President Trump likes to overturn his predecessor’s initiatives, but so far the US-Africa relationship has been defined by policy continuity—a rare bipartisan bright spot among domestic and foreign turmoil. Yet there are clouds on the horizon. Public statements by senior American officials, including President Trump himself, foreshadow potentially troubling moves which threaten to undermine decades of mutually beneficial relations.
The first half of President Trump’s term has been good news for Africa. His first Senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, is an expert diplomat and the right man for the job. Work continues apace at President Obama’s two signature programs, Power Africa and Feed the Future; at George W. Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation, and at PEPFAR, the hugely successful U.S. initiative to fight HIV/AIDS. Every year, more African nations are taking advantage of unilateral free-trade privileges under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The military’s U.S. Africa Command continues to provide assistance and advisors to nations fighting Islamist terrorism and other threats to regional stability.
These programs are working. But there are a few indications that the Trump administration could pull the rug out from underneath.
The first warning signs were President Trump’s budgetary requests to Congress, which have repeatedly proposed slashing foreign aid dollars. Congress has rejected those moves and largely continued to fully fund agencies like USAID, and across the executive branch, friendly aid to African nations has persisted undisturbed by political tides. A speech last month by President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, indicated that the West Wing may seek to change the current disposition, using Africa relations as a means to further America’s “great power competition” with Russia and China—mainly China, accusing it of exploiting Africa with predatory lending, cheap labor, and cheap imports.
Bolton’s plan would involve defunding UN peacekeeping programs he considers ineffective and aid to nations which are beset by corruption. These moves would not only threaten our relationships with African nations we need as partners to protect American national security—withdrawing U.S. engagement is practically an invitation for China to fill the void, which would not exactly serve Mr. Bolton’s agenda for competition.
At the UN, former Ambassador Nikki Haley stated early on that she would be “taking names” of those countries voting against the U.S., in particular on a resolution condemning the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Many African nations abstained from this resolution—no doubt because of their heavy dependence on American aid—but a majority voted in favor, as the Israeli treatment of Palestinians reminds Africans of the apartheid system of discrimination which dogged South Africa for decades.
AGOA is also under threat. President Trump has complained that foreign governments are “taking advantage” of the United States in trade. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer made clear at a July forum that the Trump administration wants to negotiate free trade agreements with African nations, which would negate the primary element of the legislation. AGOA enables Africa to sell its merchandise duty-free to the US, even though American companies must still pay duties on American merchandise going to Africa. This agreement is itself a form of development aid and a boon for African economies; despite appearances, there are also substantial economic benefits for Americans in this arrangement. Demanding reciprocity is a mistake.
As for China and Russia, their investment and development programs in Africa are not necessarily a threat to US interests. There is good and bad in their work on the continent, but the bad is for Africans to manage, not the United States. “Adjusting” foreign aid and foreign relations with Africa to make them tools in our conflict with other major powers could deeply undermine our influence and economic development efforts there.
Still, I am optimistic. Executive agencies, including the State Department, wield more independence than it might appear. Congress seems uninterested in pruning foreign aid simply to satisfy Trump’s political base. And ultimately, President Trump and Ambassador Bolton are likely to prioritize more effective and less self-destructive ways of confronting China and Russia on the world stage. It is my belief that the friendship between America and Africa will prevail.
My message for President Trump is this: you have been wise to continue the US-Africa programs started by your predecessors of both parties. These initiatives aren’t just good for Africa, they’re good for Americans, who enjoy job growth and economic activity from our relationship with the continent, to say nothing of protecting homeland security through close cooperation with African governments. There’s no reason to let a few China hawks goad you into denying Americans those benefits.
Herman J. Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service.
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.
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