An opinion piece by Herman J. Cohen former 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.
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.
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