U.S. Africa Policy Needs a Reset

Trump Didn’t Tear Up the Playbook, but It Still Needs to Be Rewritten

By John Campbell | Foreign Affairs

Early in his administration, U.S. President Donald Trump seemed poised to make major changes to U.S. policy toward Africa. His signature “America first” approach was inherently skeptical of foreign involvement, especially in what he allegedly called “shithole countries” in the developing world. He opposed international trade agreements, including with African nations, that he viewed as unfair to the United States. He sought to reduce U.S. funding for international organizations upon which Africa depends heavily for aid. And as a part of his administration’s shift away from countering violent extremism and toward great-power competition with China and Russia, he proposed reducing the small U.S. military presence in Africa.

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Trump seemed disinterested in and even contemptuous of Africa. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, he did not travel to the continent during his first term. Nor did he engage personally on policy issues of particular importance to Africa, such as public health or the credibility of elections. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, gutted the State Department’s expertise on African affairs (a loss that has not been remedied under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo).

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Trump has met with African heads of state on the margins of the UN General Assembly and he has received a handful of African leaders at the White House, but these gestures have been largely overshadowed by his unfiltered comments about Africa.

Yet nearly four years into his presidency, Trump has largely maintained the long-standing Africa policies he inherited. The administration’s rhetoric is more transactional than that of its predecessors, especially on trade, investment, and aid; but far from turning its back on the continent, the Trump administration has continued to finance major aid and investment initiatives and even established new ones.

The Trump administration hasn’t ripped up the Africa playbook—but U.S. Africa policy does need a reset. For decades, U.S. diplomacy has falsely assumed that Africa comprises traditional nation-states whose governments control their territories and speak for their people. With the exception of a handful of postcolonial African states, that has never been the case. As a result, U.S. diplomacy has focused too much on national-level elites and the elections through which they maintain power and not enough on local leaders and priorities. A better approach would engage with civil society, religious and traditional leaders, and prioritize issues such as the rule of law that are more popular with African people than with African governments.


The surprising stability of U.S. policy toward Africa is partly thanks to Congress. In each of its budget proposals, the Trump White House has sought to slash spending on foreign aid, which disproportionately benefits Africa. But even when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, Congress continued to fund expensive humanitarian programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. Overall State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance to African countries was $7.1 billion in the 2019 fiscal year, roughly in line with annual assistance to Africa during the administration of President Barack Obama.


But even where he has not had to fight Congress, Trump has often opted for continuity. Unlike the Trans-Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement, two “unfair” trade agreements that Trump either abandoned or replaced, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, under which sub-Saharan African products enter the United States free of duty, was left intact. Trump also launched his own trade and investment initiative, Prosper Africa, which has much in common with previous initiatives aimed at facilitating private U.S. investment. And after first proposing to eliminate the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which has provided billions of dollars in financing and investment insurance to African countries, the administration worked with Congress to fold it and USAID’s Development Credit Authority into a new and better-funded agency called the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. Africa will likely be the agency’s largest beneficiary.

Trump may not be personally interested in Africa, but his administration has remained diplomatically engaged on the continent.

The Trump administration has pushed out many of the State Department’s top Africa experts, but those senior civil servants and subcabinet officials who remain on the job have been largely left alone to develop and implement existing policies as well as Prosper Africa. As a result, U.S. aid and diplomacy remain focused on promoting long-standing objectives, such as security, health, and the integrity of elections. And unlike some of Trump’s ambassadorial appointments in other parts of the world, his picks for Africa have been largely free from controversy, although many were long delayed. The most important Trump appointments for Africa have been Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for African affairs since July 2018, and Mark Green, who served as USAID administrator from August 2017 to April 2020. Nagy is a career Foreign Service Officer with extensive Africa experience who later got involved in Texas Republican politics. Green is a former Republican member of Congress who served as ambassador to Tanzania during President George W. Bush’s administration. Both have made frequent visits to the continent and built positive relationships with African leaders.

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Trump may not be personally interested in Africa, but his administration has remained diplomatically engaged on the continent. When she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley played a significant role in persuading the dictator Joseph Kabila to relinquish power in 2019. The administration also supported Sudan’s fledgling democracy after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir. In September, it prepared to remove Sudan from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a designation that has locked Khartoum out of the international financial system and prevented it from normalizing relations with Washington. The administration has neglected some issues and regions—it has done too little to counter the spread of terrorism in the western Sahel and in Mozambique, for instance—but overall it has not paid markedly less attention to Africa than previous administrations did.

Even the president’s emphasis on great-power competition hasn’t resulted in a significant military drawdown in Africa. According to the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), on any given day the continent hosts approximately 6,000 Department of Defense personnel, down from 7,200 in 2018 and 7,000 in 2019 but roughly in line with Obama-era troop levels. While Trump and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have pushed for further cuts to AFRICOM forces, concerns over great-power competition in Africa led to bipartisan pushback from Congress. Some measures, such as spending on bases, suggest the military’s footprint in Africa is growing—but not dramatically so. Documents from October 2018 show that AFRICOM plans to spend more than $330 million between 2021 and 2025 to reinforce and enhance its network of 27 bases in Africa, many of which are low-profile “lily-pad” bases, signaling the U.S. military’s enduring presence on the continent.

Ironically, the Trump policies that present the most serious risk to Africa are not those explicitly focused on Africa. Climate and global health policy are of particular importance to the continent, and in these areas, the Trump administration has charted a radically new course. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change will certainly have long-term repercussions for Africa, which is especially vulnerable to climate change. Likewise, the administration’s intention to withdraw from and defund the World Health Organization bodes ill for a continent with weak public health infrastructure.  

Trump’s apparent predilection for strongmen, his skepticism of government institutions, and his attacks on the press are similarly unspecific to Africa. But all of these tendencies probably reassure authoritarian rulers such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and Tanzanian President John Magufuli. By the same token, many on a continent with weak democratic institutions admire Trump’s strongman persona and believe that the U.S. president, unlike African leaders, keeps his promises. Across Africa, regard for the United States has declined under Trump, but the president is viewed more favorably there than on any other continent. In some countries, such as Nigeria, Trump is wildly popular.

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The fact that many long-standing U.S. policies toward Africa remain in place should not be taken as a reassurance. On the contrary, U.S. diplomacy in Africa has for many years been conducted on the flawed premise that all postcolonial African states are nation-states in the conventional sense—that is, countries with firm borders, unified governments, and people who share a common identity. There has been little recognition that many of these countries lack a unifying national identity or that small cartels of self-serving elites often dominate their governments. U.S. policy has largely failed to account for the fact that in the largest African states—notably Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia—power has seeped away from capitals toward regional power centers, where local politicians, religious leaders, and traditional rulers frequently hold sway. Elections under such conditions are often little more than mechanisms for elites to justify their control of government. Truly independent voters are rare on the continent outside of South Africa, Botswana, Senegal, Namibia, and a few other small countries, so a U.S. policy toward Africa that assumes elections reflect the will of the people makes little sense.null

The next U.S. administration, whether Democrat or Republican, should devise an Africa policy that emphasizes the rule of law as much as it does free and fair elections. A focus on strengthening anticorruption efforts, from empowering prosecutors to supporting judicial independence, would be a good start. Such a shift in priority would likely improve the continent’s security, economic development, and ties to the United States. It would also distance the United States from the African security services that are often involved in human rights abuses that alienate civilian populations.

More effective U.S. diplomacy needs to start from a recognition that many African countries are not nation-states. Rather, they are artificially constructed states—relics of colonial border drawing—in which insurrections are common and power is diffuse. To better reflect these facts, U.S. diplomacy should become more decentralized under the next administration. Rather than focusing primarily on heads of state and foreign ministries, U.S. diplomats should engage with religious leaders, civic organizations, traditional rulers, and governors and mayors. Doing so will require U.S. embassy personnel to move outside their heavily fortified chanceries more often than they do now—a change that will require rethinking diplomatic security. The next administration can further build (or rebuild) U.S. influence at the grassroots level by providing exchange programs, training sessions, and educational opportunities—including U.S. military trainings that emphasize human rights—ideally in Africa rather than in the United States.

If former Vice President Joe Biden prevails in November, his administration should speedily rejoin the Paris climate accord and restore funding to the World Health Organization. Both moves would benefit the United States as well as African nations, and they would provide platforms for future cooperation. Renewed U.S. leadership roles in multilateral forums would also improve Africans’ perceptions of the United States and help restore its soft power.                

But whichever U.S. candidate wins, Africa’s future will remain largely in African hands. For good or for ill, the United States does not wield as much influence in Africa as the former colonial powers. Its ties to the continent have traditionally been shallow, and U.S. businesses have been timid about investing and trading in Africa. Popular U.S. support for greater involvement in Africa is limited, and U.S. policymakers have been slow to recognize the continent’s growing importance. Nevertheless, African demography, security, and health issues will mandate greater U.S. diplomatic engagement. To be effective, the next administration’s policies toward Africa must reflect African realities.

JOHN CAMPBELL is Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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