provide aid, encourage trade, and improve security throughout Africa. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), signed in May 2000 by President Bill Clinton, was re-authorised for another ten years in 2015 and is still an important part of the US’s engagement with Africa.
Former President George W. Bush’s 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief would spend over US$6 billion annually to support HIV testing and counselling, childcare, and training health care workers in Africa. President Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative, Young African Leaders Initiative, and Feed the Future programmes put continued trade and investment at the forefront of his Africa engagement efforts.
Along with initiatives promoting trade and providing humanitarian assistance, the US has developed a considerable security presence on the continent, maintaining a base at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, and Cooperative Security Locations throughout the continent. Combined with rapid reaction forces based in Europe, they monitor and respond to threats in the region and participate in joint training exercises with regional allies. US Army Special Forces and drones are active in the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia and supported the French in Mali. They are also being deployed in the fight against the Islamic State in Libya.
One reason these initiatives receive continuing support is that they touch upon relatively uncontroversial aspects — trade promotion, fighting Islamic extremism and disease prevention — of American ideology in Washington. They are safe political spaces for legislators and executives. Another reason this cooperation is possible, even in highly polarised times, is that Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, occupies a relatively small place in the American political imagination. Policy decisions on Africa are not likely to draw media scrutiny unless American lives are lost, as in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993; the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Wars in Iraq and Syria; a deteriorating relationship with Russia; economic and political rivalry with China, the US’s involvement in the Pacific; new concerns about Europe’s stability; and terrorism are all competing for attention from the American public and policymakers. African affairs have been crowded out of the conversation, allowing compromise that might not be possible under the glare of media attention. This lack of attention is crucial to understanding how the candidates in last year’s election related to Africa, and in particular what the Trump presidency might mean for the continent.
The 2016 presidential campaign never developed into a substantive discussion about issues. This is especially true for international affairs, where Hillary Clinton was widely seen as being better qualified, having served as secretary of state under President Obama. Rather than get into a debate about policy details, Trump, the Republican nominee, questioned Secretary Clinton’s “judgement” and “stamina,” and used an investigation into the use of a private email server to question her fitness for the highest office.
So we have very little by way of policy statements from Trump to help us predict his actions as president. He has also presented little of a guiding philosophy in international affairs, and expresses seemingly contradictory isolationist and borderline imperialist ambitions at various times. What is known is that he is intensely sensitive to how the public perceives him, and defined himself and his campaign around ideas of strength, “winning,” and being a dealmaker.
The one exception to this lack of discussion on foreign affairs during the campaign was Libya. But this focused on Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack, which took place while she was secretary of state, rather than on the US’s role in the conflict; US support for the Government of National Accord; or strategies that might help stabilise the country.
Trump was particularly vague about Libya, offering little more than his desire to bomb Islamic State and “take the oil”. His seeming unwillingness to fully engage even high profile foreign policy issues makes it hard to predict how he will deal with the US’s involvement in complex security situations in Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, among others.
Trump’s lack of engagement and the low public profile of African conflicts create the possibility that the Trump administration will default to the status quo, leaving all but the most pressing operational and diplomatic developments to his officials. Accordingly, the US is likely to continue to engage in training and counterterrorism missions throughout the Sahel and the Horn of Africa while continuing to develop the role of United States Africa Command to meet changing security needs.
But Trump wants to be perceived as strong and as a “winner,” so an attack on the US itself, or on US interests, originating from Africa-based extremist groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib and Al-Shabaab could provoke a strategically questionable, high profile reaction.
One area where the Trump administration could immediately affect US-Africa relations is trade. Trump’s campaign focused on an “America first” message, and he promised “better deals” for the country. Here his signature issue was trade, with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) receiving most of his ire.
Africa’s main trade agreement with the United States, AGOA, is not currently in the firing line. However, it does not offer reciprocal benefits for US companies entering African markets, instead relying on eligibility requirements to improve business conditions and facilitate US business in Africa. It could become a target of the new administration, which might see it as a “bad deal,” especially compared to the reciprocal Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) that the European Union (EU) has negotiated with most African countries. That said, AGOA’s recent renewal with overwhelming bipartisan support, and its low profile in the public, could serve to protect the agreement.
Perhaps the bigger threat to US-Africa trade relations under a Trump administration is the potential collapse of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The proposed agreement between the US and the EU is intended to strengthen economic ties between the two massive markets. However, discontent in Europe about its effect on labour, environmental standards, and product regulation put the agreement’s future in considerable doubt. Trump’s election only adds to its uncertainty.
The potential collapse of TTIP is important to US-Africa relations because the US hopes to loosen the EU’s grip on African markets by addressing the EPA regime. The EPAs, unlike AGOA, create reciprocal obligations between signatories: African markets must provide preferential access to the EU to gain preferential access to Europe. This puts goods from the US and from regional African markets at a significant disadvantage in EPA markets. So the likely collapse of TTIP, due to the new administration’s distaste for large-scale agreements, means that the US will likely continue to lose ground in African markets.
Trump is a man with little political experience, unclear domestic priorities and little commitment to a single political philosophy. His election makes it difficult to predict US-Africa relations under his administration. Africa’s relatively low profile in US public affairs, a general consensus on the nature of US engagement with the continent, and a history of bipartisanship on African affairs, suggest the potential for some stability in US-Africa relations. But if this election cycle has taught us anything, it is that stability is not to be counted on when dealing with Donald Trump.