30 January 2017

Africa: Donald Trump and U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa

Photo: Twitter / IPSS
Reuben E. Brigety, II, Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University

Addis Ababa — Remarks by Amb. (ret.) Reuben E. Brigety, II, Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies in Ethiopia.

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. It is wonderful for me to be back in Addis Ababa, the Diplomatic Capital of Africa and a city that I love. It is also a great honor for me to be with you today at the invitation of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies to discuss the topic, “Donald Trump and U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa.”

Though I served as the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union from 2013-2015, I am now completely out of government. I am a private citizen who actively supported Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her quest to become the next president of the United States. As such my remarks today do not necessarily reflect the views of the government of the United States of America, nor those of either my current employer, The George Washington University, nor of Former Secretary Clinton. The views I will express are solely my own.

To gain insight on what might be U.S. policy toward Africa under a Trump administration, one must first have a good understanding of the current political moment in America.

The 2016 presidential election was the most contentious and divisive campaign in living memory. At a forum held at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government just days after the conclusion of the campaign, Senior Clinton Campaign Aid Jennifer Palmieri publicly accused the Trump Campaign of running on a platform of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and bigotry. This view, it must be said, was shared by many millions of Americans. Conversely, many Trump supporters believe that, in Donald Trump, they finally found someone to give voice to their frustrations about a broken political system that has not done enough to help the American working class, control illegal immigration, reform the American healthcare system, fight the scourge of terrorism or promote American interests in the world. The election of Donald Trump is their answer to condescending elite politicians who, they believe, have not adequately reflected their culture or represented their interests. When they see millions of their fellow Americans protesting Donald Trump in rallies across the country and hear elected politicians calling President Trump “illegitimate,” they view such people as sore losers who refuse to accept the valid results of an American election.

Yet this election was unique in another way besides the rancor it produced. Never before has the U.S. political process had as much interference from a foreign power as it experienced in 2016. It is the unanimous view of all U.S. intelligence agencies that, at the personal direction of Vladimir Putin, Russia launched a massive propaganda campaign for the purpose of hurting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and helping the candidacy of Donald Trump. To be clear, there is no evidence that the actual voting processes in the United States were compromised or that any votes were changed as a direct result of Russian involvement. In fact, on November 8, nearly 3 million more Americans cast votes for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever of significant or systematic voter fraud. Yet, due to the peculiarities of the U.S. presidential election system, Donald Trump won a convincing constitutional majority in the Electoral College. The reality that Hillary Clinton won many more votes from individual citizens than did Donald Trump is a historical fact that is politically meaningful but legally meaningless.

Thus, despite the unprecedented protests that erupted in cities across the country in a response to the election results, on January 20, 2017, America upheld its tradition of the peaceful transition of power and Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

Interestingly, foreign policy was not a major theme of the 2016 presidential contest. Even so, one should always take campaign rhetoric from either side with a grain of salt. What really matters is how a president will actually govern.

With little more than a week in office at this point, the world now has a much clearer idea of the contours of President Trump’s foreign policy.  In what was arguably the darkest inaugural speech ever given, President Trump declared that, under his leadership, the defining principle of U.S. foreign policy will be, “America First. America First.” Within minutes of his taking the oath of office, the foreign policy section of the official White House website changed to reflect this view. Gone was any mention of collective global problems like addressing climate change or combatting pandemic diseases. In its place was the global destruction of ISIS as America’s top foreign policy priority, closely followed by the rebuilding of the American military and the renegotiation of trade deals that the White House considers to be contrary to American interests.

In his first days in office, we have seen further evidence of how President Trump will engage the rest of the world. We watched him use Twitter to “dis-invite” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto from a meeting with him at the White House, and then try to make it up later with a phone call. Even as his highly respected Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphasized the importance of alliances for American national security, President Trump’s new Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley declared in New York that America will be “taking names” of those countries that “don’t have our back.” In an exclusive television interview at the White House, President Trump reiterated his view, in very clear terms, that he thinks “torture works,” though he would defer the decision to actually use torture to his Secretary of Defense. And we have seen President Trump willing to issue executive orders to overturn major diplomatic initiatives of his predecessor as he did by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on his first day in office; to hobble American foreign affairs agencies by issuing a blanket hiring freeze across the U.S. government with the sole exception of the uniformed military services; and most distressingly, to bar from entering the United States refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries while giving preference to Christian refugees over those from other religious groups. And it’s barely been a week since he took office.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not normal. In both style and substance, it is a radical departure from the ways that both democratic and republican presidents have approached America’s engagement with the world. To be sure, we are still in the very earliest days of the Trump presidency, and the President may adjust his methods over time. But as of now, governments across Africa and the rest of the world will have to re-evaluate how they will do official business with America.

President Trump and his foreign policy team have said precious little about Africa, either during the campaign or since he assumed office. This lack of clarity presents both challenges and opportunities in shaping U.S.-Africa relations under the Trump Administration. Let me begin by addressing the challenges.

First, and perhaps most serious, is the President’s unpredictability. Because of the rapid fire and unconventional methods by which President Trump has upended vital American relationships from Mexico to China in merely a matter of days, one cannot assume continuity in any of America’s initiatives in Africa. We do not yet know the extent of President Trump’s support for major initiatives like AGOA, Power Africa, PEPFAR, or peacekeeping. Until and unless the President makes his intentions clear on these and other issues, I must regretfully conclude that the future of all such partnerships is in doubt.

Second, we do not yet know what “America First” means with regard to U.S. engagement with Africa. At a minimum, it must mean prioritizing America’s national interests. This is no different from the approach and obligation of any sovereign state in its relations with other countries. Yet there is critical importance in how one defines the phrase “national interests” in practice. Previous American presidents of both parties have seen the advancement of African peace and prosperity as squarely in concert with U.S. interests. For example, this view led President George W. Bush to authorize PEPFAR to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa and to support UNMIL to bring peace to Liberia. It is also led President Barack Obama to support the AU’s fight against Ebola and its peacekeeping deployment to the Central African Republic. How will president Trump interpret “America First” as it relates to Africa? Will he take as expansive a view as his predecessors? Or will his interpretation be much more narrow, reminiscent of the American isolationism in the days before World War II? This remains an open question.

The final challenge I will mention relates to the President’s unconventional approach to the practice of diplomacy. The world has never seen any head of government, let alone an American president, conduct foreign policy by Twitter. If President Trump continues with this unconventional style, it will be difficult to know whom to engage in the U.S. government and how seriously one should take the President’s Twitter dispatches. As a former U.S. Ambassador, I know first hand how important it is to represent faithfully the views of my president and the policies of my government. Such a task is made immeasurably more difficult when such views and policies are developed on the fly in snippets of 140 characters. It can sow confusion and uncertainty with allies and adversaries alike. Given the breadth and complexity of issues at play in Africa, it is hard to foresee productive partnerships emerging from such a chaotic and undisciplined approach to the practice of diplomacy.

Still, there are potential opportunities for the U.S.-Africa relationship that come from President Trump’s approach.

First, there is hope for the President’s political appointments. President Trump has shown an ability to make some strong Cabinet appointments in the area of foreign policy of people who have immense experience and sober judgment. In my view, the appointments of James Mattis and Rex Tillerson as Secretaries of State and Defense respectively fit this mold. There are a number of Republicans with deep Africa experience who could serve ably in sensitive positions in Washington and across the Continent to address a host of issues of mutual concern to Africa and America. One hopes that President Trump will follow the Mattis-Tillerson approach in his Africa-related appointments.

Second, even under a very narrow definition of “America First,” there are a number of areas where the U.S. and Africa can cooperate. The fight against terrorism is at the top of this list. From the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi to the open-air markets of Maiduguri in Nigeria, Africans know the pain and price of terrorist attacks. Making common cause with the Trump administration on this pressing security challenge is important in itself, but it can also foster cooperation with the United States in other areas. Similarly, it is important to show the Trump administration how economic cooperation – from the strengthening of AGOA to the beneficiation of African raw materials – can be in the mutual interests of both Africa and America. Just as President Obama launched the “Power Africa” initiative to help bridge the electricity gap on the Continent, perhaps the Trump Administration could launch a “Build Africa” initiative to facilitate American infrastructure companies supporting the numerous projects outlined in NEPAD’s Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA). There are substantial opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation if both sides pursue them.

Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, I believe there is opportunity for the United States and African governments to partner in multilateral institutions, and at the United Nations in particular. Not since Ambassador John Bolton under President George W. Bush has a U.S. Ambassador to the UN been so blunt as Ambassador Haley was in her intentions to separate friend from foe in the practice of diplomacy. Given that some sixty per cent of the business of the UN Security Council relates to Africa, the “A-3” rotating African states that sit on the Council are in a unique position to demonstrate the benefit of diplomatic cooperation with their American counterparts. They can also advocate for the unique value-added of the United Nations on matters as diverse as peacekeeping and refugee affairs. For an American administration that is coming to office with such deep skepticism and hostility toward the UN, showing how the organization can be of significant benefit to both Africa and America is of the utmost importance.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are without question at the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Africa relations. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the expectation of new leadership at the African Union and upcoming elections across the Continent offer both promise and problems. As all sides find their way in this new reality, I would be grateful if you would remember this humble request from me, a person who considers himself both a friend of Africa and a patriot of America. Please remember that, at its core, America is an idea. It is an idea of equality of all people and of equal justice under the law. It is an idea that welcomes all people, regardless of faith or race, and that invites to its shores the “huddled masses yearning to breath free.” It is an idea that supports the advancement of human rights, economic prosperity and democratic governance for people everywhere.

To be certain, we Americans have practiced this idea imperfectly in the past, and we will likely practice it imperfectly in the future. But it is the essence of who we are as a people. As we try to perfect this idea in the months and years ahead, please remember that Africa has many friends in America – people of every faith, of every political persuasion, who want to see Africa prosper and who want America’s friendship with Africa to endur


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