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U.S. Africa Policy Needs a Reset

8 11 18

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.

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). 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........

© Foreign Affairs

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