In his Rose Garden press conference with Buhari, Trump pointedly did not deny calling African nations “shithole countries” earlier this year, in widely reported comments made during a meeting in the Oval Office—and he also didn’t apologize for them. Instead he dug in, saying of Africa that “you do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in.”
It was the latest sign of the damage Trump is doing to America’s image in Africa. There is still no permanent assistant secretary of state for African affairs—the key Africa specialist in any administration—to give direction and substance to U.S. policy on the continent. At least 11 American embassies in Africa are still without an ambassador, including South Africa, Tanzania and South Sudan.
The Trump administration has taken a wrecking ball to the bipartisan progress under three separate administrations to bring sub-Saharan Africa in from the outer margins of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Trump’s unraveling of his predecessors’ steady diplomatic efforts and carefully constructed African policies, going back two decades, has taken two forms. The first is through general apathy, bordering on indifference, within the administration toward Africa. The second is in policy itself where there is, at best, a very limited enthusiasm—and instead often outright hostility—for the approach of previous administrations.
Under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, U.S. engagement in Africa steadily expanded and evolved—first as a response to al-Qaida’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998 and its attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11, and later combining these counterterrorism priorities with other interests. For example, in addition to the need to prevent radicalization in African states with large Muslim populations, Washington was interested in West African oil reserves. There was also a recognition that American assistance was required to stop African states from failing, since terrorist networks could thrive in that kind of chaos. A consensus formed across administrations that U.S. policy in Africa required a focus on development, too, since helping to build strong, capable and successful states was an indispensable element in any broader counterterrorism strategy.
The Clinton administration introduced the African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed in 2000, which has allowed thousands of African products tariff-free access to the American economy. The Bush administration boosted development aid to Africa and, through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, known as PEPFAR, invested heavily in combating the AIDS pandemic, saving millions of lives in the process. The Obama administration’s “Power Africa” development initiative, launched in 2013, sought to double access to electricity across the continent.
While none of these administrations left office with an unblemished African record, they had either revived or maintained a strong U.S. commitment to the continent even if, since 2009, the U.S. has been overtaken by China as Africa’s largest trading partner and principal source of external investment.
This commitment has come to an abrupt halt under Trump, who has yet to make a speech articulating the goals, vision and interests of the U.S. in Africa under his administration. The continent did not warrant a single reference in Trump’s State of the Union in January. In March, Africa was the last region of the world to be visited by the soon-to-be-fired secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whose trip was largely seen as an apology tour after Trump’s Oval Office insult. That Tillerson was then axed by Trump via Twitter seemed to confirm to many African leaders just how much stock Trump put in Tillerson’s outreach. Yet it would be difficult to conceive of a statement more likely to undo the work of previous administrations, undermine U.S. standing and erode its reserves of soft power on the continent than Trump’s slur.
But his policies are also having a similar effect. Trump’s emphasis on “America First” is translating into deep budgetary cutsto programs that will directly affect the health and well-being of many Africans. This includes a 30 percent cut to the USAID budget, one-third of which goes to Africa; severe cuts to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, while major U.N. missions are deployed on the continent; and a skepticism about the merits of Obama’s “Power Africa” program. Even a success like PEPFAR may be subject to a 17 percent cut in funding.
While not all these proposed cuts will survive congressional scrutiny, the overall policy direction is clear. On trade, meanwhile, the African Growth and Opportunity Act may be out of reach of Trump’s protectionist instincts, since Obama extended it to 2025. But it is not difficult to imagine a more restrictive interpretation of its provisions and a willingness to punish African states deemed to be encroaching on U.S. trade interests.
Finally, there has been widespread dismay at the one-dimensional nature of a highly militarized counterterrorism strategy, especially in West Africa, where the Department of Defense has essentially become the lead agency in developing policy. This comes at the expense of a downgraded, demoralized State Department and all the tools and understanding of diplomacy, while more resources are allocated to the Pentagon. Military force may be a necessary part of a counterterrorism strategy, but when used in isolation, it becomes a crude device more likely to reproduce problems than solve them, something acknowledged by U.S. military leaders themselves.
Consigning Africa once again to the periphery of American interests flows from the narrow logic of America First. But it risks damaging the United States, by alienating African countries, where popular opinion about the U.S. is historically friendly, and needlessly ceding political and economic ground across the continent to competitors in China, India, Brazil and even Russia. It is also anchored in a flawed view of Africa as an unchanging environment viewed almost exclusively through the lens of conflict. Africa, of course, is a diverse and dynamic continent; its economic progress was apparent most recently with the unveiling of a continental free trade area. For all the focus on African leaders trying to remain president for life, there is also evidence of democratic progress and a growing intolerance in many countries for “big man” politics among a more assertive civil society.
These developments require updated U.S. thinking and an awareness that a continent of 1.2 billion people needs close and sustained attention, not insults or indifference. Instead, there is a bizarre situation in which the best hope for U.S. policy in Africa is minimizing the president’s role, so that things can run on autopilot largely managed by career diplomats. In other words, damage control—hardly a foreign policy strategy for a great power. Yet even that modest objective remains hostage to the whims and eccentricities of a president presiding over a dysfunctional administration in which today’s policies and personnel may be tomorrow’s debris.
James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development, and is a frequent visitor to the country. He has published articles on South Africa in International Relations, Diplomacy & Statecraft, The World Today, Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies and The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.