Africa is likely to slide down the list of foreign policy priorities of a Donald Trump administration. This is because America’s foreign policy is determined by both domestic and foreign issues.
When it comes to domestic factors Trump is not going to be open to lobbying by the African diaspora in the US which has, historically, always played an important role in pushing African policy and keeping the continent on the domestic agenda. But this constituency hasn’t helped Trump at all in this election so there’s no need for any payback. And I think that the kind of visibility Africa had is also going to fall in social movements and society in general in the US.
Trump is also unlikely to have any tolerance for the idea that the African diaspora is part of the “sixth region” of Africa. The African Union recognises people of African decent who live outside the continent as the sixth region, in addition to southern, eastern, central, western and northern Africa.
This isn’t going to be something that is of much concern to the new president-elect.
In addition, I think that he is going to be intolerant and disinterested in issues around the domestic politics of African countries. That is unless – as he was very clear in his acceptance speech – they strongly impinge on American national interests.
For example, I don’t think he is going to be very interested in what is happening in Somalia or Ethiopia or in other parts of Africa where there may be conflict. Trump hasn’t got a great capacity for detail, so at best he will live by macro assessments.
The other break with tradition is that it’s impossible to predict who he will chose as his assistant-secretary of state for Africa. As a follower of foreign policy over the past 40 years it has been possible, in nearly all instances, to know who the new incumbent is likely to be. Examples include Chester Crocker, Hank Cohen and Susan Rice. Now with Trump, we simply have no indication.
With this in mind I think it is really important for African countries, including South Africa, to be very conscious, constructive and conspicuous in their choices of ambassador. These appointments will be crucial in opening the doors to the new Trump administration. The worst that African countries can do, however difficult it will be politically, would be to show their displeasure and hold their noses.
Security will be a major issue
Security is going to be a major issue on Trump’s foreign policy agenda. This points directly at the US African Command, which was established in 2007. Africom, as it is generally known, is one of six of the US Defence Department’s “geographic combatant commands and is responsible to the Secretary of Defence for military relations with African nations, the African Union and African regional security organisations”.
When it comes to American policy in Africa, Africom is very likely to emerge as its central piece. Given Trump’s expressed, belligerent views on the Muslim world, Africom will be set to be the lynchpin. I think African countries should resist this because it is central to American ideology in the world and will bring African countries into conflict with China. But whether African states will in fact resist is a different issue.
In fact, I think one of the issues African leaders will have to be careful about now is how they have to manage their relationships with China and the US. The US has been a little bit lackadaisical in its approach to Africa while China has made great strides on the continent. Not all, in my view, bad. The US will in all likelihood resist the inroads China has made, an issue African leaders will have to manage with kid gloves.
Trade won’t be a given
The African Growth and Opportunity Act AGOA, which came into effect 16 years ago, is aimed at expanding US trade and investment with sub-Saharan Africa. It is supposed to “stimulate economic growth, to encourage economic integration, and to facilitate sub-Saharan Africa’s integration into the global economy”.
There’s still some life left in the act. But it’s clear that Trump is protectionist. He is not going to tolerate any expansion or extension of the agreement, or any misunderstandings. This means American trade policy under Trump needs to be watched closely.
There is also likely to be a decline in aid to Africa from the US. For some African countries aid from the US is absolutely crucial. Take Malawi for example, where it is essential and necessary. As a businessman Trump will want something in return and it’s unlikely he will get his sort of returns on investment from most African countries. His possible response will be that of a reality show host – eject any errant contestants.
Another factor that will affect investment is that Trump is going to improve American infrastructure. I think he is going to borrow and he is going to use the money to rebuild the US because that is his project, to “make America great again”. He will most certainly not care if it comes at the expense of aid to or trade with a number African countries.
The next four years promise to test Africa’s place in the world. The lodestars by which we have understood politics such as rightwing, fiscal conservative, social conservative are all going to be overturned.
Professor of Humanities and the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), University of Johannesburg